French Jews waved dozens of Israeli flags and a few French ones in front of the Israeli embassy in Paris on Thursday during the first pro-Israeli demonstration in the French capital and third in France following dozens of pro-Palestinian ones across the country since July, when Israel began its military operation in Gaza.
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“We’re pacifists, we didn’t want to demonstrate in favor of any war but so many pro-Palestinian protests have been organized that we felt we had to tell these people 'Hey! We’re here too,'" said Cecilia.
To avert extreme slogans, French Jewish umbrella group Crif distributed banners and posters reading “United against terror,” “Hamas uses civilians as human shields” ad
“Israel has the right and the duty to defend itself from Hamas”, said Crif leader Roger Cukierman.
Jews young and old shouted “Israel will live, Israel will be victorious,” echoing one of the slogans chanted in the Palestinian protests: “Palestine will live, Palestine will be victorious.”
Dozens of them danced the Horah while singing Jewish songs and chanting “Am Israel Hai” giving the protest the feel of a bar mitzvah or wedding celebration.
“We want to show Israelis and mainly Israeli soldiers that we haven’t forgotten them!” said Hannah.
Police blocked several streets leading to the Israeli embassy and searched the four to six thousand people as they entered the narrow protest area with Jewish community security agents giving them a hand.
The gathering had been meticulously planned as some feared it could lead to incidents. Since July 13, when a pro-Palestinian protest ended with dozens of activists shouting slogans outside two Paris synagogues, tension has peaked between France's Jewish and pro-Palestinian Muslim communities.
“I did fear that something might happen here today but the fear wasn’t as strong as my will to come here!” said Michèle. “I’m moved and saddened by the death of Palestinian civilians but I’m also scared for Israel whose existence is still under threat.”
“Sometimes I criticise the actions of some Israelis in the settlements but today I have no doubt that Israel’s operation is necessary.”
Others said they would have preferred showing solidarity with Israel before many civilians were killed in the Gaza Strip.
“I don’t know if this is the best time to protest, perhaps we should have organised this at the beginning. The war has a heavy human cost but if someone organises a demo for Israel I feel that I have to take part in it because we need to show we’re united and moderate,” said Marc.
The media has accused a far-right Jewish group, the Jewish Defense League, known as LDJ, of provoking some of the tension, showing a video of activists throwing objects at pro-Palestinian activists outside a synagogue.
As the group of some one hundred members has become a focus of media attention, with the Interior minister condemning some of its actions, Crif said it would not tolerate its presence in Thursday’s rally.
But some in rally seemed to support the group, which has had little success and influence in the past and whose members have been involved in several violent incidents.
“It’s the only group that encourages self-defense,” said 25-year old Eli.
“These guys are hardly a priority, they’re scapegoats. Some parties have called on people to participate in banned protests that led to violence; they’re the real trouble makers! But no one is saying they should be banned!” said Myriam.
Many of the protesters tried to explain the Israeli position to journalists saying “What would you do if rockets fell on your children’s school?” and distributing flyers criticising Hamas’ charter.
“I talk about the conflict with my colleagues and they agree with me,” said Rachel who says she has started facing anti-Semitism.
“A man spit at me in the metro the other day. He knew we were Jewish because my sister wears a headscarf,” said the young woman.
“North African men took my 5- and 7-year-old brothers’ skullcaps at the entrance of our building” said her friend Dayana. “They never go outside alone, that day they the school’s minivan dropped them off in front of our house. They were attacked in the few meters they had to walk from the minivan into our building. They came home crying”
Those who participated in the rally seemed worried both for Israel and for their own future in France but after their rally they felt they were not alone and relieved that the protest had ended peacefully believing this would give a good image of pro-Israelis.
“We’ve restored France’s honor with this ethical demonstration in support of a democracy, after three weeks of incidents in pro-Palestinian protests,” said Joel Mergui, the head of the French Consistoire.
“Did you see how we marked a minute silence for all victims: in Gaza and in Israel? Did you notice?” a protester asked me. “I think that’s the most important part of this event”