Brutal Paris attack raises new fears for community’s safety

By Shirli Sitbon, June 27, 2008
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As the latest young Jewish victim of a violent attack in France woke up from his coma on Monday, debate was reignited on the safety and future of the county’s Jewish community.

Rudy Haddad, 17, was wearing a kippah when he was beaten by between 15 and 30 teenagers of black African origin wielding metal bars. The incident, which occurred on Shabbat afternoon, was initially described by French authorities as antisemitic. 

The attack took place in Paris’s multi-ethnic 19th district, which has large Jewish, Arab and black populations.

It comes just three months after Mathieu Roumi, 19, whose father is Jewish, was attacked, held hostage and tortured in the Bagneux suburb of the French capital.

During his ordeal, his captors scrawled “Dirty Jew” on his forehead using correction fluid.


An anti-racism protest in the French capital in February 2006

Bagneux was also where Ilan Halimi, 23, was found naked, tortured and covered in burns two years ago. The telephone salesman had been held captive for three weeks in a crime which both police and Nicolas Sarkozy (then France’s interior minister) described as antisemitic. Mr Halimi died of his injuries shortly after, and the incident sparked fears of surging antisemitism in France, home to around 600,000 Jews.

In the latest incident, five youths have been arrested in connection with last weekend’s attack on Rudy Haddad.

Police are still investigating, but have revealed that the beating was preceded by scuffles, apparently over a motorbike. Mr Haddad had been involved in a fight on a previous occasion, and at the time of going to press police were trying to establish whether he was also part of a fight that took place just before he was attacked.

A police spokesperson said: “The exact motives of the assault haven’t been determined yet.”

Whatever the cause, the incident has provoked renewed debate in France about the safety of the Jewish community, with fears expressed that Saturday’s attack is indicative of a rising tide of antisemitism.

Sammy Ghozlan, of the Vigilance Bureau against antisemitism, said: “We issued warnings earlier this month regarding dangerous gangs in this multi-ethnic quarter of Paris.”

Even President Sarkozy, who was in Israel this week for a state visit, expressed his concern. Speaking at a dinner in Jerusalem, he said: “I was particularly shocked by what happened to a young Frenchman because he was wearing a kippah. Battling antisemitism concerns all French people, whether they are Jews or not.”

He added that antisemitism was “a stain on the tricolour flag”. 

Ariel Goldman, head of security for CRIF, the Representative Council for French Jews, said that Jewish people in the country, particularly those in northern Paris, had been left shocked and worried by the attack on Rudy Haddad.

“Although everybody has to wait to see what conclusions the police will make, what is evident is that a young Jewish boy wearing a kippah had been attacked and very seriously hurt. People are now very upset and worried.”

One of Mr Haddad’s friends, who did not want to be named, said: “It is very difficult thinking about what happened. We are all very scared. There is violence like this against Jewish people all the time, and it is very hard.”

France’s new chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, said: “There is no doubt the attack was antisemitic.”

Most of France’s communal leaders stressed that while Jewish people in the country were safe, and that antisemitism had decreased in recent years, the nature of such attacks had become increasingly violent, leaving people ever more fearful.

Serge Cwajgenbaum, of the European Jewish Congress, explained that the past year had seen a decrease in antisemitic incidents overall, but a rise in violent incidents.

“It makes people very worried. While people are not necessarily more frightened of walking in the streets, parents are scared to send their children to a Jewish school for example, in case they are attacked.”

He added that attacks such as the one on Rudy Haddad created a strong perception of rising antisemitism. “People believe that there is a strong increase in such incidents, when actually there has been a decrease.”

But he said that France’s Jewish community had reacted with strength and that “there had been a continuation of Jewish life, like in Israel when it’s under terrorist attack. People are worried, but not to the point of changing their lives.”

Guy Rosanowitz, who presents a talk show on France’s Jewish radio station Radio J in which callers discuss their concerns and recent events, agreed with Mr Cwajgenbaum.

“Previously, when there have been attacks on Jewish people, there was a lot of talk about leaving the country to go to Israel or the US. This time, people aren’t saying this, but they are nervous after what has happened, especially as it’s not the first time that attacks like this have happened in these parts of Paris.” 

He added: “It generally concerns religious people more, and there has been some discussion of whether it’s best to wear a hat rather than a kippah in public.”

Others, however, claimed that the incident has not caused fear among the Orthodox community. Rabbi Hillel Benhamou, secretary of the Beit Loubavitch Centre in Paris, said: “It has not caused Lubavitch people to be any more worried about walking down the streets in their hats, or religious clothes. People are upset about what’s happened, but they are not scared to walk down the streets.”

He added that the community’s main concern was how the incident would affect racial and religious tensions among young people. 

Meanwhile, Raphael Adad, president of the French Union of Jewish Students, said that, given the news that Rudy Haddad had been involved in previous fights, it was no longer clear if Saturday’s attack had been entirely antisemitic in nature.

He rejected suggestions that French Jews felt under threat: “People are not scared. They feel safer than they did two or three years ago.”

One of the causes of the problem, according to Mr Adad, was that in the 19th district, groups of Jewish and non-Jewish youths “fight in the park every Saturday afternoon”. 


Paris' recent history of hate

In Paris in April this year, Mathieu Roumi, 19, was beaten by two youths whom he knew after a discussion about money which he allegedly owed them. He was then dragged, with the help of a third person, into a basement, where three others joined them and tortured Mr Roumi for two hours. They wrote “Dirty Jew” on his forehead and threatened to kill him. Mr Roumi was eventually freed.

A 23-year-old Jewish woman was attacked by two youths in Paris suburb Noisy-le-Grand in August 2007. The perpetrators called her a “dirty Jew” and beat her before stealing her mobile phone.

In July 2007, a 23-year-old man wearing Orthodox clothes was violently attacked in Paris while on his way to a synagogue with his brother-in-law and three-year-old son. The attacker shouted antisemitic insults.

In 2006, 23-year-old Ilan Halimi was lured into a cellar in Paris, where he was beaten and then held captive for three weeks before being found naked, tortured and covered in burns. He later died of his injuries. Twenty-one people are due to be tried next year for his kidnap and murder.

In November 2003, 23-year-old DJ Sébastien Selam was murdered by his neighbour Adel Boumedienne in Paris. Boumedienne later said he would go to heaven because he killed a Jew. He pleaded insanity.

    Last updated: 1:27pm, June 27 2008