PARIS — The Jewish community in Paris lived through the manhunt for the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in a state of extreme tension. The hostage-taking Friday in a Kosher supermarket, which resulted in the death of four Jewish men, confirmed their worst fears.
Francois Hollande called the act a "frightening act of anti-semitism." In a televised speech, the French president declared: "We must show our determination to fight against all those who could divide us, and, first and foremost, to be unswerving against racism and anti-Semitism."
The bloody events of this week come at an already difficult time for Jews in France. A direct line can be traced to the attacks on a Jewish school in the southern city of Toulouse that killed three children and a rabbi in March 2012, and the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, which killed four people last May. Both attacks were committed by French nationals of Algerian descent who had links to radical Islamists.
Much discussed was the firestorm over the anti-Semitic jokes of French comedian Dieudonné, which was then followed last summer with the attacks on synagogues, accompanied by yells of "death to the Jews" on the fringes of protests over Israel's intervention in Gaza. The Jewish community has been affected by the increase in anti-Semitic acts — which doubled during the first ten months of 2014.
Last month, the attack of a young couple in the Paris suburbs revived the Jewish communities fears about their future in France. Two young people broke into the home of a Jewish family, expecting to find money there because, "The Jews, they have money." They kidnapped the couple that was in the house and raped the young woman. The poor showing at the rally after the attack was chilling for the Jewish community. More and more French Jews are choosing to emigrate than ever before. In 2014, the number of people leaving for Israel doubled; With 7,000 departures, more Jews immigrated to Israel from France than from any other country.
Safe in the Marais
Singled out before by Islamist terrorists, Jews were horrified though hardly surprised when news came that hostages had been taken at the Kosher supermarket in south-eastern Paris.
At 2 p.m., just after the standoff began, the police arrived at rue des Rosiers, a medieval-era street in Paris' 4th arrondissement that has historically been central to Jewish life in the city and still is home to numerous Jewish-owned businesses. The police asked many shop owners to close their stores for security reasons. The same thing happened in the Sentier neighborhood, in the 2nd arrondissement, where textile stores were asked to close early.
On Friday evenings, observant Jews go to the synagogue to celebrate the beginning of Shabbat, the day of rest. But this Friday, that was near impossible. On rue Pavée, a simple sign on the synagogue door said, "Dear believers, we regret that there are no prayers here tonight." Four young people finally opened the door anyway. They wore black hats and tefillin, they were nervous and said that the police, who were an unusually visible presence in the area, had asked them to "lock the door." By going through the adjacent buildings and using passages that only they know, the residents were able to gather in the synagogue at nightfall.
At the Grande Synagogue in Paris, on rue de la Victoire, the doors stayed closed — the first Sabbath services missed there since the Nazis occuped the French capital. At the liberal rue Copernic synagogue, a congregation that had already lived through a deadly attack in 1980 gathered. Bertrand, a congregation member, said that he "isn’t afraid," insisting that the services won’t be cancelled. "The only time we didn’t have services here was during the Second World War," he added.
Everyone has been touched by the events, and wondering what comes next. "This is only the beginning," said a cashier at a Kosher restaurant. Back on rue des Rosiers, an older gentleman with a white beard and dressed in black, thinks however that "nothing has changed," and "it’s always the same thing."
People’s opinions can be very deeply held. One young man who said he was confident in the security of the Jewish community in the Marais nonetheless said, in a defiant tone, that he wants to "leave for Israel, my only country."
Rachel, a 50-year-old woman with gloved hands and covered hair, spoke in front of the synagogue on rue Saint-Didier, with a somewhat more skeptical eye toward the prospect of living in Israel. "There, it’s like this every day," she said. "I hope that this will help people understand each other better."
Sasha, an engineering student, stopped to talk after buying sushi in a Kosher restaurant. "The terrorists are hurting Muslims," he said. "This will be terrible for them and they haven’t done anything wrong." Then a political prediction for France: "It’s unavoidable; we’ll end up with the extreme right in power."
Marc Konczaty, who heads France's Liberal Jewish Movement, condemns the anti-Semitic targeting of the Kosher supermarket. For him, though, "it is, above all, France that is under attack." Konczaty calls on all to "continue to live, be proud of who we are, of our democracy." That is why, like all representatives of the Jewish community, he is taking part in Sunday's mass demonstration in Paris to defend the values of the French Republic.