The attack on Monday against a Jewish schoolboy indicates France's growing problem with anti-Semitism. In the latest incident, an 8-year-old boy was walking to an evening class just outside Paris when he was set upon by two teenagers.
It’s far from an exceptional case. Earlier this month, a Jewish store in Paris was targeted by arsonists and a 15-year-old Jewish girl had her face slashed around the same neighborhood as where this boy has now been attacked. In another incident last September, a Jewish family was held hostage as a gang ransacked their home looking for hidden jewelry and money (a typical anti-Semitic trope is that Jews horde expensive items).
More brutal attacks have also occurred. In 2012, three children and a teacher were killed in an attack on a Jewish school in southern France. Four innocent people were also murdered in January 2015, when a terrorist stormed a Kosher supermarket.
All of this has led French Jews to take special precautions to protect themselves. They travel in groups for added security and sometimes conceal the testaments of their heritage; avoiding wearing kippahs or Stars of David. In some areas, Jewish community activists have organized self-defense groups to protect their friends and family.
This speaks to something. While we talk much about no-go zones in France, the real problem is not no-go zones, but rather no-man's-land zones: areas free to travel but fraught with perceivable risk. The challenge here is not so much a threat to life, but a perishing of the French right to the pursuit of happiness.
Why does France, a modern democratic society, have such a problem here? A few reasons. First off, France has a distinct problem with the integration of its Muslim youths. The blending of France’s generous welfare state and the relative disinterest of the French social establishment in Muslim social mobility has led young French Muslims to feel detached from their own society. They keep to themselves in homogeneous communities; often poor, run down, gang-controlled tenements, basking in a narrative of victimhood and anger.
In contrast, the relative social success and successful integration of French Jews makes them a target for Muslim youths. The same underlying element of anti-Semitism is at play here: jealousy.
Then there’s the Palestinian issue. Viewing the Palestinians as an oppressed people in their own land, many Muslim youths like to see themselves as sharing the same experience as their contemporaries in Gaza and the West Bank. In turn, Jews – by the narrowest association with Israel – are seen as worthwhile targets. It’s ludicrous, but still, it motivates the kind of rampant car burning that often goes with the French new year. And be under no illusions, absent the French police and the courage of Jewish self-defense units, Jewish communities would face new pogroms in today's France.
What can be done to prevent more attacks? I think three things.
First, French President Emmanuel Macron can mobilize social, political and religious leaders across France to stand up and unambiguously condemn these atrocities. Unfortunately, too many French Imams continue to engage in hateful, socially corrosive rhetoric about Israeli policies and Judaism, thus fueling the anger dynamic. Fortunately, Macron reacted to the latest attack by describing the attack as an assault against the French nation.
Un petit garçon de 8 ans a été agressé aujourd’hui à Sarcelles. Parce qu'il portait une kippa. À chaque fois qu’un citoyen est agressé en raison de son âge, de son apparence ou de sa confession, c’est toute la République qu’on agresse. 1/2— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) January 31, 2018
Nevertheless, more functional steps will also have to be taken. Although synagogues are protected for counter-terrorism reasons, too many French Jews are vulnerable when out in public. One step that could be taken here would be for France to deploy a squadron of its Mobile Gendarmerie police officers to the area where the 8 year-old was attacked. This roughly 120-person unit could not address the general problem of anti-Semitism, but it would send a public and forceful signal of the government's determination to protect its citizens.
Another option would be for the French government to order its domestic intelligence service, the DGSI, to conduct targeted harassment operations against individuals engaged in anti-Semitic thuggery. At present, the DGSI is focused on counter-terrorism concerns, but its skills and capabilities could provide an important deterrent effect if brought to bear.
Ultimately, however, this is going to be a generational struggle. The simple fact is that some French citizens hate their fellow citizens for their heritage and faith. Only time, education, greater opportunity, and socio-political leadership will change that.