PARIS — Thousands rallied against anti-Semitism in Paris on Tuesday night, summoned by France’s major political parties, the country’s Jewish organizations, and by a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents, including the desecration of a Jewish cemetery the night before.
That act of vandalism drew France’s president to a small village in the northeast, hours before huge crowds filled one of the capital’s historic squares, Place de la République, and stood silently in the winter twilight for brief remarks by a rabbi and a rendition of the national anthem, before dispersing in solemn silence.
At the square, there appeared to be many Jews and some non-Jews, students and well-dressed Parisians, many retired people and a scattering of the young. Many said they had come because of a new, unaccustomed fear.
“Fear in my gut. With all that’s going on,” said Joelle Malachane, a retired office worker at the rally with her daughter. “I’m scared for the future of the Jews. It’s not easy being a Jew now.”
“We’re scared,” said Meyer Sibony, a middle-aged bank worker who lamented that no one else in his office had attended the rally. “We didn’t even discuss it because I knew they wouldn’t come.”
Almost no one at the rally wore the colors of Yellow Vest antigovernment protesters, whose movement has been tainted in recent weeks by an overlay of anti-Semitism that appears rooted in historic anti-Jewish feelings persistent in France since at least the 19th century.
French news reports estimated Tuesday night’s crowd at 20,000 people, and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, several former presidents, and many of the country’s leading politicians attended. Thousands more rallied against the surge in anti-Semitism at smaller gatherings elsewhere in France.
The rallies were planned partly as a response to the Interior Ministry’s announcement last week of a 74 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2018. In recent years, Jewish groups and academic researchers have traced increasing incidents against Jews, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, to France’s immigrant, largely Muslim suburbs, and said that spikes in violence often coincided with flare-ups in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.
But Tuesday’s gathering gained urgency after a spate of recent, widely publicized anti-Semitic incidents, some of them linked to the Yellow Vest marches, some of them not. On Saturday, one of the country’s leading literary figures, the critic Alain Finkielkraut, was the target of anti-Semitic insults at the edges of a Yellow Vest protest, an episode that provoked an angry reaction from President Emmanuel Macron, who telephoned the writer afterward.
Two days later, a centuries-old Jewish cemetery in the small village of Quatzenheim, in northeastern France, was vandalized in the night. Some 96 tombs were spray-painted with blue swastikas. It was not the first such incident in Alsace, a region with an ancient Jewish community, but it was one that appeared to stun officials in the current context of growing hostility toward Jews.
On Tuesday Mr. Macron, wearing a skullcap, visited the village and toured the desecrated tombs, condemning the “absurd stupidity” of the damage. “We will punish them. We will take actions that are strong and clear,” he said.
Later that day, Mr. Philippe, the prime minister, rose in the National Assembly to condemn the surge of anti-Semitic incidents, putting his finger on a diagnosis that is widely acknowledged, especially by French Jews, but rarely enunciated in public in France.
“Anti-Semitism is profoundly rooted in French society,” Mr. Philippe told the Parliament. “It takes incredibly varied forms. I don’t think it’s the preserve of any particular group.” He acknowledged that it would be difficult to fight against in France, saying, “We’re going to do it with humility as to the impact.”
The mood at Tuesday night’s rally was subdued. Many in the crowd appeared stunned by the recent incidents. “We’re shocked,” said Luc Grellet, a lawyer. “I don’t go to many demonstrations, but this one was obligatory. This resurgence of anti-Semitism, it’s just really shocking.”
A group of young professionals in their 30s expressed similar disquiet. “Anti-Semitism is growing dangerously in France,” said one, Ron Birnbaum. “The French population cannot and must not tolerate it.”
“I’m concerned about these Yellow Vests,” said a friend, Elina Compagnon. “They’ve brought out some of these old themes that are very dangerous. The French need to get out and show their disapproval,” she said.
Others expressed defiance against any populist voices channeling old hatreds. “The Jews have been here for a long time, through good times and bad,” said Edouard Friedman, 51, a shopkeeper. “We’re here and we’re staying. And we’re going to fight against the thugs who pretend to speak for the people.”
Orignially published in NYT.