Do stabbings of French Jews mean end of ‘Marseille miracle’?


Only three years ago, the Jews of Marseille were able to congregate without security and in relative safety in their synagogues and community centers. While violence by Muslim extremists rose throughout France, it largely spared the southern port city, where 80,000 Jews and 250,000 Muslims live.

When I visited in late 2012, I was able to enter the unlocked door of the city’s main synagogue with no one asking questions – a far cry from the fortress-like security common elsewhere in France then and now. Michele Teboul, the president of the Marseille office of the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities, back then called it the “miracle of Marseille.”

Today, that sense of relative safety has been shattered by a recent spate of stabbings of Jews, most recently of Benjamin Amsellem, a teacher who was attacked Tuesday near his synagogue. Amsellem used a religious book as a shield against his attacker, according to one news website, which carried a photo of the blood-stained volume.

The alleged assailant was a 15-year-old boy of Turkish-Kurdish descent, who lightly wounded Amsellem with a machete before being apprehended by police. The boy told interrogators he was inspired to commit the attack by the Islamic State.

Contradicting initial reports that police believed the stabber was insane, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it “a revolting anti-Semitic attack against a teacher” and promised “uncompromising action against those who target our unity in the republic.”

“We are living in a state of war,” said Bruno Benjamin, the previous president of the Marseille branch of the Consistoire, the communal organ responsible for providing Jews with religious services. “Things can explode at any moment, from one second to the other. And we have learned to adapt to this new reality, which reached us later than it reached Paris, but reach us it did.”

The stabbing — the third such incident in Marseille since October — prompted Tzvi Amar, the current president of the Consistoire to call on local Jews to not wear kippahs in public. The statement was almost immediately rebuffed by leaders of French Jewry, including French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia, who said: “We should not give an inch.”

Benjamin called Amar’s suggestion “unthinkable.

Teboul told JTA that taking off the kippah would be to “dial back hundreds of years during which Jews were able to practice their faiths and live freely as citizens of the French Republic.”

While she opposes “self-effacing measures that would serve to drive French Jewry underground,” Teboul nonetheless conceded that her city’s famed coexistence was either at a tipping point or had already been lost.

“A few years ago, our concerns were hate preaching by certain imams, by no means the majority,” Teboul said. “But the dissemination of hate online has changed all that, crossing a new threshold in the volume of minds it poisons, reaching new audiences and making me fear very seriously that the Marseille I knew and love has changed a lot, for the worse.”

Still, Marseille has faced fewer attacks than Paris, even taking its smaller Jewish population into account. In 2014, SPCJ, the French Jewish security service, recorded 186 attacks in the Paris region, where some 300,000 French Jews live — a rate of roughly one attack per 1,600 Jews. Only 36 such incidents occurred in Marseille, a roughly 30 percent lower rate.

Benjamin traces the problem to a self-reinforcing cycle of violence, in which one attack against Jews inspires others. After the slaying of three children and a rabbi in Toulouse in 2012, SPCJ recorded 90 attacks — 15 percent of the annual tally — in the 10 days that followed.

“If you want to know what happened to change Marseille over the past four years, the answer is Toulouse and Hyper Cacher,” Benjamin said, referring to the slaying of four people last January at a kosher shop in Paris.

Even so, interfaith work continues in Marseille. Marseille Esperance, or “Marseille Hope,” an interfaith platform set up by the municipality in 1991 is generally seen as having done much to improve relations through projects by youths from the Jewish and Muslim communities.

“Jews still wear their kippot on the streets of Marseille,” Benjamin said. “But gone are the days when we would not need guards. Now every aspect of communal life happens under protection by the military. They are in our schools, in our shuls, reminding us that we are no less threatened here than in Paris — or Israel.”

Teenager says attack on Jewish teacher was for Islamic State


A teenager who attacked a Jewish teacher in Marseille on Monday is a Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin who said he acted in the name of the militant Islamist group Islamic State, the prosecutor in the southern French city of Marseille said.

“He claimed to have acted in the name of Allah and the Islamic State, repeating several times to have done on behalf of Daech (Islamic State),” the prosecutor, Brice Robin, told a news conference.

The 15 year-old, who was armed with a machete and a knife, wounded the teacher slightly before being stopped and arrested.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve earlier called the attack a “brutal anti-semitic aggression.”

France has the highest Jewish and the Muslim populations in Europe. Violent racial incidents have been in the spotlight since Islamic State claimed a co-ordinated series of attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 in which 130 people were killed.

Two arrested for anti-Semitic incidents near Marseille


French police arrested two men in connection with recent anti-Semitic attacks near Marseille.

One of the suspects in the attacks in Aix en Provence, a Tunisian national without a visa, was placed in a detention center, according to a Feb. 14 statement by SPCJ, the security affiliate of France’s Jewish communities, SPCJ.

