The brutal mob beating of a Jewish teenager in full view of witnesses at the end of a summer afternoon marks an ominous development in the hate crimes that have plagued France since the fall of 2000. Previously, Paris’s worst anti-Semitic crimes were committed behind closed doors: In 2003, Sébastien Selam was murdered and mutilated by a Muslim neighbor in the underground parking lot of their building. In 2005, Ilan Halimi was tortured to death by Youssouf Fofana and his “Gang of Barbarians” in a housing project in the banlieue.
David G. Klein
As if to camouflage the horror of a brazen aggression, French media framed 17-year-old Rudy Haddad’s beating in an incongruous narrative of turf battles between Jewish gangs and African and Maghrebi gangs. Confused accounts of the June 21 fights that ended with the attack against Rudy — portrayed as a tough guy with a police record — curiously recall the “cycle of violence” treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli efforts to prevent them are judged as morally equivalent. In Rudy’s case, officials and reporters contravened the customary self-imposed gag rule and immediately pinned an ethno-religious label on the “youths” who, according to witnesses, bashed Rudy’s skull, broke his ribs, jumped up and down on his inert body with all their might shouting “dirty Jew,” and left him in a coma. But every account ended with a line about “intercommunitarian strife” that placed half the blame on the victim. The exact nature of these Jewish gangs was left in the dark; no one would imagine they were stealing motor scooters, beating up Muslims and taunting imams.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had just arrived in Israel when the story broke, did not hedge: He promised that the perpetrators of this heinous crime would be severely punished. Judicial and police authorities, following suit, launched an investigation for attempted murder with aggravating circumstances of anti-Semitism and mob violence. Five minors were held briefly and then released as material witnesses.
Until a thorough investigation clearly establishes what happened on June 21, we are left with conflicting versions of a series of fights — or one-sided attacks — around the City Hall in Paris’s 19th arrondissement. The fighting apparently began on the grassy knolls of the vast Buttes Chaumont park, where many Jews traditionally gather on the Sabbath — and where Muslim bullies systematically come to harass them. Later, a group of 15 or 20 of the usual suspects ganged up on a lone young Jewish man walking from a metro station to the park. When he returned with some friends to look for his Jewish star necklace that had been ripped off, they were attacked again; one of his friends had his arm gashed with a machete. A woman told me she witnessed another violent fight near the City Hall in midafternoon. Fearing someone would get killed — the (African and Maghrebi) assailants were beating their victims with iron bars — she asked the policemen on duty to intervene. One of them shrugged and said, “They should all go home.”
No one has reported seeing gangs of Jews beating up defenseless Muslims that day. But Mourad Afira, who owns a bar across from the housing project, claims he saw 20 Jewish guys on a “punitive expedition” run up the street at about 6:30 p.m. Seeing they were outnumbered, he says, they made a hasty retreat, leaving Rudy behind. At that point, Mr. Afira says he closed the shutters. There has been no reliable confirmation of Mr. Afira’s version of the story, which Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin implicitly contradicted in suggesting that Rudy might have been “visualized as belonging to the gang if only because he was wearing a kippa.” Rudy, who is recovering slowly, says the last thing he remembers is that he was on the way to the synagogue.
To reaffirm the good reputation of his district, Socialist Mayor Roger Madec organized a “fraternal gathering” in front of the City Hall on July 3. Reporters were greeted by a press attaché who hastened to inform them that this was not a “purely” anti-Semitic attack — the Jewish gangs, you know.
With the exception of Richard Prasquier, the president of the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF who asked what is being done about the hatred that fired the unspeakable violence against a 17-year-old simply because he is Jewish, the other speakers sang the praises of good neighborly diversity and warned the media not to pin anti-this and anti-that labels on the “regrettable incident.” None of these other speakers thought to address Mr. Prasquier’s question.
