French voters moving on from Toulouse, but Jews can’t let it go


If Isaac Sitrin is worried about being targeted by Jew-hating thugs, then he is hiding it well.

After determining that a fellow train passenger is Jewish and willing to lay tefillin, he ushers the passenger to the center of Gare du Nord train station. Praying aloud, Sitrin performs the ritual ceremony as his wife and daughters wait nearby.

“We feel safer now. [President] Nicolas Sarkozy put cops everywhere and got the killer right away. Many Jews will vote for him after Toulouse,” Sitrin says in reference to the slaying of a rabbi and three children last month by a Muslim radical at a Jewish school.

Police killed the suspected murderer, Mohammad Merah, two days later in a gunfight. And authorities upped security around Jewish institutions, banned some radicals from entering France and made dozens of arrests.

The Toulouse attack will have a “decisive effect” on how Jews vote in France’s presidential election, says Michel Zerbib, news director at Radio J, the French Jewish station. “We can expect even greater Jewish support for Sarkozy than in 2007.”

Meanwhile, Zerbib says, the non-Jewish electorate has shifted its attention to the central issue of the race: the French economy. “But Jews see what happened as an existential threat,” he says. “They cannot let go.”

Influential members of the French Jewish community praise Sarkozy, leader of the center-right UMP party, for his performance. Yet many feel let down by Sarkozy, once their undisputed favorite. Influential French Jews balk at the Socialist attitude to “new anti-Semitism” and harsh criticism of Israel, and say they have few alternatives to Sarkozy.

That’s good news for the extreme right, now under softer leadership and hungry for Jewish approval to upgrade its public image.

On April 2, the Jewish umbrella group CRIF organized a meeting in Paris for the community with Pierre Moscovici, national secretary of the Socialist Party and a campaign manager for Socialist presidential hopeful Francois Hollande.  Moscovici, a Pris-born Jew, says Hollande is “friendly to Israel and strict but fair with its government—out of commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.”

“In addition, the Socialist Party has other rigorous men and women of principle who are both friendly and demanding when it comes to Israel. They firmly oppose anti-Semitism,” he says.

CRIF President Richard Prasquier believes “many Jews will vote for the Socialists.” But opinion shapers and Jewish community leaders also judge Hollande on the actions of some of his party members before and after the Toulouse shooting.

“Hollande is seen as responsible for the left’s unwillingness to face the new Muslim anti-Semitism in France,” Zerbib says—anti-Semitism that leads extremists to stage reprisals on French Jews for Israeli actions.

Professor Shmuel Trigano, an expert in French Jewry and lecturer at Paris-Nanterre University, speaks of “a near total silence of the Socialist Party on hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks” and complains of “disproportionate criticism of Israel.”

In January, Socialist parliament member Jean Glavany wrote a parliamentary report accusing Israel of “water apartheid” and theft in the Palestinian territories. CRIF called the document biased.

Regardless of their misgivings about the Socialist Party, many Jews are displeased with Sarkozy. The Cevipof study of Jewish voters shows they are more disappointed in the president than is the general electorate.

In the past two years, Sarkozy’s approval rating has dropped 19 percentage points among Jews—from 62 percent in 2007-09 to 43 percent in 2009-11. Among non-Jews, Sarkozy’s popularity fell 14 points, to 32 percent in January. The study was based on a questionnaire filled out by 173,000 French voters, including 1,000 who identified themselves as Jews.

“There isn’t a single candidate the Jews can wholly welcome,” says Philippe Karsenty, a Jewish-French politician and media analyst. “Sarkozy has some responsibility for what happened in Toulouse because he let anti-Zionist propaganda of the French public media outlets grow.”

Karsenty, who has long claimed that a France 2 television report on the killing of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, in Gaza in 2000 was doctored to blame his death on Israel, accuses Sarkozy of “helping Al Jazeera spread the kind of radicalism that caused the Toulouse massacre.”

Last year, the Al Jazeera network bought media rights from the Union of European Football Associations to screen most championship soccer matches in France. The deal came at the expense of the previous rights owner, the French pay-television channel Canal+. The French government has considerable clout over UEFA.

“The same imams Sarkozy banned deliver their message to France through Al Jazeera in Arabic,” Karsenty says. “The French government should not be encouraging that.”

Sarkozy has disappointed the French Jewish community in other ways, too: the French vote in favor of Palestinian membership in UNESCO, condemnations of Israeli settlements and when he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar.”

