New York Times, via Star Tribune, Mar. 30, 2003
Craig S. Smith, New York Times
SEVRAN, FRANCE — Jeremy Bismuth is Jewish, though he doesn’t wear a yarmulke or Star of David pendant or adhere to a Kosher diet or leave school early on Fridays in order to be home before sunset. Nothing identifies the young 15-year-old French boy as Jewish except his birth.
Yet because he is a Jew, he was attacked by a group of other children, mostly Muslim, at the private Catholic school he then attended. They dragged him into the school’s locker room showers shouting that they were going to gas him as the Nazis had gassed Jews. He was beaten and flogged with a pair of trousers whose zipper scratched one of his corneas.
For Jeremy and his parents, the incident a year ago was the harrowing confirmation of a trend that many say has only gathered momentum since: a resurgent European anti-Semitism, coming not from its traditional source among Europe’s right-wing nationalists, but from the Continent’s growing Islamic community, egged on by the political left.
“The political climate is too pro-Arab, and since Sept. 11, it has become intolerable,” said Michele Bismuth, Jeremy’s mother while at the family’s home last week. She said her traumatized son would not leave the house for 10 days after the attack.
To some, such incidents, which have grown since the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting began more than two years ago, represent the Middle East conflict brought to Europe, where sympathy for the Palestinian cause runs far higher than it does in the United States.
“Since the intifadeh began in 2000, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been imported here,” said the mother of another high school student who had a hood thrown over his head and was beaten to unconsciousness by a gang of Muslim youths. They called him a “dirty Jew” outside a Paris high school two months ago.
The woman, talking nervously at a Kosher restaurant not far from the school, said she feared the atmosphere would darken with the war in Iraq. “When they say ‘America’ they think ‘Israel’ and when they think ‘Israel’ they think ‘Jewish,’ ” she said. “Who is going to assure our safety?”
Swastikas, slogans and physical assaults against Jews in Europe have reached a frequency not seen since the 1930s when fascism was on the rise. But in the vast majority of the cases today, the assailants are young Muslims of North African heritage whose parents emigrated to Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.
The greatest number and most violent attacks have come in France, which, with an estimated 6 million Muslims and 650,000 Jews, has Europe’s largest Jewish and largest Muslim populations.
Some Jews have left France for Israel, driven as much by the deteriorating economic climate in Europe as they are drawn by solidarity with the Jewish state. According to Israeli government figures, 2,556 French Jews emigrated to Israel last year, double the number a year earlier and the most since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Not everyone is willing to call the current wave of violence anti-Semitism. Henri Wajnblum, head of the Union of Progressive Jews of Belgium, said it is important to distinguish between anti-Semitic and anti-Israel actions. He and other members of his Brussels-based group have been visiting classrooms in Muslim neighborhoods to help explain the difference between Zionists and Jews in general.
But for Jews who have become targets, the distinction is a false one that masks the root problem — a latent anti-Semitism that they say has created an environment in which a new strain of racism can thrive.
“In the popular imagination, Jews aren’t sympathetic because they are identified with Israel and Sharon,” said Sammy Ghozlan, referring to Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Ghozlan is a retired police officer who operates a clearinghouse for information on anti-Semitism in France.
He said many Jews are distraught after willfully believing that the hatred of Jews was erased in Europe by the traumatic accounting of anti-Semitism’s toll at the end of World War II.
“There is a feeling that the honeymoon period is over and that it’s now impossible to say what will come,” Ghozlan said. He said he had verified reports of 100 serious anti-Semitic incidents in Paris and its suburbs in the first three months of this year alone.
Jews say that much serious harassment goes unreported because the police register many incidents as simple vandalism or assault and battery even though they are clearly anti-Semitic. Worse, anti-Semitism risks entrenching itself in a generation of children for whom the language of bigotry has become the slang of the schoolyard.
The word “feuj” — from the inversion of the French word “Juif,” which means “Jew” — is now playground standard, both as an insult against Jewish students and as a contemptuous adjective. Children say a pen that does not work is “completely feuj,” for example, and slang based on the Hebrew salutation “mazel tov” is used in the same way.
Concerned that the war in Iraq could intensify the problem, France’s Education Ministry last month launched a campaign to stamp out anti-Semitism and other types of racism in schools. Education Minister Luc Ferry acknowledged that verbal insults are becoming common.
“There is a real danger — all the greater because today anti-Semitism is of a new type, coming from parts of society that are more acceptable than the extreme right: from Arabs and Muslims,” Ferry said on state radio last month.
He introduced 10 measures to combat the problem, including the creation of a monitoring committee in Paris, the appointment of a team of mediators for the worst cases and the publication of a booklet to be distributed to schools.
But some schools have advised Jewish parents that they cannot protect their children from harassment and suggested that they change schools instead.