At supermarket vigil, little faith in French authorities

Cnaan Liphshiz

Joyce Halimi, left, and her husband Julien attending a vigil for victims of an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, Jan. 10, 2015. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Joyce Halimi, left, and her husband Julien attending a vigil for victims of an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, Jan. 10, 2015. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

PARIS (JTA) — When he heard that four Jews had died in an attack on a kosher supermarket near his home, 16-year-old Natan Kalifa was overcome with grief, anger and a feeling of exclusion from French society.


He even contemplated staging an act of violence — possibly against Islamists who support the murders, he recalled Saturday at a vigil outside Hyper Cacher, the market where a 32-year-old jihadist took 21 people hostage and murdered four before police killed him on Friday.

Kalifa’s distress was somewhat diminished after he heard French Prime Minister Manuel Valls reiterate his commitment to French Jews in a speech at the vigil. But Kalifa said he still plans to leave France for Israel as soon as he graduates.

“For France and the Jews who stay here, I hope Valls becomes president,” Kalifa said. “For me, I hope to be gone before the next elections.”

In the wake of an unprecedented spree of terror attacks that claimed 17 lives in France last week, many French Jews expressed appreciation for their government’s resolute stance against anti-Semitism, but nevertheless felt the response to be insufficient at a time when anti-Semitic violence is a daily reality that is already driving out record numbers of Jews.

“The government’s response is impeccable, but that is not the issue,” said Serge Bitton, a resident of the heavily Jewish suburb of St. Mande.

“The issue for the future of our lives here as Jews is how France reacts, not its government. And right now, France is reacting to Charlie, not to Chaim,” Bitton said of public outrage at the Jan. 7 attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

“The government talks but it’s only words. We do not have a future here,” said Joyce Halimi, 26, who attended the vigil with her husband, Julien.

The perpetrator of the Hyper Cacher attack, Amedy Coulibaly, 32, belonged to the same jihadist cell as Cherif and Said Kouachi, the brothers who staged the Charlie Hebdo attack, French police said. The cell was reportedly involved in efforts to recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands were expected to march in defense of democratic values and in protest of the killings, including the slaying of a police officer by Coulibaly on Jan. 8.

Tellingly, the feeling of insecurity is being openly discussed by leaders of French Jewry who, in the past, have strived to reassure their coreligionists and inspire them to stay and fight.

“There are thousands of French citizens fighting for jihad in Syria and Iraq. When they return to France, they are truly bombs with a time delay,” Roger Cukierman, the president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, said at a ceremony honoring the victims at the city hall of St. Mande.

In an interview with Le Figaro, Cukierman called the increase in emigration from France to Israel a “failure for France” and said it owed to “growing insecurity felt throughout the country.”

French Jews, he added, “feel like the nation’s pariah.”

Moshe Sebbag, rabbi of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, Synagogue de la Victoire, told Israel’s Army Radio that he estimated the attacks will result in a doubling of the number of immigrants to Israel in 2015.

“There is a tremendous feeling of insecurity and that these events will only worsen,” he said on Sunday.

In 2014, France became for the first time Israel’s largest source of Jewish immigrants, with 7,000 new arrivals – more than double the 2013 figure of 3,289. The year before, 1,917 French Jews immigrated to Israel.

Among the prospective immigrants this year is Sammy Ghozlan, a former police commissioner who founded the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, or BNVCA, which is one of the country’s most prominent watchdogs on anti-Semitism.

“The departure, it’s a message,” Ghozlan said in an interview about his decision published last week on “Leaving is better than running away. We do not know how things will play out tomorrow.”

BNVCA Vice President Chlomik Zenouda, himself a retired police major, spoke of a sense of fatigue.

“I have participated in many demonstrations. Many marches. Many vigils. The truth is I am getting tired,” he told JTA after the murders. “And another truth is that if it were not for my obligations at the BNVCA, I would leave for Israel.”

Part of the problem, he said, was that “police are under orders not to respond, so you see cat and mouse games that encourage offenders to test the limits and cross them.”

Zenouda was referring to violent rallies against Israel held over the summer in defiance of a ban by authorities.

“The firm use of force that exists in the United States against violators does not exist here, and that’s part of the problem,” Zenouda said.

A further complication is the sheer operational challenge involved in protecting 500,00 French Jews — Europe’s largest Jewish community — from home-grown killers with combat experience gained abroad.

“You can guard a synagogue, fine,” Zenouda said. “But you can’t put cops outside each kosher shop. You can’t assign police protection to each family before it goes shopping.”

Another factor eroding trust is the glorification of Palestinian terrorists by French elected officials, said Alain Azria, a Jewish photojournalist who specializes in documenting France’s anti-Semitism problem.

“Look at this place, it’s like Gaza,” he said at the market of Aubervilliers, an impoverished and heavily-Muslim suburb north of Paris where the mayor recently honored Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader serving multiple life sentences in Israel for terrorist attacks.

In recent months, several French municipalities have conferred such honors on convicted Palestinians.

“Hollande can speak against anti-Semitism as much as he likes,” Azria said, “but when public officials hold up Barghouti as an example, we will see the result in blood on our streets, which are emptying of Jews.”