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A quick look at the neighborhood demographics puts a serious crimp into the “Jewish gang” story. The 19th district, where Paris’s largest Jewish population is nonetheless heavily outnumbered by Muslims, has the city’s highest rate of reported anti-Semitic incidents — many more are believed to go unreported because of fear of reprisals — and worst overall crime rate. An Islamist cell, the “19th Arrondissement Iraq Connection,” was spawned on the fringes of the neighborhood’s infamous extremist mosque; its members used to work out in the Buttes Chaumont park. The cell’s members were recently sentenced to long prison terms for recruiting jihadis to fight in Iraq.
Jewish teenagers I met in the neighborhood said they are constantly harassed by Muslim bullies, particularly on the Sabbath. This fits the pattern of a wave of violence against Jews that began in the fall of 2000 and persists, with ups and downs, to this day. Synagogue burning is now out, but deep-seated hatred of Jews remains endemic in large sectors of the Muslim community. Many families send their children to Jewish day school to avoid harassment. Yahoud (Arabic for Jew), Juif and the slang word feuj are commonplace insults. Many Sephardic Jews — like Rudy Haddad’s grandparents — had to flee their native North African countries. Then they fled the banlieue when Muslims made life there unbearable. Many are emigrating to Israel, Canada or the U.S.
But Jews are not the only targets of a new brutality that stumps French law enforcement. Hatred and resentment against the “dirty French” (“souchiens” or “dirty dogs,” from a play on the French word for indigenous) has led to endless episodes of violence since a three-week, country-wide rampage in November 2005. School teachers are stabbed, schools are burned, cars are torched, train conductors are beaten up, prisons are overcrowded, while left-wing judges fight every law-and-order measure promoted by Justice Minister Rachida Dati.
During the July 13-14 French independence holiday some 600 cars were burned and over 200 people were arrested, the vast majority of them in the Parisian banlieue. The thugs attacked the police with baseball bats, firebombs and firecrackers; one policeman lost an eye. The Champs de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower has become a contemporary battlefield. Students celebrating there after they finished the baccalauréat exam were assaulted by a mob of 300 so-called “youths” who attacked the graduates and the police with equal rage.
In France, where racial, religious, national or ethnic breakdown of population statistics is forbidden, and where applying such labels to criminals is taboo, the term “youth” is used to hide the identity of thugs, even when their identity is visible in TV footage. The taboo was exceptionally lifted in Rudy’s case to sustain the narrative of intercommunitarian strife. The fortuitous discovery — or invention — of Jewish gangs imposed a corresponding African and Maghrebi label.
Since tough laws and improved police work have not put a stop to the harassment of Jews, some young Jewish men are trying to defend themselves. Much was made of Rudy’s “police record.” In fact, his “record” consisted of an attempt to defend a friend who’d been knocked to the ground by a group of Muslims who came to break up a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in honor of kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Rudy fought them off with his motorcycle helmet, which became in legal terms an “arm by destination.”
No one denies the possible existence of Jewish delinquents, but it is dishonest to put a “West Side Story” twist onto the 19th-arrondissement strife, as if Jews were muscling into Muslim territory, harassing peaceful citizens, chasing them out of schools, breaking the windows of halal butcher shops, dealing drugs, and attacking police. There is a qualitative difference between Muslims seething with Jew hatred who gang up to stomp, bash and slash Jews, and young Jewish men trying to defend themselves.
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The Rudy Haddad story leaped back onto the front pages on July 10 with the arrest of seven “youths” who turned out to be in their mid- to late 20s. Two have been arraigned and jailed: an African, identified as Sekou M., and a North African, Foued O. The latter, who is a career air force corporal, is accused of bashing Rudy’s head with a crutch. Another African, Boubacar C., suspected of involvement in the machete attack, has been charged and released while awaiting trial. The implication of husky, mature men in the attacks that raged that day and culminated in the savage beating of a Jewish teen further undermines the narrative of mere squabbles among youngsters. Details about the motivation, background and ideology of these men will, one hopes, emerge in the course of the investigation.
Mayor Madec was applauded when he said at his grand fraternal gathering that the residents of the 19th arrondissement, whatever their origin, want to live side by side in peace and security, Yes, most of them do. The problem is, some don’t. And they can spoil it for everyone.
Ms. Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972.