That disappointment may partly explain an apparent shift in how some Jews view the National Front, France’s largest right-wing party. The anti-Muslim party with a history of anti-Semitism is led by Marine Le Pen.

On March 27, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League publicly expressed support for the National Front for the first time.

“An important National Front delegation visited the Grande Synagogue de la Victoire in Toulouse,” the branch’s website said. “Bickering” among Jewish institutions will “surely ensue.”

Founded in the 1970s by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, JDL is considered a terrorist group in the U.S. but is legal in France. Amnon Cohen, JDL’s Paris spokesman, says it has dozens of activists.
Cohen says the National Front “isn’t perfect but isn’t dangerous. We’ll work with those willing to fight the Islamic threat.”

Since assuming the leadership of the National Front last year, Le Pen has distanced herself from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has called the Holocaust a “detail in history” and been convicted several times in France for Holocaust denial. He also said the German occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane.”

Marine Le Pen, by contrast, has reached out to French Jews and Israelis, describing them as “natural allies.” Even before that, in 2007, the National Front received nealy 5 percent of the Jewish vote.

Zerbib, the Jewish radio journalist, says the Toulouse shooting could bring more Jews to vote Le Pen.

“They would be protest votes by Jews who feel abandoned,” he says. “More Jews feel like that after Toulouse and they are seriously thinking about emigrating to Israel.”

French Islamic militants planned to kidnap Jewish judge


Suspected Islamic militants arrested throughout France were planning terrorist attacks including kidnapping a Jewish judge.

The 13 members of the extremist group Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride, were among 19 suspected Islamic militants arrested last week in France. They are currently under investigation for alleged terrorist activities, Paris public prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters Tuesday. Preliminary charges are being filed against the 13, and nine will remain in police custody, he said.

The men reportedly planned to kidnap a Jewish judge in Lyon, in southeast France.

Molins said that there is no tie between this group and gunman Mohamed Merah, who killed children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulose on March 21, as well as three French military personnel the previous week. Merah told French police that he killed the Jewish students at the school in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers the previous week for serving in Afghanistan. He also claimed links to al-Qaida, as does Forsane Alizza.

The terrorists’ arrests were part of a French crackdown in the wake of Merah’s attack in Toulouse. France on Monday also expelled five radical Islamic ministers.

After Toulouse attack, French Jews are reconsidering Sarkozy


With the first round of France’s presidential election less than four weeks away, the attacks that left four Jews and three French soldiers dead are reshaping the race—but for now it’s not clear exactly how.

In the days leading up to the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy had managed to close most of the gap behind the leader in the polls, Socialist candidate Francoise Hollande, with a rightward turn that included calls by Sarkozy in favor of tougher immigration restrictions and against the labeling of halal meat.

Since the March 19 attack on the Jewish Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse, Sarkozy has announced several measures to clamp down on right-wing and Islamic extremists. He ordered French security forces to seek out Muslim extremists, barred an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric from attending a conference in France next month and urged TV networks not to air footage of the Toulouse attack and the one on soldiers in nearby Montauban that had been delivered to the Al Jazeera bureau here.

While politicians across the political spectrum condemned the attacks, Sarkozy won praise from the Jewish community for suspending his campaign and flying to Toulouse immediately after the school shooting, calling it “obviously anti-Semitic” and saying that the “whole republic” was mobilized to face the tragedy.

But it’s not clear how long the focus will remain on security before shifting back to the main issue facing France: the economy.

“The political debate will probably refocus on the fundamental economic topics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specializes in right-wing extremism. “Still, it is very important to French Jews to make the population understand that the Toulouse attack does not only concern their community but the whole country.”

French Jews, he said, “will most certainly vote for politicians with solid experience who are able to put in practice legal and credible measures to answer an Islamic threat.”

The latest national polls show Sarkozy and his center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, trailing Hollande by a percentage point or two in the first round scheduled for April 22, but by a wider gap in a theoretical runoff scheduled for May 6.

Since the Toulouse attack, the National Front, France’s largest far-right party, has tried to take advantage of the changed climate. On Sunday, party leader Marine Le Pen promised to “bring radical Islam to its knees.” In her speech Le Pen, who has been polling at approximately 15 percent, also linked mass immigration with fundamentalism and denounced the risk of a “green fascism.”