The first of the two incidents was on Jan. 28, when a group of 15 men assembled outside a synagogue in the town.

One of the men hurled a rock at the synagogue and shouted “Allahu Akbar” and political slogans about “Palestine” “in a threatening way,” SPCJ said in its report of the incident.

The suspects were arrested shortly after the second incident on Feb 2., when two men approached the synagogue during an event attended by the Israeli consul.

They shouted: “dirty Jew” at an SPCJ guard and profanities in Arabic and ran away when guards approached. The suspects were arrested after SPCJ informed police about the incident.

In a third incident, not believed to be connected with the suspects, two vagabonds on Jan. 29 urinated on a Jewish school adjacent to a synagogue. Interrupted by the guard, they said, “There’s no one here but Jews, it smells like Jews here” and ran away, SPCJ reported.

On Feb. 4, a group of men robbed a Jewish 20-year-old and beat him near Marseille’s main railway station after noticing he was wearing a Star of David. Police defined the incident as anti-Semitic.

French group that saved Jews from Nazis snubs Shoah memorial event


A French organization that saved Jews during the Holocaust has declined to attend a commemoration because it was organized by pro-Israel Jews.

The Marseille branch of CIMADE, a French Protestant group established in 1939, declined to attend the region’s main memorial ceremony for Jewish Holocaust victims because of the pro-Israel attitude of CRIF, the umbrella group representing French Jewish communities, which organized the event together with the municipality.

The values that led CIMADE to save Jews make the group “equally committed to oppose the colonial, discriminatory and bellicose policy of Israel with regards to the Palestinians,” CIMADE regional deputies Françoise Rocheteau and Jean-Pierre Cavalie wrote in a letter to the local CRIF branch on Dec. 21. It also said CIMADE was determined to fight “apartheid.”

The letter, which was published online on Feb. 11 by a group which promotes a boycott of Israel, was a reply to an invitation extended by CRIF to CIMADE to attend the 70th commemoration on Jan. 20 of the deportation and subsequent murder of thousands of local Jews.

Marseille had a Jewish population of 39,000 in 1939, according to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People. Only 10,000 remained after the Holocaust. CIMADE organized “vital relief and later resistance” in connection with the murders, according to Yad Vashem, and helped smuggle Jews to safety. Yad Vashem named Madeleine Barot, who headed CIMADE during the Holocaust, a Righteous among the Nations in 1988. She passed away seven years later.

“We understand our positions may appear unacceptable, making us unwelcome at your commemoration,” the CIMADE representatives wrote. “We cannot keep silent on our convictions but do not wish to cause a scandal.”

French teens arrested for chemical explosion near teacher who reported anti-Semitism


Two French teenagers were arrested on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher after she reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.

The teenagers, 16 and 19 years old, were arrested on Dec. 13 in Aix-en-Provence near Marseille in southern France for allegedly setting off a chemical explosion in the classroom of their plastic arts teacher, according to France Info, a public radio station. No one was hurt in the explosion.

The teacher, Chantal Viroulou, told the radio station that before the incident, “students from that class, two or three of them at least, called me and told me: 'Jew, we will break your face.'” Viroulou, who teaches at the Latecoere professional high school in the town of Istres, did not say whether she was Jewish.

An unnamed police source told Ouest France, a local daily, that Viroulou is not Jewish and that “the anti-Semitic connotation” is not being investigated. The source added that the explosion — which the two suspects allegedly caused by mixing hydrochloric acid with aluminium — “had nothing to do” with the threat.

Earlier this week, the news site Lyonmag reported that a teacher undergoing conversion was fired after she reported repeated anti-Semitic harassment by her pupils at Condorcet secondary school in Saint-Priest, a southern suburb of Lyon.

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a French nonprofit, wrote on Dec. 13 to France's minister of education to ask him to launch a special action against “the development of anti-Semitic acts and behavior” in French schools.

In Marseille, one of France’s poorest cities, Jewish charity is booming


Standing with dozens of hungry people in a 
breadline, Collette Quidron counts her blessings. 


“I enjoy coming here,” says Quidron, a Holocaust survivor with diabetes. “I know everybody and there’s always someone to talk to. If you’re Jewish and need tzedakah, Marseille is as good as it gets.”

The breadline, started 18 years ago behind the city's main synagogue, serves about 1,000 poor Jews each week thanks to an annual budget of about $630,000.

It is but one arm of an extensive Jewish charity network that has risen in
 Marseille, home to 80,000 Jews and one of France's poorest cities. About $1 million flows annually through the network, which comprises some 25 organizations.

Despite the relative poverty of Marseilles, the community has a robust commitment to charity, contributing slightly higher than its percentage of the country’s total Jewish population of approximately 500,000 to France’s main Jewish fundraising appeal.

