ON THE RICHTER SCALE of anti-Semitism, France has just registered a major quake. From October 1 to October 18, in the space of just two and a half weeks, 6 synagogues were burned down and another 24 synagogues and Jewish schools were targets of attempted arson. Stones were thrown at people outside synagogues, and Jewish kids were hounded or molested on their way to school. There was even a rare shooting: On October 9, a sniper fired an M-16 automatic rifle into the Paris Great Synagogue during the Yom Kippur service. Fortunately, nobody was hit. The police quickly sealed off the Rue de la Victoire and searched the building from which the shot had come, but the sniper was gone, leaving behind only some shell casings.
Nothing like this has happened in Western Europe since World War II. To be sure, there are anti-Semitic incidents from time to time in most European countries--even occasionally lethal attacks on Jews. In France, two major anti-Jewish operations took place in the early eighties: a bombing at the Rue Copernic Liberal Synagogue in Paris in 1980, and a killing at the Goldenberg restaurant in the old Marais district in 1982. But these were clearly the work of an extremist fringe or of terrorists sponsored by rogue states. What is happening now is protracted domestic terrorism on a large scale.
Nearly all of the attacks have been carried out by Muslims. There are about 7 million Muslims in France--and fewer than one million Jews. Most of the Muslims are first or second generation immigrants from North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, or Turkey. Most are French citizens, either through naturalization or by virtue of their birth on French soil. Their numbers are growing, thanks to legal and illegal immigration and to a high birthrate. Most live in Greater Paris or big cities like Lille, Lyon, and Marseilles, where they make up between 20 percent and 30 percent of the population--and, more important, sometimes as much as half of the teenage population. In contemporary French parlance, the term "les jeunes" (young people) refers to this large cohort of predominantly Muslim Arab and black teenagers.
Most French Muslims are neither fanatics nor Jew-haters. In many neighborhoods, Muslim immigrants from North Africa have close dealings with Sephardic Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent. And the principal organizations of the Jewish community (notably the Consistoire, a uniquely French body established by Napoleon, which represented Jews up until the separation of church and state in 1905 and still runs most synagogues; and CRIF, the French equivalent of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) have long supported French Muslims' chief demands. These range from public funding of mosques and community centers to official recognition of Islam as France's second religion. Similarly, some moderate Muslims may express support for the Middle East peace process and show interest in visiting Israel or doing business with Israeli companies.
That said, there is also a fundamentalist element in French Islam, with links to organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Afghan Taliban, and Usama bin Laden's group, and for this element, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are articles of faith. Moreover, its influence is growing. The radicals virtually rule the cites, the public-housing complexes where most low-income Muslims live. They manage most of the mosques. And they maintain symbiotic relations with an under-class of delinquent or semi-delinquent immigrant teenagers.
In 1995, the informal alliance of radical fundamentalists and lawless youths staged a brief wave of terrorist attacks related to the civil war then raging in Algeria; the Paris Metro was bombed, and an attempt was made to bomb the TGV, the high-speed railway. Most of the recent attacks on Jews have come from the same source. It is perhaps only natural that Muslim extremists and their friends in France--rejecting as they do any law other than Sharia, and steeped in the crudest anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric--should have reacted to the news of a revived intifada in the Middle East by attacking their own Jewish neighbors. One has only to sample the sermons of the Palestinian muftis and preachers--widely broadcast by satellite and quoted in print throughout the Muslim world, including France--to understand this. On October 13, for example, as synagogues were going up in flames across France, Dr. Ahmad Abou Halabiya, a Sunni theologian in Gaza, was reminding Muslims on Palestinian television that "Almighty Allah" desired them "not to ally themselves with Jews and Christians, not to love them, not to enter into partnerships with them, not to support them, and not to enter into any contract with them." He went so far as to instruct Muslims "not to pity the Jews but to fight them and to kill them wherever they are to be found."
For all their antipathy toward Jews, however, the radical Muslims of France probably would not have unleashed a pogrom without what they saw as the backing of the powers that be. The fact is that most of the political class in France has sided with the Palestinians in the current Middle East crisis. President Jacques Chirac, a conservative, blamed the Israelis for "deploying tanks against the feelings of a nation." Hubert Vedrine, the Socialist foreign minister, who had previously called the policies of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak "reasonable and realistic," nonetheless lined up behind Chirac, rather than with the more measured Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Pro-Palestinian activism was even more conspicuous on the far left, among the Communists, the Green party, the blue-collar unions like the C.G.T., the diehard Trotskyites, and even such "anti-racist" organizations as the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme (League for the Rights of Man) and the MRAP (Movement Against Racism). There were many reasons for this sentiment. The French of every political stripe are broadly anti-American and have long resented Israel's special relationship with the United States. Also, ironically, some public officials and citizens who might otherwise have been supportive of Israel were persuaded to look kindly on the Palestinians by "peace-loving" and Likud-hating left-wing Israelis.
As for the media, many of them mistook self-righteous agitprop for responsible reporting. This was true of both of the state-run TV channels, France 2 and France 3, as well as of the state-owned and state-controlled news agency, Agence France-Presse, and many privately owned dailies and magazines. Over and over, France 2 broadcast pictures of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed in a shootout between Israelis and Palestinians at the Netzarim junction near Gaza, pictures that made the Israelis look like cold-blooded murderers. France 3 showed Palestinian children and mothers taking pleasure in provoking Israelis and getting killed in the process, but commented only that "Palestinian resolve [had] not weakened."
The media also gave extensive coverage to pro-Palestinian rallies all over France, carefully editing out the fact that many of the demonstrators--a colorful mix of rank and file Muslims and far-left militants--were shouting, "Death to the Jews!" And the same media ignored or gave minimal coverage to a large pro-Israel rally held in Paris on October 10. It appears that Muslim fundamentalists, hearing from authoritative sources on all sides that Israel was very, very bad, failed to register that they were not thereby entitled to harm Jews.
But even more shocking than the violence itself has been the slow and embarrassed official reaction. It took the president and prime minister 12 days to issue statements. And even then, they refrained from the customary symbolic gestures, such as a visit to a burned synagogue or an address to the nation. This was a sharp departure from past practice. In 1982, after the killing at the Goldenberg restaurant, President Francois Mitterrand attended a service at the nearby Rue Pavee Orthodox synagogue. And in 1990, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery at Carpentras in southern France (a shady business that may have owed more to satanism than anti-Semitism), both President Mitterrand and then leader of the opposition Jacques Chirac attended protest rallies. The French government's official reaction contrasted, too, with German chancellor Gerhard Schroder's response early this month to attacks on Jewish buildings in Dusseldorf and Berlin: Schroder promptly paid a visit to a synagogue.
Some of the media waited as late as October 15 to report extensively on the anti-Jewish violence. L'Express, France's widest-circulation newsmagazine, was still running an anti-Israeli cover on October 12, after a dozen synagogues and schools had been attacked. And when reporting finally began in earnest, most of it was biased. A common approach was to call the trouble "interethnic" or "interfaith" and to urge "both communities," Jewish and Islamic, to rein in their extremists, as if the incitement and assaults were evenly distributed.
None of this should be taken to mean, of course, that France is an incipient Fourth Reich. The government has, at long last, condemned the violence and taken steps to stop it. And the public, genuinely troubled, is demanding a more balanced approach to the Middle East crisis. A few political leaders have even started to question the country's pro-Arab stand. Still, the symptoms are alarming--both for French Jewry, and for France.
Michel Gurfinkiel is editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, a Paris newsweekly.