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Paris' 19th Arrondissement: 'Gang Wars' or Anti-Semitic Attacks?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

PARIS -- After a 17-year-old Jewish boy wearing a yarmulke was brutally beaten by a gang of teenagers in Paris's 19th arrondissement late last month, the reactions of both the French news media and French authorities were notably ambiguous. The boy, known only as "Rudy" in the French reports, was not only punched and kicked during the attack, but also beaten with what has been variously identified as an "iron bar" or a "crutch." The beating occurred on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, in a neighborhood with a large orthodox Jewish population. It appears to have continued even after Rudy lost consciousness and it only came to a stop when a local resident intervened and chased away the teenage assailants. According to French cable news channel iTELE, the boy was left with multiple skull fractures and broken ribs. Sammy Ghozlan of the Office for Vigilance against Anti-Semitism relates that when the boy first emerged from a coma on the following Sunday night, he began screaming "They're going to kill me! They're going to kill me!"

"Was the young man the victim of an anti-Semite attack?" the daily Le Figaro asked (French link) two days after the incident, and without hesitating answered its own question: "Yes, but on the background of clashes between neighborhood gangs pertaining to different communities. . . . Investigators are connecting the attack to an increasing spiral of violence." According to Le Figaro, this "spiral of violence" opposed black and North African youngsters, on the one hand, and Jewish youngsters, on the other. Le Figaro added to the plausibility of the "gang wars" hypothesis by reporting that Rudy had himself been picked up by the police last December after fights broke out between Jewish youngsters and North African youngsters at Paris's Parc de Bercy. Rudy had been attending a vigil there for the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah. According to Le Figaro, police had found "Rudy and his friends" to be in possession of brass knuckles. According to a subsequent report in Le Monde, Rudy appears rather to have sought to defend himself with a motorcycle helmet (serving as an "improvised weapon," in the nomenclature of the French police). Le Figaro even published a report according to which the 17-year-old boy -- described in the headline as an "orthodox and militant Jew" -- was supposed to be "close" to Jewish self-defense groups. The report appeared on the Figaro Web site the day after the incident. It was quickly denied by the boy's mother.

In announcing the opening of a formal criminal investigation for attempted murder three days after the attack, Paris District Attorney Jean-Claude Marin likewise endorsed the "gang wars"/"spiral of violence" scenario. While Marin identified anti-Semitism as an "aggravating factor" in the crime, he strongly relativized the charge by speaking merely of an "incidental anti-Semitism" (antisémitisme par incidence). Marin said the beating of Rudy was the last in a string of three incidents that occurred on that same Saturday in or around the Parc de Buttes-Chaumont. The incidents allegedly opposed, as Marin described them, "African" or "black" gangs and "Jewish gangs." "We do not find an intention to attack a person of Jewish origin in particular," Marin said, "but rather a member of this gang of young Jews." While Marin acknowledged that the assailants who attacked Rudy shouted anti-Semitic insults, he again relativized the importance of this finding. "Anti-Semitic insults were tossed around, just as racist insults are tossed around in other brawls," he said. (Source: AFP)

The problem with this "spiral of violence"/"gang wars" scenario, however, is that all the episodes in the series seem to have involved one-sided assaults on individual or greatly outnumbered Jewish youngsters and not "clashes" between rival "gangs." A first incident is supposed to have occurred around 4:30 in the afternoon, when a young Jewish man was set upon by a group of boys belonging to what Marin called a "gang of youngsters of color." According to the police account, the young man was able to get away unharmed, but he subsequently noticed that he had lost his Star of David chain in the scuffle. This is then supposed to have led to the second incident roughly half an hour later, when he returned to look for the chain with "three companions." At that point, two of the companions were then assaulted in turn. One of them suffered, in Marin's words, a "relatively serious" knife wound on the arm: namely, as he attempted to protect himself from an assailant wielding a "machete or butcher's knife."

According to Marin, Rudy was then supposed to have been assaulted in the aftermath of a third "clash" some two hours later between a "gang" of 20-25 "young blacks" and a "significantly smaller number of young Jews," among them Rudy. Marin's suggestion that Rudy formed part of a group -- or even a "gang" (bande) -- contradicts the initial reports on the episode, according to which he was alone. The accounts of witnesses subsequently interviewed on French radio RTL (French audio) and on iTELE, however, also suggest that by the time of the third incident a group of Jewish youngsters had gathered in the rue Petit where the incident took place. The local resident interviewed by iTELE reports seeing a fight break out between two groups: one "completely unarmed" and the other wielding "iron bars."

RTL also spoke with the local resident who finally came to Rudy's aid. The man declined to be interviewed on the air. But as recounted by RTL journalist Thomas Prouteau (French audio), this is what he reported seeing:

On Saturday, approaching 7 p.m., the witness sees youngsters running in all directions. One of them is taking off his yarmulke in order to hide it. Very quickly, the street is empty. But a little further up the road, the witness sees a lone teenager on the ground being worked over by a group of 15 youngsters of African origins. Five of them are hitting him. One of the assailants punches the boy very hard in the face. Another hits him with a crutch.

In addition, RTL spoke with "Sylvie" (French audio), a worker at a neighborhood bakery who witnessed earlier incidents on the same day. The incidents described by "Sylvie" likewise clearly amount to assaults, not "clashes," and, significantly, they do not appear to have been otherwise reported by the police or in the media. She describes, for instance, seeing one assailant pulling up a metal pole and striking a young man on the ground with it. The man on the ground was wearing a yarmulke. She also describes seeing a second young man being beaten so severely by a gang that his face was "completely swollen, he was unrecognizable." "I'm Jewish," the young man said to her, "Do I no longer have the right to live?"

As the French Web site Primo-Europe has pointed out, there is yet another obvious reason for rejecting Marin's "gang wars" scenario. As noted above, the incident occurred on the Jewish Sabbath. On the Sabbath, however, orthodox Jews are prohibited from carrying any objects with them, to say nothing of weapons. The significance of this point was in fact recognized by an unidentified police officer from the 19th arrondissement who spoke with Le Figaro. "When observing the Sabbath, Jews can't have any objects with them nor defend themselves" the police officer is quoted as saying, "Identifiable because of their yarmulkes, they become easy prey." Astonishingly, this quote appears in the very Figaro article that begins by stating definitively that the beating of Rudy formed part of a "spiral of violence" between different "communities."

It is possible that some obviously undermanned and outgunned Jewish youngsters eventually attempted to fight back in the rue Petit. But on closer inspection, the supposed "spiral" of "inter-community" violence appears rather to have been a veritable paroxysm of anti-Semitic violence. For the Paris District Attorney's office and certain Parisian editorial boards, however, it would seem that when anti-Semitic incidents occur in a series, this is supposed somehow to vitiate their anti-Semitic character.

John Rosenthal is a World Politics Review contributing editor.

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