“Tzedakah is very strong here because ours is a Sephardic community of 
recent immigrants from North Africa, who have a very strong tradition 
of taking care of their own,” said Elie Adevah, president of Baskets 
for Shabbat, the organization that runs the breadline.

And care they need. More than 25 percent of Marseille's residents live 
below the poverty line, compared to 16 percent in France overall. The 
unemployment rate is 30 percent higher than the national average. More than 2,000 Jewish families receive support from the French Jewish Federation, nearly double the number the organization helps in Lyon and Toulouse, which combined have approximately the same Jewish population.

At a 
time when Europe's leaders are undertaking austerity measures and
 fending off social unrest brought on by persistent unemployment and mounting fiscal challenges, the economic plight of Marseilles makes 
scant distinction between Jews and the general population.

“It affects Jews just as it affects everyone else here,” said Elie 
Berrebi, director of the Marseille Consistoire, the local branch of the national organization that administers Jewish religious services in France.

Baskets for Shabbat, which grew out of the Consistoire, conducts a telethon each fall that raises $50,000 for the organization. The rest of its budget comes from the Consistoire and the municipality. 


Several weeks after the telethon, Marseille Jews again are asked
 to open their wallets for the National Appeal for Tzedakah, which starts each November and this year marked its 20th anniversary. The appeal collects about $3.5 million annually for the French Jewish Federation, a national organization that provides social support and education services.

Marseille Jews contribute about $450,000 to the appeal, or about 15 percent of the total. The federation, in turn, funds Jewish charity in Marseille — about $366,000 annually, helping 1,750 of the city's seniors and 2,050 local families, and delivering kosher food to dozens of families with disabled members.

Beyond the federation, the needy families of Marseille have a multitude of places to seek help.
 CASIM, the city’s oldest Jewish charity, runs a supermarket where basic supplies can be had at about one-tenth their actual cost.


“At CASIM’s social supermarket, people at least pay something for food,
 just like you and me,” said Gerard Uzan, the director of CASIM, which was established in 1906. “Even token payment builds a sense of self-worth.”

CASIM also runs a charity center called Social Boutique, where low-income families not only can purchase food at reduced prices but also make use of a library and cooking classes, even a free beauty salon. CASIM has an annual budget of $230,000.

The extent of local charity helps people like Esther S., 57, to save about $250 a month.

“I used to clean houses, but over the past two years I haven't been able to find work,” said Esther, a Morocco native. “I live on about 630 euros [$800] a month, and if not for tzedakah, I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent.”

Uzan laments that the breadline is an undignified relic of 19th century soup kitchens and would like to see the various charity projects united under a single umbrella. But others say the complaints are unwarranted.

“The fact that people benefit from various projects shows there’s a need,” said Jean-Jaques Zenou, the president of Marseille’s Jewish radio station. “So what’s wrong with forming more solutions?”

In France, Marseille Jews look to Paris and worry that their calm may be fleeting


At a time when Jewish institutions across France resemble military fortresses for their security, entering the great synagogue and main Jewish center of this picturesque city on the Mediterranean coast is as easy as pushing open the front door.

The only obstacles on a recent Sunday were 20 children scampering around on their break from Hebrew school.

That same day in Paris, prosecutors announced that they may never catch all the known 10 members of a domestic, jihadist network described by French authorities  as “very dangerous” and responsible for detonating a grenade in a kosher store near Paris last month.

Days earlier, French Jewry’s security unit, the SPCJ, reported a 45 percent rise in anti-Semitic attacks this year, mostly by Muslims — part of an “explosion” of incidents after the March 19 killings of three children and a rabbi in Toulouse by a French-born Muslim extremist. Terrorists may try to infiltrate synagogues on reconnaissance missions, SPCJ also warned recently.

Yet while the 350,000 Jews in and around Paris — more than any other city in Europe — have seen violent convulsions with increasing frequency, Jews here in France’s second-largest Jewish community have enjoyed relative calm.

But many of the 80,000 or so Jews who live in relative peace next to an estimated 250,000 Arabs in this seaside city of 800,000 worry that things could get worse.

In Marseille, Jewish leaders and laymen say they wear their kipahs without fear of attack, offering varying explanations for how the peace is maintained: Some cite interfaith dialogue, others point to geographic segregation and a few make mention of the deterrent threat of Jewish gangsters.

From 2009 to 2011, there were twice as many anti-Semitic attacks per capita in Paris proper than in Marseille, according to an analysis of 1,397 incidents recorded by SPCJ. Only 59 attacks were registered here in those years, compared to 340 in Paris proper.

Michele Teboul, the regional representative of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, says these relatively low figures are part of “the miracle of Marseille.” She credits mainly the work of an interfaith dialogue group that the municipality established in 1991.

But Teboul, a businesswoman and mother of three, is worried that this effect is wearing off as “mosques continue to preach hatred” and the city’s Jewish and Muslim communities drift apart physically and mentally.

