A 15-year-old follower of Islamic State, who attacked a Jewish teacher with a machete in the French city of Marseille and said he was proud of his act, is now facing terrorism charges for attempted murder. The incident, which shocked France, has raised important questions about how radicalized lone attackers should be dealt with and also sparked an intense debate over the ways in which the country’s Jewish community should protect itself. Recently, Jews have been subjected to a growing number of violent incidents in France, since they are easily recognizable because of their kippas or skullcaps.
The high-school teen, who has no history of psychological problems or record of trouble with law enforcement, is believed to have carried out the attack at 9 am on January 11 on a 35-year-old teacher, Benjamin Amsellem, at a Jewish school in the southern port city. Amsellem was reportedly wearing his traditional Jewish attire that day. Upon noticing Amsellem, the attacker repeatedly slashed him with a machete, causing injuries on his hands and back. After falling to the ground, Amsellem used a copy of the Torah to protect himself and fight off his attacker. Speaking to the local media, Amsellem said that he had seen profuse hatred in the teen’s eyes.
“I told him to stop hitting me but he carried on and I didn’t think I’d get out of it alive,” he said.
The teen, who belongs to an ethnic Kurdish family that travelled to France from Turkey five years ago, told the police he was proud of his conduct and disappointed that he had not succeeded in killing the Jew. According to Brice Robin, state prosecutor for Marseille, the teen told investigators that he had acted in the name of Allah and Islamic State. Apparently, he wanted to attack police officials as well so he could lay his hands on some firearms.
The court heard that the teen was an excellent student who hailed from a good family but turned into a radical upon regularly browsing websites hosted by Islamic State. His family and friends however said they had no inkling that the teen had been radicalized to this extent. While no radical websites were tracked on his personal computer at home, some did appear on his mobile phone. France’s intelligence services did not already have the teen mapped on their radar.
After Amsellem’s attack, a leader of the Jewish community in Marseille, Zvi Ammar sparked an intense debate, urging Jewish boys and men not to wear their kippas in public for their own safety.
“Unfortunately for us, we are targeted. As soon as we are identified as Jewish we can be assaulted and even risk death,” he said. “We have to hide ourselves a little bit. … Making such an appeal makes me sick to the stomach. … It really hurts to reach that point but I don’t want anyone to die in Marseille because they have a kippa on their head.”
France continues to be marked by its World War II history, when a collaborationist administration rounded up and deported over 75,000 Jewish refugees and French citizens to various Nazi concentration camps. So, the notion that Jews must not wear their kippas and hide their identities instead has been hard to accept.
Obviously, some Jewish leaders rejected Ammar’s call.
France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, said, “We should not give an inch, we should continue wearing the kippa.”
Roger Cukierman, head of France’s umbrella grouping of Jewish organizations, Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France, agreed with Korsia, saying Ammar’s concerns may be valid but they reflect a defeatist attitude.
Commenting on Ammar’s recommendation, Joel Mergui, president of Israelite Central Consistory of France, said, “He knows as well as I do that wearing a kippa or not will not resolve the issue of terrorism. If we have to give up wearing any distinctive sign of our identity, it clearly would raise the question of our future in France.”
While France’s Jewish community is estimated to be between 500,000 and 600,000, making it the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world, the Mediterranean port city of Marseille is supposed to be home to the country’s second largest Jewish population, after Paris.
Incidentally, a recent poll among Jewish leaders in Europe found as many as 40 percent of respondents believe that anti-Semitism poses a grave threat to the future of Jews living in the West. But the survey, which was published on February 29, also revealed that concerns such as alienation of Jews from Jewish life, their demographic decline and the breakdown of Jewish organizations are more pressing issues for the community.
The International Center for Community Development of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) released the figures, based on responses gathered from 314 individuals last year, in its Third Survey of European Jewish Leaders and Opinion Formers. According to the recent findings, such fears of anti-Semitism seem to have reached the highest recorded by JDC since it conducted its first poll of the subject in 2008. That particular year, only 10 percent of the respondents had ranked such experiences as the gravest threat their community faces. The following survey, conducted in 2011, saw the number rise to 26 percent.
The results of this poll seem to match other surveys that too show growing concern among Jews over anti-Semitism following a rise in hate crimes across Western Europe post 2000. In 2013, approximately one-third of 5,847 European Jews told a European Union poll that they were seriously considering immigrating to another country because of rising anti-Semitism.
Yet, all three surveys conducted by JDC among leaders of European Jewry found the majority to believe that internal problems within the community are the gravest threat being faced by Jews.
In this context, yet another poll by Ipsos found that 60 percent of French citizens believe Jews are at least partially responsible for growing anti-Semitism. This survey, which was part of an 18-month study sponsored by Fondation du judaisme francais, also found that 56 percent of France’s population believes Jews possess a lot of wealth and power.
Photo Credits: The Telegraph