Anti-Semitic Violence Sweeps France

The tensions in the Middle East provoke strong feelings — even in distant places.

At Orly Airport outside Paris this week, Palestinian and Israeli demonstrations turned violent. Peaceful protests spiraled into fistfights, as the latest sign that the mounting frustration in the Middle East has made its way to France.

Brandishing signs reading "Killer Sharon" and "Killer Arafat," the protesters symbolized the growing sense of unease in France, which has been home to a string of anti-Jewish attacks in recent days. Most of the attacks have been blamed on Arabs who immigrated to France.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin appealed for calm Tuesday, calling for an end to the recent wave of anti-Semitism. In a radio interview, Jospin said, "Showing solidarity over the Middle East is one thing. But it is totally unacceptable that this leads to conflict between communities, that some blame Jews for what is happening there."

A Comparison to ‘Kristallnacht’

On Saturday morning, masked assailants smashed stolen cars into a synagogue in Lyon before setting them ablaze. A witness said a group of approximately 15 youths stormed the building. No one was injured in the incident, but the synagogue was destroyed.

Another synagogue, in the southern city of Marseille, was burned to the ground over the weekend. The same building was the target of another attack last October when assailants hurled a Molotov cocktail at it.

The Marseille attack occurred after police had completed a patrol of the synagogue, as part of tighter security measures recently employed around Jewish sites across the country. Anti-Semitic assailants also attempted to burn down a pavilion at a Jewish cemetery in Strasbourg and fired at a Jewish butcher shop near Toulouse over the weekend.

Some Jewish leaders in France have compared the growing wave of anti-Semitism in France to the sentiment in Nazi Germany, and one went so far as to make reference to "Kristallnacht," the infamous night in 1938 when Jewish people, shops and businesses were attacked across Germany.

"The danger exists," said Eric Wahed, a Jewish student leader. "We have to open our eyes. And the government has to open his eyes about what's happening now in France."

Arab and Jewish Leaders Call for Peace

Jewish leaders say there has been a dramatic rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France since the Palestinian intifada began 18 months ago, and they have accused the government of being unresponsive. Conservative President Jacques Chirac called the attacks "unimaginable, unpardonable" over the weekend, and showed his support for the Jewish community by turning up at a synagogue.

Still, both Arab and Jewish leaders in France have expressed concern and frustration in recent days, and both sides have called for peace — in the Middle East and at home.

Leila Shahid, the general secretary of the group Palestine in France, condemned the violence. "When I saw the attacks against the Jews from France, against their synagogue, their prayer sites, their businesses, their schools, it felt like a double murder of the Palestinians," she said, "because we never fought against Jewish people, against the Jewish religion."

France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, and Shahid fears the attacks are actually undermining the Palestinian efforts. "I would like to tell them straight in the eyes that they are just doing what [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is trying to do, meaning to destroy the Palestinian cause."

France is home to about half a million Jews and millions of Muslims, and has been seen as the European country with the greatest potential for religious conflict.

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