Elie Berrebi, director of Marseille’s Central Jewish Consistory — the institution responsible for administering religious services for French Jews — describes the presence of “a small but well-positioned” Jewish mafia as a deterrent to would-be Muslim aggressors, saying that attacking Jews here carries special risks.

“It’s a well-known secret that this community has its own gangsters,” he said. “Not many, but in powerful positions in that world. They speak the language of the other side’s criminals.”

Approximately 50 Jewish gangsters from Marseille are currently in jail, where the Jewish community offers them what services it can, according to Berrebi. One of them, identified only as Daniel S., was the subject of a feature published in August by the French weekly Marianne titled the “The revival of the Jewish Mafia.”

Bruno Benjamin, president of the Marseille Jewish community, dismisses the Jewish gangster theory.

“The Arabs have many more gangsters,” he said.

In 2002, Marseille saw the first synagogue arson attributed to anti-Semitism since World War II when the northern Or Aviv shul was burnt to the ground.

“Since the early 2000s, we’ve been seeing long periods of calm interrupted by eruptions of anti-Semitism,” Berrebi said. Jews in Marseille’s northern parts “have been hit pretty hard,” he said, since the early 2000s, when anti-Semitic attacks spiked in France.

Since then, the city’s Jewish population has gravitated away from the center and northern Marseilles in favor of middle-class neighborhoods in the city’s south, which Berrebi describes as safer. Approximately 80 percent of Marseille’s Jews now live in that part of town, he says. Arab families also are migrating from the center northward and eastward to working-class areas.

The separation is a mixed blessing, Berrebi says. While it insulates Jewish families from potential Muslim aggressors, “it means that there is a new generation growing up without knowing Jews, with a strong us-versus-them notion,” he said.

Berrebi arrived here as a boy in 1967. Like 90 percent of Marseille’s Jews, his family emigrated from North Africa shortly after the Maghreb — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia — gained independence from France in the 1950s. Arabs also came in large numbers and settled in the same neighborhoods as the Jews.

“We used to live together. My generation and the previous one had a lot of commercial exchange with the Arabs,” he said. This familiarity prevented hate crimes, he said, “but the younger generations have lost it.”

Meanwhile, one of Marseille’s biggest problems is unemployment — 30 percent above the national average in 2012 — and the accompanying crime. In 2011, some 26 physical assaults occurred here daily, and armed robbery rose by 40 percent from 2010, according to police statistics.

Lawlessness always seems to be nearby, with ethnic tensions roiling just beneath the surface. In July, what began on the street as a robbery ended in rape and assault after the perpetrator — a Muslim man whom authorities judged to be mentally unsound — saw his elderly victim’s mezuzah on the front doorway of her home, according to her account.

On Saturday, a convoy of seven reckless drivers raced down Rue Paradis, near the city’s great synagogue. In one car, women ululated while the driver swerved violently in consecutive hand-brake skids. In another, five men shouted and waved the Algerian flag. A passing police car only provoked them to intensify their conduct, then passed them.

Benjamin, Marseille’s Jewish community president, credited the non-confrontational approach of city authorities in the predominantly Arab neighborhoods with keeping things quiet.

“Some of the relative peace here owes to police not kicking those hornets’ nests,” he said.

Other members of the community praise Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin’s “declaredly pro-Israel” attitude.

“It sets the tone and discourages pro-Palestinian sentiment from turning anti-Semitic,” Berrebi said.

Even so, when Berrebi’s daughter wanted to move to Israel, he said he did not try to dissuade her. “There’s a growing realization we won’t be able to stay here indefinitely,” he said.

Jean-Jaques Zenou, 40, is the president of Radio JM, the area’s Jewish radio station. The Marseille native says he wishes his five children would immigrate to Israel.

“Even in Marseille, I get frightened when I stop to compare our reality to that of the 1990s,” he told JTA. “We have terrorist networks, a very strong far right. And what happened in Toulouse.”

Zenou says the community “may be behaving naively” by sufficing with relatively lax security arrangements.

“After all,” he said, “it’s not like the Jewish community of Toulouse ever expected what happened there.”

Marseille befriending Jerusalem with gift of fountain


The city of Marseille, France, has given a bronze fountain to the city of Jerusalem as a show of friendship.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday thanked Marseille Mayor Jean Claude Gaudin for his gift of the “Fontaine Longchamp,” which stands more than 11 feet high. The fountain, which is on its way to Israel, is an exact replica of the famous fountain on Marseille’s Boulevard Longchamp.

Barkat met with Gaudin in the Jerusalem City Council chamber. A delegation of businessmen and community leaders from Marseille accompanied Gaudin on his visit to Israel.

“Our gift, which represents comradeship, peace and coexistence, is a symbol of our close ties with the city of Jerusalem, which we are interested in deepening even further,” Gaudin said in the chamber.