French Jews

French Jewish leader Roger Cukierman has moderated his tone during the past 12 months — but his message appears largely unaltered.

Jews in France are living "in a time of malaise," Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, told more than 800 guests at the group’s annual dinner Saturday.

Cukierman’s speech, given in the presence of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and dozens of leaders from across France’s political spectrum, detailed in alarming terms what has become the norm at such events in recent years — a catalog of violence against Jewish individuals and community institutions.

"A simple meeting on the street, traveling on public transport or just a glance" often can lead to insults and physical violence for French Jews, Cukierman said.

His use of the term "malaise" is what has characterized the state of the largest Jewish community in Europe. Even if reported acts of anti-Semitism have dropped in 2003, the feelings of uncertainty clearly are going to take a long time to disappear.

Shopping on a Sunday morning in a heavily Jewish area of Paris’s 11th District, Monique Belaiche said she feels insecure.

"I walk down the street and I get aggressive looks from groups of North African youth," said Belaiche, an Orthodox Jewish woman in her early 30s.

The neighborhood around Boulevard Voltaire, a broad thoroughfare with many Jewish food shops, has generally been free of anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, Belaiche said that she "does not see a future for the Jews of France."

Like many of her friends, she said, "I am constantly thinking about emigrating to Israel."

Nearly 5,000 French Jews already have made that choice over the past two years. Immigration to other countries — particularly to French-speaking parts of Canada — also continues to rise.

Other shoppers, however, are less sure.

"I feel I have a future in France," Michael Abergel said as he stood outside a kosher butcher on the boulevard.

For Abergel, the issue was whether the government would be able to "deal with the integration of French Muslims."

"There is anarchy in the suburbs — and that’s a problem for France, not just for Jews," he said.

The geographical nature of the problem was exemplified by a discussion between Philippe Schemba, who lives in the 11th District, and his friend Serge Seknega, from the Paris suburb of Le Blanc Mesnil.

While Schemba talked in broader political terms about anti-Semitism, Seknega preferred to dwell on his daily experiences.

"I feel the incivility, the gestures as I walk down the street," Seknega said.

As both men pointed out, the government is beginning to tackle the problem.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has "started to do something," Schemba said, referring to new get-tough policies that have resulted in heavy sentences for anti-Semitic offenders in recent weeks.

In November, the government also set up a top-level Cabinet committee to tackle anti-Semitism.

That decision followed an arson attack at a Jewish school near Paris that was swiftly condemned by both Sarkozy and French President Jacques Chirac.

Reaction to the arson typified a sense of panic that has seen France blasted by Israel and international Jewish groups for what they claim has been a reticence to tackle anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, many French Jewish groups say the government has turned the corner.

Addressing the CRIF dinner, Cukierman praised the prime minister "for the battle you have led against anti-Semitism."

But while the government is pushing for tougher legislation to fight anti-Semitism, the battle will be a difficult one, Cukierman said.

"The old anti-Semitism of the far right has not disappeared," he noted, but it is no longer alone — Jews and Israel now are singled out as well by the far left and anti-globalization activists, Cukierman said.

"Jews are no longer attacked by racists because of their race, but as racists by those who claim to be anti-racists," he said.

Cukierman’s linking of extremists from left and right provoked a walkout at last year’s CRIF dinner by Green Party leader Gilles Lemaire. The rift between the Jewish community and many Green leaders has yet to heal: Lemaire and others on the party’s radical wing shunned this year’s event.

Nevertheless, the links built with the center-right government were clearly on show at the dinner, with no fewer than 17 government ministers attending.

The government and major Jewish organizations see a sharp drop in anti-Semitic incidents in 2003 — down from 195 anti-Semitic acts and 737 threats in 2002 to 125 acts and 463 threats last year. But both sides agree that more needs to be done.

Indeed, on the night of the CRIF dinner, violently anti-Semitic slogans were shouted at French Israeli singer Shirel during a major charity event in central France attended by Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president.

And as one of the Jewish shoppers on Boulevard Voltaire pointed out, anti-Semitism isn’t going to go away as long as "the Middle East conflict is imported to France" through the large numbers of Muslim immigrants.

"The malaise has deepened with the conflict," Schemba said. "The media feeds on it and the Jews end up being the scapegoats."