The return of French anti-Semitism is a lot scarier than just a few nasty tweets.
PARIS — A lawyer for France’s Jewish students’ union declared recently that Twitter has agreed to remove dozens of anti-Semitic tweets, in a small victory against hate in France. Published with hashtags such as #UnBonJuif (#AGoodJew) and #UnJuifMort — to suggest that #AGoodJew is #ADeadJew — the bad taste of the messages is astounding. One came with a photograph, published via Twitpic, that showed a pick-up pan full of dust, in an apparent reference to the Nazi crematoriums. Another is more explicit, showing a black and white photo of a starving young person on what appears to be a concentration camp cot. (Le Monde newspaper put together a gallery of some of the worst.)
While the anti-Semitic hashtag controversy has, understandably, garnered plenty of attention in the online universe — #UnBonJuif was the third most tweeted hashtag in France on October 10 — this year has seen high-profile attacks in the real world that are infinitely more troubling.
It wasn’t merely hateful Internet trolling that led to a police crackdown on October 6. Amid a flurry of anti-terror operations around the country, they detained 11 suspected terrorists, later freeing five of them. That day began in dramatic fashion, when authorities killed a 12th man in a raid in the eastern French town of Strasbourg. They believe that the dead man was personally linked to an anti-Jewish grenade attack in a Parisian suburb in September, that he headed a militant group with a list of "Jewish" targets, and that he was likely involved in channeling French citizens abroad to fight alongside radical Islamists.
Paris court prosecutor François Molins declared in a statement that "a terrorist attack in our country has been avoided" and that authorities have dismantled the "most dangerous" terrorist group assembled on French territory in more than a decade and a half.
In reality, though, it doesn’t seem to take a large group to inspire horror. The highest-profile attack this year was the work of a young delinquent turned freelance Islamist radical named Mohamed Merah. In March, days after executing three off-duty French soldiers in southwestern France, he drove his motor scooter onto the grounds of a Jewish school in Toulouse and coldly murdered a Franco-Israeli schoolteacher, two of his children and one of their schoolmates. The youngest victim was four years old. Merah later claimed in his rantings to police and a journalist that the school attack was in retaliation for the death of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli forces.
Days later, police cornered the 22-year-old Merah in his apartment and, during a shoot-out, put a bullet in his forehead that launched him off of his balcony and to the street below. Perhaps it should have been the end of Merah’s story, but it wasn’t.
Almost immediately after Merah’s Natural Born Killers-like rampage ended, his name began to appear on scrawled ghetto graffiti, including these words insisting that he was a "valiant knight of Islam." (The author of that graffiti was sentenced to three months in prison for "apologizing for terrorism.") Immediately after his death, Long Live Mohamed Merah Facebook pages sprang up, with some lauding his anti-establishment ravings. Merah suggested that his murder of three off-duty military men (all ethnic minorities, incidentally) was some sort of resistance against the French State. And Merah, who filmed some of his murders, has inspired an array of video tributes, in some cases strange ones (notice the gun at the end).
Online videos have long offered extremist recruiters a way to inspire angry and lost young men, to shape them for a battle against Jews, the West, or both. They often confuse Jews with the unpopular policies of the government of Israel, but so do many people in France, Spain, and many other countries in Europe. Some 45 percent of French people surveyed believe that French Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France. In Spain, 72 percent believe the same, according to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League.
Anti-Semitism is a particularly sensitive topic in France — it took until 1995 for a French leader, the incoming President Jacques Chirac, to acknowledge France’s responsibility for deporting 76,000 Jews, in many cases, to their deaths during World War II. "These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions," Chirac said 53 years after the first mass arrests of Jews in Paris. "Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state." To this day, many French Jews remain suspicious of their government’s commitment to protecting them.
In the six weeks after the conclusion of Merah’s rampage, there was a doubling of anti-Semitic incidents (compared to that same period the previous year). A Jewish security watchdog known as SPCJ says that anti-Semitic acts leaped by 45 percent in the first eight months of 2012, and that Merah’s actions have inspired others. In one notable attack near the Beth Menahem Jewish school in Villeurbanne in southern France, a dozen or so men attacked a trio of young Jewish men in yarmulkes on June 2, first insulting and shoving them around, and then beating them with an iron rod and a hammer, sending them to the hospital.
