Click photo to download. Caption: On Sunday, Jan. 11, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony for the victims of last week’s Islamist terror attacks in France at Paris’s Grand Synagogue. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
By Boaz Bismuth/Israel Hayom/JNS.org
The last time I saw a Jewish minyan relocate from a synagogue to a private residence for security reasons was in 2010. I was in Rayda, Yemen, where the Jews were still reeling from the assassination of Moshe Nahari, the brother of a prominent rabbi.
I never thought I would find myself at the same exact same setting in Paris, only four years later.
On Friday night, Jan. 9, I attended Shabbat services just off Place de la Republique in Paris. The services were supposed to be held in a synagogue, but the ongoing crisis made that impossible and they were moved to a private residence. Just hours earlier, French security forces had freed 15 Jewish hostages from a kosher supermarket. Four other hostages had been killed. As a precaution, authorities urged Jewish merchants to close for the day. They also approached Jewish leaders and asked them not to hold Shabbat services at the city’s synagogues.
Shabbat is supposed to be a festive occasion. But the atmosphere in the makeshift prayer house was anything but celebratory.
The gatherers had that same look I see anytime I travel to Jewish communities in Arab states: a worried look. Jan. 9, 2015 will go down as a day of infamy in France. French President Francois Hollande called the attack on Hyper Cacher (the kosher supermarket) an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”
Roger Cukierman, head of France’s Jewish umbrella organization, CRIF, told me he was not surprised by the attack on the Jewish shoppers.
“After French Jew Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured to death in 2006, I said the Jews of France were all in danger,” Cukierman said. “In 2012, when three children and one man were killed by a gunmen at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, I doubled down on that statement. We must realize that there is a full-fledged war between two civilizations in France. Our democracy and our values are in the jihadists’ crosshairs, and the Jews are on the frontline because they represent some of the values terrorists want to destroy.”
Cukierman added, “I believe we are in the midst of a Third World War. The spillover from the battles in Syria, Iraq, and Mali has reached France. The Jewish community, which had already been nervous prior to the attacks, is now even more concerned. The situation is dire. What we have seen is jihad being waged against journalists, free speech, against symbols of the republic, like the security forces, and against us, the Jews.”
I was walking the streets of Paris on Friday. Much like Cukierman, none of the Jews I met told me that they were surprised by what happened.
In my many visits to France, my Jewish acquaintances had told me that rising anti-Semitism would ultimately result in violence. It was just a matter of time, they warned. Friday’s attack did not jolt the already-nervous community, but it did result in real concern and grief.
The Jewish businesses in the historically Jewish Marais district began to close as a precaution shortly after Muslim terrorist Amedy Coulibaly launched his attack on the supermarket. Jewish establishments in the Sentier district, formerly the epicenter of Paris’s garment industry, were also advised to close ahead of schedule.
During evening services at the end of Shabbat, I met Joseph (Joe) Marciano, who has run a shop in the Sentier district for many years. He told me he complied with the authorities request to close his business for the day. “Why take the risk?” he told me. “My 17-year-old son won the national Krav Maga (an Israeli form of martial arts) championship in France. He will soon make aliyah. The number of people who make aliyah will increase even further in the wake of Friday’s attack. It is sad. We have no reason to stay here.”
Michel Edry, 60, stood next to Marciano. He also runs as business at the Sentier. “I want to make aliyah too—but only when I feel it is right, not when the jihadists decide for me,” he told me. “This is just outrageous—I love France, and so do my children. What have I done to deserve this constant worry about the lives of my kids to the point that I have to relocate?”
Raymond Haddad, owner of the famous Jewish restaurant La Boule Restaraunt, did not heed the security warning and remained open for business. I dined there on Saturday and spoke to him. He explained that his restaurant serves kosher food but never closes on Shabbat, especially since some of his workers are of Arab descent. He insists that his restaurant caters to all French people.
Jewish landmarks such as the Grand Synagogue of Paris on Rue de la Victoire (in the 9th arrondissement) and the synagogue on Copernic Street (in the 16th arrondissement) closed their doors on Friday for security reasons. But on Saturday, worshippers came back and tried to move on.
On Saturday morning I made my way to Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, situated in the Marais district on Rue Pavee. The morning services were led by Rabbi Mordechai Rottenberg. “I know you want me to provide you with an answer on whether you should leave or stay,” Rottenberg told the crowd. “But frankly, I am at a loss for words.”
One worshipper told me that at no other time since World War II did synagogues across Paris suspend their Friday services. “Just look at how much of an impact the jihadist have, and this is all because the French Republic let them,” Emil, an eye doctor, told me. “I hope [the authorities] wake up, but I am not sure this would happen. Last summer, the Muslim radicals joined forces with the extreme right and marched in the streets of Paris. This was a demonstration against us. The Jews are the easiest target, and most importantly, they are the first target. Of course, the French media is partially responsible for this because it has demonized Israel, and of course the Muslims here believe the Jews should be held accountable for all of Israel’s actions. I am a big boy but on Friday I cried. I am already 60. Of course, I am planning to make aliyah, but I never thought I would ever leave France like this.”
Meyer Habib, who was elected to the French National Assembly, was also at the synagogue on Rue Pavee. He told me he hoped the French people will now realize that Israel is part of the solution, not the problem, and that “the war against Hamas is part of the fight against jihadists in France and beyond.”
“But our parliament was too busy endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state, and this only made the anti-Jew sentiment on the street more pronounced,” Habib said.
Thousands of Jews and non-Jews gathered near the Hyper Cacher supermarket as soon as Shabbat ended, holding a makeshift rally in solidarity with the victims. They sang “La Marseillaise” and some, the Jews, recited the Kaddish mourner’s prayer. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls made an unusual gesture by joining the demonstrators, along with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
Valls, who is married to a Jew, conceded that the authorities could of have taken more meaningful steps after Toulouse attack in 2012. “Today, we are all Charlie (referring to the attacked Charlie Hebdo magazine), we are all police officers, we are all Jews of France,” Valls told the media. Before Friday’s supermarket attack, Valls had said in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, on Saturday encouraged French Jews to make aliyah.
“Israel is not only the place to which you turn in prayer, Israel is also your home,” Netanyahu said, addressing his comments to French Jewry. “Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms. We will help you in your absorption here in our state, which is also your state.”
On Sunday, Hollande, Netanyahu, and other world leaders marched in the streets of Paris in what was dubbed the “Unity Rally.” But after the dust settles, we can safely assume that the divide in French society will once again be on full display. The events of Jan. 9, 2015 will linger as open wounds that will fester for some time. They will be noticeable everywhere you look in France.
Boaz Bismuth is a correspondent and columnist for Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed exclusively by JNS.org.
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