Anti-Semitic attack in Paris shocks nation

Monday, July 12, 2004

PARIS -- Six people attacked a young mother on a suburban Paris train, chopping off her hair and scribbling swastikas on her stomach in what leaders denounced Sunday as an example of growing anti-Semitism.

As the 23-year-old woman was assaulted Friday, other train passengers watched but did nothing to help her or her infant child, who was knocked out of a stroller. Neither was seriously injured.

President Jacques Chirac expressed a sense of "dread" over the attack, Jewish and Muslim leaders condemned it, and politicians of all stripes voiced shock as news of the incident emerged.

"To be Jewish today in France has become an aggravating circumstance," said Sylvain Zenouda, of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

According to police, the band of teenage attackers, armed with knives, grabbed the woman's backpack, taking her money and credit cards. When they saw that her identification card said she lived in the 16th district of Paris, they told the woman: "There are only Jews in the 16th."

The attack then became more than a robbery. Police said the suspects cut off the woman's hair and opened her shirt with their knives, using markers to draw swastikas on her stomach.

Deputy Minister for Victims Rights Nicole Guedj called on commuters who witnessed the attack to step forward. "Those who can help must do so today," she said on LCI television. "It's the duty of every good citizen."

The Interior Ministry said the woman was not Jewish, and police said she no longer lives in Paris' 16th district. That the attackers mistook their victim's identity did nothing to soften the horror in France, where assaults on both Jews and Muslims have escalated over the past several years.

The Interior Ministry said Friday it had recorded 135 anti-Jewish acts in the first six months of this year, as well as 375 threats. The figure was nearly as high as the numbers from all of last year, when a total of 593 anti-Jewish acts or threats were registered.

Racist attacks, often against Muslims, also rose. There were 95 attacks and 161 threats through June, compared to a total of 232 such crimes reported last year.

France is home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in western Europe, and Muslims are often blamed for attacks on Jews.

The president of the umbrella group the French Council for the Muslim Faith, Dalil Boubakeur, called the attack "sickening" and "low-grade banditry." But he warned against blaming Muslims.

On Thursday, Chirac traveled to a small French town that hid 5,000 Jews from German occupiers during World War II to make a fresh call for change.

"I ask [the French] to remind their children of the mortal danger of fanaticism, of exclusion, of cowardliness and resignation to extremism," he said.

Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, said that government decisions are no longer sufficient to fight anti-Semitism.

Society itself needs to be mobilized, he said, suggesting that magistrates, mayors and community religious leaders play an active role in stopping racism.

"Each one of us must truly feel threatened by this phenomenon," Cukierman said on France-Info radio.

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