For French Jews, a New Reality: Under Attack for Being French, Not Jewish

'Before, terrorists targeted specific groups like Jews and journalists but now they’re indiscriminately killing all French people,' French Jewish leader tells Shirli Sitbon.

Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
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A man lays flowers at a makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of the Paris'attacks at the place de la Republique in Paris.
A man lays flowers at a makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of the Paris' attacks at the place de la Republique in Paris.Credit: AFP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

Conferences have been cancelled, a Yad Vashem dinner postponed. Friday’s terror attacks have led to an unprecedented situation for the Jewish community and indeed for all of France. The threat is so acute that people are not only banned from gathering in the streets until Thursday, but are being advised by security forces to cancel indoor events too.

“This has never happened before. Security services told us to cancel all the events we can. We need to limit gatherings and meetings as much as possible,” Jewish umbrella group Crif leader Roger Cukierman told Haaretz.

Jewish leaders say they would have cancelled festive events anyway out of solidarity with the victims.

France's Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia said he was "horrified" by the attacks, calling on Jews to join through prayer in the national mourning.

Like every day and night since January’s attack on kosher restaurant Hyper Cacher, police and soldiers secured Jewish institutions and synagogues. As an extra 1,500 soldiers were deployed Friday night across Paris and surrounding suburbs, those posted outside Jewish sites remained in position. Jewish schools like other French schools – which were closed Saturday – will reopen on Monday.

“Security deployment is at its maximum, higher than ever,” said Joel Mergui, the head of France’s Jewish religious organization – the Consistoire – who was in Israel during the attacks. “Security services told us protection will remain at its highest level as long as necessary.”

Unlike previous attacks in Paris and Toulouse, this time the Jewish community was not the target.

‘It’s a completely new situation. Before, terrorists targeted specific groups like Jews and journalists but now they’re indiscriminately killing all French people who won’t submit themselves to sharia [Muslim religious] law,” said Cukierman. “To pessimists like me this is not a surprise. The pope told the World Jewish Congress last year that we’ve entered the third world war.”

“We react to this as French citizens. This is an absolute tragedy. We fully support the French government’s fight against radical Islamism and ISIS,” Mergui told Haaretz.“All of France is under attack. Everyone has to remain vigilant.”

There was uncertainty over why the terrorists attacked the Bataclan concert hall, which has belonged to a Jewish family for decades. The venue was used by the French Zionist organization, Migdal, which supports Israeli soldiers and, according to French weekly Le Point, radicals had told police in the past they had planned to attack the site.

But the attacks were not perceived as targeting Jews.

“If they wanted to target Jews they wouldn’t have attacked the site on Shabbat. Many other concert halls hosted Jewish events and the terrorists attacked several other sites with no Jewish connection. This time it is France that was attacked, the whole country,” said Mergui who called for international cooperation. “France is paying for its fight against terrorism. There needs to be a new international solidarity. I’ve long said that radical Islam is the Nazism of the 21st century.”

Despite the high alert, members of the local Jewish community aren't hiding at home.

“This Shabbat at least as many people as usual attended religious services and there was no panic at all,” noted one Jewish leader.

No panic, but there is some fear in the community, according to Yossi Malka of France's National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism.

“You can’t say the government isn’t acting against terror but there is a feeling it can do more against extremists,” said Malka. “These Salafists are being followed but they’re not stopped from meeting each other and that’s when they organize their next attacks. That’s a threat. In Tunisia and Morocco authorities are shutting radical mosques. They’re acting against extremism but we leave these places open and unattended. That’s where young people are being recruited for attacks.

“If it’s revealed that some of the terrorists came with the flow of migrants arriving in Europe, a chunk of the French population will turn to the National Front and vote for Marine Le Pen in the next elections," predicted Malka. "There will be more border controls and measures to limit immigration. The government has to reassure people. The Jewish community will definitely feel safer as well.”

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