Jews speak of their isolation in an increasingly Arab France

By Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, 5/18/2003

VILLEPINTE, France -- At a synagogue that has been torched twice by the anti-Semitic vandals who roam the outskirts of Paris, the former grand rabbi of Israel told of a past that still echoes in Europe.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau described an attack in Nazi-occupied Poland when Gestapo soldiers on motorcycles surrounded a wooden synagogue whose congregation had taken refuge in the courtyard.

The marauders hurled torches, setting the temple ablaze, then gunned down a man who had run through flames to save the Torah, Lau told members of the synagogue of Villepinte, a crime-ridden suburb of Paris.

''The Jews felt then that all their hearts died in the flames,'' Lau said last week. ''When your synagogue was attacked here, hearts all over the Jewish world felt your pain.''

The pain was felt beyond the Jewish world as well: The rabbi spoke at a closing ceremony of a conference organized by UNESCO and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

These are uneasy times to be Jewish in Europe. The war in Iraq exacerbated aggression against Jewish targets in France, which began about three years ago: vandalism of synagogues and kosher stores, insults in schools and subways, beatings of men wearing Orthodox garb. The assailants tend to be young men of North African descent.

In Britain, recent statistics also seem to reflect a jump in anti-Semitic incidents. And in Belgium, the growth of two forces offers a glimpse at an ugly future: the Arab-European League, a militant Arab nationalist party that has been accused of inciting riots, and the Vlaams Blok, a far-right party with a neo-Nazi past. In Palestinian marches last year in Antwerp, Belgium, police warned Jews not to go to temple because their safety could not be guaranteed.

The menace on the streets ''is a harrowing truth right now,'' said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. Cooper helped organize the conference that drew Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders, academics, diplomats, and political leaders such as the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy took office last year with an aggressive law-and-order agenda. He vowed to encourage the integration of the Muslim community into French society. He also declared he would crack down on anti-Semitism.

Jewish leaders say Sarkozy had recognized a problem that the previous center-left government had played down or had ignored. That government's failure to respond to issues involving crime, immigration, and ethnic conflict contributed to the Socialists' surprise loss in the first round of last year's presidential election to Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front. (Le Pen lost the runoff to President Jacques Chirac.)

''We are a long way from where we were from the previous government, which wouldn't admit there were anti-Semitic hate crimes here,'' Cooper said.

The Villepinte synagogue is an outpost of the siege mentality felt by the world's third-largest Jewish community. Villepinte is in Seine Saint-Denis, a dpartement north of Paris, combining youth crime, Islamic fundamentalism, immigration, and militant leftism.

Demographics play a fundamental role: France has about 6 million Muslims, Europe's biggest Islamic population. Many youths of Arab descent see Jews and Americans as enemies. Conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Iraq trigger waves of fervor, sometimes accompanied by violence. Shortly before the war in Iraq, a Jewish student was assaulted by antiwar marchers in Paris. The industrial suburbs are known as the ''Red Belt'' because of a longtime leftist dominance. As the population has become increasingly Muslim, the influence of Islamic fundamentalists has spread rapidly.

Some municipal leaders incite anti-Jewish feeling among Muslim youths, said a retired police commander, Sammy Ghozlan. Campaigns for solidarity involve the Palestinian cause: community newsletters, documentaries, art shows. The anti-Israel politics of the French left increasingly cross the line between merely disliking the Israeli government and generalized anti-Semitism, critics say.

''It's a factor of incitement,'' said Ghozlan, who speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew; his family came from Algeria. ''They are angry about the Palestinians. And who do they attack? The closest target: the Jewish community.''

The Wiesenthal Center has applied pressure in high and low places. It encourages groups like Ghozlan's that help victims of crime gain access to a government seen as sometimes unresponsive or uncaring. And the center's leader met last week with Chirac to lobby for tougher hate crime laws and more explicit public condemnation of anti-Semitism.

But Ghozlan sees the anger that sets synagogues and Jewish school buses ablaze in the slums. Fighting anti-Semitism, he says, will require solving entrenched problems of alienation in a subculture that is a long way from the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.