As France marked the third anniversary of the Hyper Cacher supermarket siege in eastern Paris on Tuesday, the head of the country’s Jewish community emphasized that French Jews were no longer isolated in their fear of Islamist terror.
“French society is under stress,” Francis Kalifat — president of CRIF, the French Jewish communal body — told The Algemeiner in a wide-ranging interview.
French Jews continue to feel in the “forefront” of the threats posed by terrorism and religious extremism, Kalifat said — a point brutally underlined as the Hyper Cacher anniversary fell on Tuesday morning, when two adjacent kosher stores in a shopping mall that had been vandalized with swastikas only last week were firebombed – “but the risk is shared by their compatriots.”
In January 2015, three days of Islamist terror that began on Wednesday, January 7 with the massacre of ten people at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo culminated on Friday, January 9 with French police confronting a double siege. At one location, a print works near Paris, security forces surrounded and eventually shot dead Said and Cherif Kouachi, the two brothers who executed the Charlie Hebdo outrage. At the second location, a kosher supermarket in the eastern Paris neighborhood of Porte de Vincennes, a 32-year-old Islamist gunman named Amedy Coulibaly took nineteen people hostage.
Coulibaly threatened to kill his hostages unless the Kouachi brothers were permitted to go free. When police stormed the Hyper Cacher store at just after five o’clock in the afternoon, Coulibaly was killed in the ensuing shootout. Earlier in the siege, he had murdered four of the hostages — Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab and François-Michel Saada — whose bodies were discovered at the site by police. The four victims were later buried in Israel.
The Hyper Cacher siege was a twin reminder of the vulnerability of France’s Jewish community when it comes to terrorism and the reality that French Jews are far from being the only target. Kalifat noted that a similar pattern was visible in March 2012, during a week of terror that saw the murder of three French soldiers and the wounding of one more, before ending in deadly fashion at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse.
At 8 a.m. on March 19, gunman Mohammed Merah arrived at the school on a motorcycle, walking toward the schoolyard and then opening fire with a 9mm pistol. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, a teacher at the school, and his two sons, Aryeh, 6, and Gabriel, 3, were killed immediately. After grabbing a third child, eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, Merah attempted to shoot her through the head with the 9mm pistol. When that gun jammed, he pulled out a .45 caliber gun and shot Miriam through her temple.
“These murders came six years after the murder of Ilan Halimi, the young man who was kidnapped and abducted for 24 days before he was killed near Paris,” Kalifat said. “During these years, Jews felt lonely in the French society. Of course the French authorities and the elite condemned these attacks, but Jews had the sense that antisemitism was not a preoccupation of French society.”
If the slaughter at the Ozar Hatorah school woke French society more broadly to the nature of Islamist terror, then the night of November 13, 2015 — when Paris was once more struck by terror, with attacks across the city that left 130 people dead — dispelled many more of the remaining doubters. Those attacks — along with the truck-ramming atrocity in Nice on the occasion of Bastille Day in 2016 that left 86 dead and 458 wounded — convinced a much larger portion of French society that “terrorist attacks concerned the whole population,” Kalifat said.
“We’ve had other terrorist attacks in which police officers have been killed in front of their homes, and an 85-year-old priest has been murdered in his own church,” the CRIF president noted. “The French people are definitely more concerned now about the Islamic terrorist threats and about their own security.”
At the same time, Kalifat added, “the Jewish community remains very concerned by the risk, and is getting better organized to protect Jewish gatherings.”
“We learn from Israeli society to say what we see,” Kalifat remarked. “And that is becoming a general principle in France.”
Tuesday’s commemorations of the Hyper Cacher take place in the context of more abiding concerns about antisemitic violence in France, Kalifat observed. “The SPCJ (the protection service of the Jewish community) and the police count annually the number antisemitic acts and threats reported to the authorities,” he said. “Since the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, this number had surged to close to 1,000 incidents per year.”
Arguably the most shocking antisemitic act of 2017 – a year in which there was a dip in the overall number of incidents – was the murder of 63-year-old Jewish pensioner by an antisemitic intruder. “On April 4, on the eve of Passover, Sarah Halimi was attacked at night in her apartment in Paris, beaten and then ejected from a third-floor window,” Kalifat recalled. “She was killed by a Muslim attacker on the grounds of antisemitic ideology.”
After several months of controversy generated by the initial refusal of the French authorities to treat Halimi’s murder as motivated by antisemitism, the authorities are now prosecuting it as a hate crime. “The attacker has been arrested and French justice is at work,” Kalifat said. “This is where we stand today. We are waiting for the next steps.”
Asked about pending German legislation that would enable the authorities to deport foreigners who engage in antisemitic acts, Kalifat said that “as soon as we learned about the German proposal, I discussed it with the French authorities.”
“I spoke about it with the prime minister, with the minister of justice and with the minister in charge of digital communications,” Kalifat said. Countering online hate is a growing priority for CRIF, Kalifat said, and the Jewish organization wants to hold internet providers and social media platforms legally responsible for antisemitic and racist content.
“We have tried argument and persuasion with the internet companies, but we have to realize this hasn’t succeeded,” Kalifat reflected. “My hope is that France will now have a legal arsenal with which it can combat antisemitism, and all types of hatred, on the internet.”