Few observers believe that many Jews will opt for the National Front, even though Le Pen has sought to woo Jewish voters and distance herself and her party from the anti-Semitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front.

“In 2002, only 6 percent of French Jews voted for the National Front, while the election occurred only a few months after 9/11,” Camus said. “A substantial movement from the Jewish community toward Marine Le Pen is very unlikely.”

The Jewish community, whose 600,000 members represent less than 1 percent of the total French population, remains more supportive of Sarkozy’s party than the general public. But prior to the Toulouse shootings, a survey of the Jewish electorate showed that Sarkozy had lost support among Jews even though he remained more popular than any other single candidate.

According to a March 9 poll from the French polling institute IFOP, Sarkozy’s favorable ratings among Jews had fallen to 43 percent as of January from 62 percent in May 2007, when Sarkozy was elected president. The main reason, said Jerome Fourquet, who directed the survey for IFOP, was France’s economy.

“The trend is similar to the French general electorate’s disaffection with Sarkozy,” Fourquet said. “People are dissatisfied with the economic situation and their purchasing power.”

For many Jews, the economy is not the only source of discontent with the president. In early March, Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, made controversial statements about halal and kosher slaughter rituals, declaring that the “ancestral traditions” in Islam and Judaism were “outdated.”

The comment provoked a strong reaction from Jewish leaders.

“As religion and state are strictly separated in France, politicians should avoid giving their opinion on these topics,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the main French umbrella organization for Jewish institutions.

More widely, French moderates also have expressed concern about Sarkozy’s tilt to the right. A week before the Toulouse shootings, Sarkozy told an audience that France has “too many foreigners” and proposed cutting legal immigration in half.

Thirty years ago, most Jews leaned toward the Socialist Party. Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist who served as president of France from 1981 to 1995, was considered a friend of Israel—an image he developed after his 1982 address to the Knesset, where he emphasized the Jewish state’s right to security.

But the Jewish vote drifted toward the UMP during the second intifada, when many leftist organizations took a pro-Palestinian stance and violence against French Jews soared.

“Violence in the Middle East had a huge impact on this community,” Fourquet said. “During the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France in the early 2000s, many Jews felt abandoned by the Socialists. This is when the center of gravity started shifting to the right for French Jews.”

Sarkozy was interior minister at the time—serving two stints from 2002 to 2007—and his tough rhetoric and the aggressive measures he championed were credited with helping tamp down the anti-Semitic violence.

Opinion: Strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties in the face of evil


As a rabbi and an imam, we deeply mourn the tragic loss of innocent lives in the murderous terrorist attacks in France. We express our heartfelt sympathy and compassion for the bereaved.

Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, one piece of the story has received less attention: the inspiring manner in which Muslims and Jews in France have stood side by side in denouncing these heinous acts.

Thousands of Muslims and Jews reacted to the savage killings of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse and the earlier murders of three French soldiers, including two Muslims, by joining together in solidarity marches in communities throughout Paris.

Meanwhile, top French Muslim and Jewish leaders have vowed to stand united in opposition to acts which Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, has accurately characterized as being “in total contradiction with the foundation of this religion [Islam].”

This heartening coming-together of Jews and Muslims in France did not happen in a vacuum.

In 2003, Rabbi Michel Serfaty, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of the Paris suburb of Ris Orangis, responded to being accosted by Muslim youths near his synagogue by founding the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Society of France, which is dedicated to building ties of understanding and trust between the two communities. Every year the organization’s dedicated Muslim and Jewish staffers and volunteers take part in a Tour de France, in the process building a network of ties between grass-roots Muslims and Jews in towns and cities throughout the country.

In 2009, the European imams and rabbis who took part in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Mission of European Imams and Rabbis to the United States agreed to participate in the foundation’s annual Weekend of Twinning in which scores of mosques and synagogues and Muslim and Jewish organizations hold one-on-one encounters during a weekend each November in cities around the world.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the FFEU and the Islamic Society of North America will host the first Mission of Latin American Muslim and Jewish Leaders. The event will bring 14 imams and rabbis from five South American countries and two Caribbean islands to Washington for meetings with Muslim and Jewish members of Congress and with top officials at the White House and State Department. We are optimistic the mission will jump-start a process of dialogue and cooperation between the Muslim and Jewish communities of Latin America.

What we have learned from five years of working together to nurture an ever-expanding fabric of Muslim-Jewish relationships—and what has been proven anew by the joint response of Muslims and Jews in France to the terror in Toulouse—is that when Muslims and Jews open sustained face-to-face communication, we can maintain our unity even in the face of unspeakable horror directed against our respective communities.

