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ANTI-SEMITISM

Rising anti-Semitism forces Jews out of Paris suburbs

Jews who have lived peacefully in the suburbs of Paris are now having to move to other parts of the country or head for Israel to escape anti-Semtism.

Rising anti-Semitism forces Jews out of Paris suburbs
Photo: AFP

When Alain Benhamou walked into his apartment near Paris in July 2015 and saw the words “dirty Jew” scrawled on the wall, he knew it was time to leave.

It was his second such break-in in less than three months and the 71-year-old no longer felt welcome in Bondy, a Parisian suburb he had called home for more than 40 years.

“Until the years 2000-2005, the town was nice and quiet, with 250 to 300 Jewish families and synagogues full on the Sabbath,” Benhamou says.

“Now, only about a hundred Jewish families remain.”

Benhamou is part of a growing number of French Jews who have effectively become internal refugees, fleeing insecurity and seeking protection in numbers in an atmosphere they say is increasingly hostile, and often expressed in relation to conflict in the Middle East.

He moved a few miles south to Villemomble, where there is a larger and more established Jewish community.

But others have fled France altogether.

A record 8,000 or so French Jews moved to Israel in 2015 alone, according to Israeli figures, in the year that a jihadist gunman linked to the Charlie Hebdo newspaper attackers killed four Jews in a kosher supermarket.

(The victims of the Kosher store terror attack. Photo: AFP)

France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 people.

Half of them live in the Paris region but their numbers have declined steadily over the past 15 years, researchers say.

Jerome Fourquet of polling firm IFOP says the change started around 2000 following a fresh surge of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, known as the second intifada.

With France also home to Europe's largest Muslim community, which counts around five million members, the bloodshed in the Middle East unleashed a wave of unrest, particularly in the Paris region which saw a surge in anti-Semitic acts and threats, he says.

A disappearing community

Benhamou still lives within the sprawling Seine-Saint-Denis department that sits northeast of the capital and combines run-down immigrant ghettos with trendy new gentrified business districts.

In the last 15 years, it has gone from being one of France's most densely-populated Jewish areas to what the community now considers “one of the lost territories of the Republic”.

“The Jewish community is expected to disappear from here,” Benhamou says.

In nearby Raincy, Rabbi Moshe Lewin shares Benhamou's pessimism, fearing he could be one of the last Jewish leaders in Seine-Saint-Denis.

“What upsets me is that in some areas of France, Jews can no longer live peacefully, and that just five minutes from my home, some are forced to hide their kippas (skullcaps) or their Star of David,” he admits.

Even areas with a strong Jewish population, such as Sarcelles to the north, still have major problems.

Francois Pupponi, the Socialist mayor of Sarcelles, says many Jewish residents come to him for help with stories of being assaulted or having swastikas daubed on walls outside their homes.

Some have been caught in “extremely violent situations” that in some cases required families to be “urgently rehoused”, says Pupponi.

He become aware of “a phenomenon of internal migration” about five or six years ago, which he says “is getting worse”.

(A synagogue in the suburb of Sarcelles that was attacked during the 2014 anti-Israel riots. Photo: AFP) 

'Little Jerusalem'

Nonetheless, Jews from elsewhere still see Sarcelles as a relative haven. 

New arrivals now find “a much stronger police and institutional presence” than before and “they can live out their Judaism here in safety,” says Pupponi.

Among the newcomers is Eva Sandler, the widow of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler who was killed in an Islamist shooting attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.

Other areas have also seen an influx of new arrivals.

Many say the heart of the Jewish community is no longer Sarcelles but in Paris' western 17th district which has now taken over the moniker of “Little Jerusalem”.

Now in his 60s, Robert moved there a decade ago with the northwestern neighbourhood's Jewish population reflected in the wealth of eateries selling kosher foods, from specialised sweet shops to sushi bars.

“Because anti-Semitism is growing, we try and stick together to avoid it,” admits Robert, who did not want to give his surname.

Community group the Consistoire Israelite has taken note of the shift in centre of gravity and is currently building a Centre for European Judaism in the neighbourhood which is slated to open next year.

'Becoming less visible'

But across the city in the eastern neighbourhood of Saint-Mande, the wind appears to have changed.

Formerly known for its large Jewish community with two synagogues and a community day care centre, the district has been badly hit by the deadly hostage-taking at the kosher supermarket in January 2015.

“There were about 12 or 13 Sainte-Mande residents among (the hostages),” recalls local mayor Patrick Beaudouin.

“It had a huge psychological impact.”

He said dozens of families had since left the area, deciding it was best “to spread out, to be less visible”.

For now, most French Jews have preferred to cluster in towns and neighbourhoods where they know a large Jewish community already exists.

But that decision to flock together brings about its own problems.

“We are creating ghettos,” Pupponi says. “We are aware of that.”

The solution, he says, would be “to achieve social and ethnic integration in all neighbourhoods.”

“But France has been trying to achieve this for the past 30 years and it still hasn't happened.”

By Pauline Froissart and Benoīt Fauchet

COURT

French court orders Twitter to reveal anti-hate speech efforts

A French court has ordered Twitter to give activists full access to all its documents relating to efforts to combat racism, sexism and other forms of hate speech on the social network.

French court orders Twitter to reveal anti-hate speech efforts
Photo: Alastair Pike | AFP

Six anti-discrimination groups had taken Twitter to court in France last year, accusing the US social media giant of “long-term and persistent” failures in blocking hateful comments from the site.

The Paris court ordered Twitter to grant the campaign groups full access to all documents relating to the company’s efforts to combat hate speech since May 2020. The ruling applies to Twitter’s global operation, not just France.

Twitter must hand over “all administrative, contractual, technical or commercial documents” detailing the resources it has assigned to fighting homophobic, racist and sexist discourse on the site, as well as “condoning crimes against humanity”.

The San Francisco-based company was given two months to comply with the ruling, which also said it must reveal how many moderators it employs in France to examine posts flagged as hateful, and data on the posts they process.

The ruling was welcomed by the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF), one of the groups that had taken the social media giant to court.

“Twitter will finally have to take responsibility, stop equivocating and put ethics before profit and international expansion,” the UEJF said in a statement on its website.

Twitter’s hateful conduct policy bans users from promoting violence, or threatening or attacking people based on their race, religion, gender identity or disability, among other forms of discrimination.

Like other social media businesses it allows users to report posts they believe are hateful, and employs moderators to vet the content.

But anti-discrimination groups have long complained that holes in the policy allow hateful comments to stay online in many cases.

French prosecutors on Tuesday said they have opened an investigation into a wave of racist comments posted on Twitter aimed at members of the country’s national football team.

The comments, notably targeting Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, were posted after France was eliminated from the Euro 2020 tournament last week.

France has also been having a wider public debate over how to balance the right to free speech with preventing hate speech, in the wake of the controversial case of a teenager known as Mila.

The 18-year-old sparked a furore last year when her videos, criticising Islam in vulgar terms, went viral on social media.

Thirteen people are on trial accused of subjecting her to such vicious harassment that she was forced to leave school and was placed under police protection.

While President Emmanuel Macron is among those who have defended her right to blaspheme, left-wing critics say her original remarks amounted to hate speech against Muslims.

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