There has been other violence, too, including the strange midday attack on a kosher market in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles on September 19, days before Yom Kippur. In that attack, two masked men dressed in black entered the store and detonated a weak grenade that shattered the front window of the shop, wounding a bystander who suffered an arm contusion. Sarcelles, a commune of 60,000 people north of Paris, is sometimes referred as Little Jerusalem because of its sizable Jewish community, made up largely of Jews who left North Africa in the 1960s.
Police recovered the pin of that grenade and found the DNA of Jérémie Louis-Sidney, who anti-terror authorities have said they first became aware of in the spring. A 33-year-old father of five children, Louis-Sidney was a resident of Cannes in southern France, but he often stayed with the mothers of his different children or friends outside of Paris or in Strasbourg. The son of Christians, Louis-Sidney — who was known to many people as "James" — did a stint in prison on a drug trafficking conviction where, some family members told French media, that he turned to radical Islam. He eventually grew a long beard. His conspiratorial post-incarceration worldview is on display in a 2009 excerpt of a hardcore rap video he recorded for a song titled, "21e siècle" (21st Century). "September 11 is just the tip of the iceberg," he declares in a rap that mentions trafficking kids and body organs. He goes on to warn viewers: "Know that you are manipulated. If you don’t understand, inform yourself, prepare yourself, arm yourself with knowledge. Now it is up to you to see." He ends with the words "Allah Akbar."
If the video comes across as something of a hardscrabble inspirational tool for potential radicals, police believe that Louis-Sidney later recruited childhood friends from Cannes and the suburbs of Paris to his group, and that at least one had left prior to the police crackdown to join militant Islamists fighting in the Middle East.
That is part of why, on October 6, anti-terror police armed with clubs and sniper guns penetrated the Esplanade neighborhood of Strasbourg, in eastern France, where Louis-Sidney was at the apartment of the mother of his baby. According to the police version of events, as they emerged from the elevator, preparing to arrest Louis-Sidney, they discovered that he had placed a glass object in front of the door to alert him of arrivals. Authorities say that Louis-Sidney "immediately" unloaded the barrel of his Magnum .357 at the officers, striking one in the chest area of his bulletproof outfit, and that the anti-terror squad returned fire and killed him. (French media found several friends of Louis-Sidney who cast doubt on the official police version of events.)
Six of the Frenchmen arrested by authorities in the crackdown in Cannes and Paris stand accused of attempted assassination and of having links to a terrorist enterprise. Perhaps most troubling, French authorities discovered five wills "addressed to Allah" (although two were blank). One was found at the apartment of Louis-Sidney, who they said had just shaved his beard; a potential indicator that he was preparing to take part in an attack. Police believe that at least one friend of his, known as Mahouachi, had already left Cannes for Syria without warning his family, to join Islamists who are among the forces fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. (Other than Louis-Sidney, it remains unclear who else signed their own wills.)
But the arrest of one of the 11 men, Jérémie Bailly, 25, in the Parisian suburb of Torcy, brought a disturbing discovery. Bailly, who is one of the six men who now face charges, had a storage space where authorities discovered an array of products handy in making improvised explosives: a pump, potassium nitrate, sulfur, saltpeter, pressure cooker-type containers, and headlight bulbs. They also found a handgun and a shotgun, according to the prosecutor.
Most troubling, in their searches, police also found what they believe is a terrorist target list of "Israeli structures" that also included the name of a Jewish lawyer who has been active in battling anti-Semitism cases. (He is now under state protection and police are withholding his identity.)
In the aftermath of the arrests, President François Hollande met with Jewish and Muslim leaders in France to communicate his strong convictions in the battle against radicalization, terrorism, and anti-Semitism. Following the rampage by Merah, police tightened security around synagogues and Jewish schools. More recently, the government introduced legislation to broaden police powers to monitor the Internet, and to make it a crime for French people to travel abroad for terror training. (Given that such people don’t tend to self-declare such travels, however, it is more likely to be punitive than dissuasive.)
France still has a ways to go in rooting out its anti-Semitism, and in comforting a sensitive Jewish population that has a living memory of the nation’s complicated history. There’s no shortage of common ignorance across the political spectrum about the vast majority of Jews’ relationship to France, Israel, and even to their own religion. But the true challenge is to soften the anger in French ghettos that sometimes inspires crazy conspiracy theories among young men capable of meting out pain and even death, in part so that the era when Jewish lives were swept away by murderous hate can be left to the dustbin of history.