An international delegation of Jewish leaders from the Simon Wiesenthal Center met with French President Francois Hollande Wednesday to discuss the threats facing his country’s Jews, particularly arising from French-born jihadists returning after fighting in the civil war in Syria.
The 20-member delegation, which included French Jewish leader Baron Eric de Rothschild and Canadian MP and former justice minister Irwin Cotler, is in Paris for the inauguration of the Wiesenthal Center’s new exhibition, titled “3,500 Relationship Between the Jewish People and the Holy Land.”
The exhibition opened Wednesday evening at the UNESCO World headquarters.
“We meet at a pivotal time in history, when the Jewish community and France’s democratic values are under unprecedented attack by the forces of extremism both from the far right and from extreme Islamist purveyors of religious intolerance violence and murder,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center.
Hollande said that some 1,000 French citizens had traveled to Syria since the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Thirty-one were reported to have been killed in the fighting there.
The French president outlined steps that have been taken to protect the Jewish community, especially Jewish schools, from attacks and growing anti-Semitism.
“We would like to set an example to the world in fighting anti-Semitism,” he said, but conceded the current situation — following a murderous attack by a French-born terrorist in Belgium — bespoke a “new, heavy context.”
The same deadly attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum has compelled European Union and Arab League countries to cooperate against the terror threat posed by radicals who return home from conflicts in the Middle East.
Foreign ministers from the two regional bodies, meeting in Athens Wednesday, said in a joint statement that their efforts would also address radicalization, recruitment and travel of foreign fighters — and “dealing with” those who return home.
Many European authorities fear that jihadists who travel to Syria and other conflict zones will come back with skills and the will to carry out terrorism. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders described returning foreign fighters as a “huge challenge.”
“They have become very dangerous for our societies,” he told reporters. “There is a risk of terrorist attack in our countries.”
AP contributed to this report.