In France, anti-Semitism lurks below the surface

By Sarah Dilorenzo

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 2:28 p.m. MDT

A Jewish school in Paris is watched by police officers, Monday, March 19, 2012 after the French Interior Minister ordered security to be tightened around all French Jewish schools following an attack on one in Toulouse, in southwest France. A father and his two sons were among four people who died Monday when a gunman opened fire there.

Jacques Brinon, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PARIS — The number of anti-Semitic acts reported in France last year fell, but there's still a hotline staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to report such incidents in the country.

Jews in France for the most part live in safety and participate freely in French public life, and most anti-Semitic acts target property and not people. But the existence of the hotline speaks to the fact that anti-Semitism often lurks just below the surface.

An attack Monday outside a Jewish school in the southwestern city of Toulouse that killed a rabbi and four children was a stark reminder of how dangerous that hate can become. It was the most deadly attack targeting Jews in France since the early 1980s.

Jewish graves — and Muslim ones — are frequently desecrated; the prime minister recently suggested that kosher slaughter was out of sync with modern times; and just last week, threatening letters were sent to two synagogues in Paris, including one that called Jews "Satan" and warned they would go to Hell.

France is particularly sensitive about its Jewish community, estimated at 500,000 people, because of its World War II past of abetting Nazi occupiers in deporting Jewish citizens. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose maternal grandfather was Jewish, has worked to improve relations with Israel in recent years.

The toll-free hotline is maintained by the Protection Service for the Jewish Community, a group whose sole mission is to help provide security for synagogues and for large Jewish celebrations.

The Protection Service, which tallies reports of anti-Semitic acts each year, said that while the number in 2011 fell to 389, the aggressiveness of the attacks was rising. In 2010, 466 were reported. Those acts include everything from violence to vandalism.

The service was created in 1980 after a bomb in the saddlebag of a motorbike killed four people and wounded nine at the synagogue on Rue Copernic in central Paris.

France is home to Europe's largest populations of both Muslims and Jews, and many anti-Semitic attacks are linked to conflict between the two communities in the Middle East. The majority happen in the French capital, and a Jewish leader in Toulouse expressed shock that his southwestern city was targeted.

"Toulouse was always integrated. We didn't have any problems of integration or security problems," said Bouaz Gasto, vice president of the Association of Reform Jews of Toulouse. "That's why we always thought that this would never happen here because we didn't have any particular worry."

He said that most of the approximately 15,000 Jews in Toulouse trace their origins back to North Africa, like many in France, and the community is fairly traditional but always well-connected to other communities in the city. Toulouse, for instance, has never had a traditionally Jewish quarter, despite the community's significant size in a city of about 440,000.

"There have been a few incidents, like everywhere. But we never focused on them," Gasto said.

But in recent years, Gasto said religion — and anti-Semitism — has crept more into the public debate, pointing to the current presidential campaign, which was recently seized with a controversy over ritually slaughtered meat.

When he was growing up, "we didn't used to pay attention to who was what, who was who," he said.

Several French and European Jewish groups spoke out in horror at Monday's attack. A gun used in the shooting also was fired in attacks against paratroopers of North African and French Caribbean descent last week, fueling speculation that a killer is targeting French minorities, and not only Jews.

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