As we have undertaken together a joint study of Torah, Koran and the oral traditions of our two faiths, we have discovered profound commonalities between our beliefs. We have come to understand that just as we share a common faith—dating back to our common patriarch, Abraham/Ibrahim—we also share a common fate. Our single destiny must strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for each other.

Indeed, as Jews and Muslims, not only must we carry out a sustained dialogue, but we must actively fight for each other’s rights, standing together against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. We believe deeply that a people which fights for its own rights is only as honorable as when it fights for the rights of all people. For only when we see the humanity in the Other can we preserve it within ourselves.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Imam Shamsi Ali is the spiritual leader of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York.

French shooting suspect not jailed in Afghanistan, provincial governor says


An Afghan provincial governor on Wednesday denied statements by a senior prison official that French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007 and escaped months later.

Citing prison documents, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq had told Reuters that Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and that he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

A senior Kandahar intelligence source confirmed Faruq’s account and said he had a file on a French Algerian of the same name, who was arrested in 2007 and broke out of prison in 2008.

But the Kandahar governor’s office said that account was “baseless”, citing judicial records. “Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah,” the governor’s spokesman, Ahmad Jawed Faisal, said.

Merah’s lawyer in France, Christian Etelin, said his client was in prison in France from December 2007 until September 2009, serving an 18-month sentence for robbery with violence, and therefore could not have been in Afghanistan at the time of the Kandahar jailbreak.

Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwestern France.

Faruq had said that Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan’s main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.

In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there. “We have no information about him,” the Pakistani official said.

Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich

After Toulouse attack, Sarkozy suspends campaign and Jews warn of rising anti-Semitism


The attack by an unidentified gunman on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France was condemned by Jewish leaders, who also warned against the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe.

“Whoever did this is looking to target the Jewish community at its weakest point, its youth, in the hopes of spreading fear throughout the community,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in a statement. “They will not succeed. The Jews of Europe in general and the Jews of France in particular have a long history of standing firm against hatred and violence, and I know as a community French Jewry will send a message of strength and resilience in the face of those who wish to terrorize them.”

A man riding a motorbike reportedly opened fire Monday morning outside the Ozar Hatorah School, where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. The shooter then entered the building and continued shooting at students and teachers before fleeing on his motorbike.

Several students also were injured inside the building. The dead are reported to be a 30-year-old rabbi and his 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons, as well as the 10-year-old daughter of the school’s principal.

“This is a brazen assault on France and French society, and another telling reminder of the dangers that exist for Jewish communities in today’s world,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement. “We count on French authorities to pursue the investigation vigorously, arrest whoever is involved, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, as well as review security at Jewish institutions. We have confidence they will.”

Anti Defamation League national Director Abraham Foxman pointed out that the Jewish community of Toulouse has been targeted in the past three years with anti-Semitic acts of violence.

“It is critically important that the Jewish community in France feel assured that they will be safe and secure in the aftermath of this horrific incident, and we welcome the announcement that security will be intensified at Jewish institutions throughout France,” Foxman said. “We appreciate President Sarkozy’s decision to immediately go to Toulouse, for the government’s clear message to all French schools to stand in solidarity, and for the direct public statements that no efforts will be spared to bring the killer to justice.”

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant ordered security to be tightened around all Jewish schools in France after the attack.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the attack a “national tragedy” and vowed to find the killer. “This is a day of national tragedy because children were killed in cold blood,” Sarkozy said in Toulouse, where he rushed after suspending his reelection campaign. “Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. We will find him.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would do everything to help France track down the killer. “Today we had a savage crime in France that gunned down French Jews, among them children. It’s too early to say what the precise background for this act of murder is, but I think that we can’t rule out that there was a strong murderous anti-Semitic motive here,” Netanyahu said.

“I haven’t heard yet a condemnation from any of the UN bodies but I have heard that one such body, the UN Human Rights Council,  invited on this very day a senior representative of Hamas – on this day, when we had the savage murder, they chose to invite a member of Hamas,” Netanyahu added.

“We are horrified by this attack and we trust the French authorities to shed full light on this tragedy and bring the perpetrators of these murders to justice,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP.

The White House also condemned the attack. “We were deeply saddened to learn of the horrific attack this morning against the teachers and students of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, and we stand with a community in grief.”

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