On July 13, Bernard Abouaf, a French Jewish journalist, posted on his Facebook wall: “I just passed through one of the truest moments in my life.” A bit earlier, he had been an eyewitness to a pogrom attempt.
About one hundred Muslim thugs had gathered in front of the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in Central Paris, a few blocks away from Place de la Bastille (Bastille Circle), and threatened to storm it. Two to three hundred worshipers, who had gathered for a pro-Israel religious service, were locked inside. There were five police officers to protect them–and two dozen Jewish youths trained in martial arts who were members of the Jewish community sponsored Security Organization or of the more militant Jewish Defense League.
For Abouaf, whose family is of Tunisian Jewish descent, the whole scene looked like a reenactment of the storming and torching of the Great Synagogue in Tunis during the Six-Day War in 1967: a traumatic event that accelerated the flight of Tunisian Jews to France or to Israel.
“What I have seen today,” he remarked, “is Arab hatred against Jews. Pure hatred. Right in the middle of Paris. Don’t try to ‘explain’ or ‘understand’, it was hatred, period.” Irving Kristol famously said that a neoconservative was a liberal mugged by reality. Something similar was befalling Abouaf. This was the “truth” he was so eager to share.
The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue was not stormed. Its bunker-like shape (it was built in 1962) and its strong, straight, iron gates were probably helpful. Even more effective were the young Jewish defenders, who did not shy away from confronting the Muslim rioters. Older Jewish men and women, some in their late forties or early fifties, fought back as well. “The whole thing looked like street guerilla,” one witness said. At least two of the synagogue’s defenders–including a young Chabad chassid–were severely wounded and rushed to a nearby hospital.
The prime minister (and former interior minister) of France Manuel Valls called Serge Benhaim, the synagogue chairman, on his cell phone to assure him that more police forces, including CRS (anti-riot units) would soon be dispatched. It took some time before his orders were implemented; once deployed, even the heavily equipped CRS had to engage into hard fighting and some of them were wounded. Eventually, the worshipers were not just evacuated from the synagogue but escorted away to safer streets or a Metro station: “I will not forget the fear in their eyes as they went out,” wrote Abouaf. This time, it was not just the Tunis pogrom he had in mind, but “scenes of the Holocaust itself.”
Similar incidents occurred all over Greater Paris and France at about the same time. The morning before–that is to say, on the Sabbath–a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a synagogue at Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb. At Asnieres, another suburb, the police said a Muslim mob of 300 gathered in front of the synagogue and shouted anti-Israel slogans for about half an hour. Smaller group of Muslim mobsters attempted to get into the Belleville synagogue, in northeastern Paris, and into the Tournelles synagogue, in the Marais district.
No less horrid were the many pro-Palestinian rallies, in Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Bordeaux, and other cities, complete with Palestinian and ISIS flags and proudly displayed fake Fajr rockets. The demonstrators–almost all of them of North African or Subsaharan African origin–shouted explicitly anti-Semitic slogans, notably “Itbah al-Yahud!” (Slaughter the Jews, in Arabic.) Any time they would spot Jewish-owned shops or professional offices they would cover the doors or windows with stickers urging, “to boycott the racist State of Israel.” On Sunday, several thousands pro-Palestinian and pro-jihadist demonstrators marched for miles across the city, from the heavily Muslim Barbes neighborhood to places with large Jewish populations and many synagogues like the Bastille area. The mobsters that attacked the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue were some of them.
“We reached a new and very ominous stage in the deterioration of Jewish life in France,” remarked Joel Mergui, the chairman of Consistoire, the National Union of French Synagogues. Sammy Ghozlan, a former police commissioner and the head of BNVCA, an anti-Semitism monitoring organization, observed even more bluntly: “This is going to be a turning point for most French Jews. More people will move to Israel or other places. People who never considered such options are changing their mind. There is a widespread sense of betrayal or of an impending catastrophe.”
One level of betrayal is what Claude Barouch, one of the leaders of the French Union of Jewish Professionals (UPJF), called “a global media failure.” Indeed, according to Jean Szlamowicz, professor of English literature at the Paris Sorbonne University, many media, from Agence France-Presse (AFP)–the basic news source for French-language media all over the world–to national newspapers or radio or TV channels, either ignored or downplayed the current anti-Jewish violence or even more perversely allowed pro-Palestinian demonstrators to make their point in a seemingly reasonable way.
But then, AFP and many radio or TV media are state-owned; and even private radio and a government appointed body, the Audiovisual Media Higher Authority, supervises TV media. So much so that the main issue may be in fact the political class and the government. François Hollande, the French president, observed on July 14–Bastille Day–that “Middle Eastern conflicts should not be imported to France.” François d’Orcival, a noted columnist, rightly retorted that they have already been imported. And one may actually wonder whether the French government, either for cynical electoral reasons (the Muslim vote is growing) or just out of weakness and fear, is willing to do something about it.
There is a deadly logic in such matters. Governments that do not set the rules and do not enforce them whatever the cost are likely to disintegrate as governments. In Lille, the local préfet (government commissioner) authorized a mass pro-Palestinian and pro-jihadist demonstration on July 13. Muslim activists then planned for a second demonstration on July 14–which the préfet forbade. It took place anyhow.