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France’s Hollande: ‘Intolerable’ for Jews to hide skullcaps

Following Marseille machete attack, president says citizens should not be forced to hide for fear of assault because of their religion

Illustrative: Armed French soldiers secure the access to the 'La Source' Jewish school in Marseille, southern France, on January 12, 2016. (AFP/Boris Horvat)
Illustrative: Armed French soldiers secure the access to the 'La Source' Jewish school in Marseille, southern France, on January 12, 2016. (AFP/Boris Horvat)

French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday rejected as “intolerable” the idea that fear of attack would prompt French Jews to “hide.”

“It is intolerable that in our country citizens should feel so upset and under assault because of their religious choice that they would conclude that they have to hide,” Hollande said following Monday’s attack on a kippa-wearing teacher in the southern city of Marseille.

The French leader’s comments came two days after a machete-wielding teen who claimed inspiration from the Islamic State attacked the Jewish teacher, lightly injuring him.

The knifing of Benjamin Amsellem prompted Zvi Ammar, head of Marseille’s Israeli Consistory, to warn Jews against wearing a traditional skullcap — known as a kippa — in public, sparking a debate over the issue.

“Remove the kippa during this troubled time until better days,” Ammar said.

French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace, Paris, January 11, 2016. (AFP/JACQUES DEMARTHON)
French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace, Paris, January 11, 2016. (AFP/JACQUES DEMARTHON)

Other local Jewish leaders said they disagreed with this call, however.

Ammar said it was worth taking the precaution in the “one in 1,000 chance” that it would save a life.

But the local representative of France’s CRIF umbrella Jewish group said that to take off skullcaps would be akin “to stopping being Jewish” and noted that “Jews have been in France for generations before Muslims.”

The Chief Rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, also opposed the idea, tweeting that “we must not cede to emotion.”

Amsellem’s wife said Tuesday that her husband had already decided to stop wearing a skullcap.

People stand in fron of the 'La Source' Jewish school in Marseille, southern France, on January 11, 2016, after a Jewish teacher was attacked by a teenager wielding a machete. (AFP / BERTRAND LANGLOIS)
People stand in fron of the ‘La Source’ Jewish school in Marseille, southern France, on January 11, 2016, after a Jewish teacher was attacked by a teenager wielding a machete. (AFP / BERTRAND LANGLOIS)

Several ministers and other politicians spoke out on the issue, with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem saying of the idea of shunning kippas: “It’s certainly not the advice I would give, personally.”

Joel Mergui, president of France’s Israelite Central Consistory, said: “If we have to give up wearing any distinctive sign of our identity, it clearly would raise the question of our future in France.”

Brice Hortefeux of the opposition, centre-right Republicans party agreed with the chief rabbi that “giving up (the kippa) is giving in”. But he said it was impossible “not to modify your behaviour in the face of these unspeakable acts.”

Anti-Semitic acts in France have soared in recent years, increasing by 84 percent in the period between January 2015 and May 2015 compared with a year earlier, according to official statistics.

Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said earlier that anti-Semitism “unfortunately has gone on for too long and has taken new forms today.”

Benjamin Amsellem (R), a Jewish teacher stabbed the day before by a 15-year-old with a machete, speaks to the press as he leaves the main police headquarters in Marseille, southeastern France, on January 12, 2016. (AFP / BORIS HORVAT)
Benjamin Amsellem (R), a Jewish teacher stabbed the day before by a 15-year-old with a machete, speaks to the press as he leaves the main police headquarters in Marseille, southeastern France, on January 12, 2016. (AFP / BORIS HORVAT)

Amsellem sustained light injuries to his hand when he was attacked on his way to the synagogue for morning prayers, local reports said. The attacker was caught 10 minutes later and taken into custody. He was said to have declared that he was inspired by the Islamic State terror group.

The teenager, an ethnic Kurd from Turkey, told police he did not regret the assault on the Jewish teacher in Marseille, the latest in a string of such attacks in recent months.

A source close to the investigation told local media the boy had said he was “ashamed” that he did not manage to kill Amsellem.

The teenager, who was to appear in front of a judge on Wednesday where he faces terrorism charges, said he became interested in jihadist theories in March 2014 after seeing documentaries arguing that Muslims were persecuting Westerners.

“One thing led to another and he came upon jihadist websites” arguing that in fact it was Westerners that were persecuting Muslims and he “agreed,” said the police source.

“I don’t represent Daesh, they represent me,” the teenager reportedly told investigators.

“The individual does not seem to be in full control of his faculties,” a source close to the matter was quoted as saying. Other sources however, quoted police as saying he was “not mentally unstable.”

There have been a series of attacks on Jews in France in recent years, including a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015 that killed four.

In November another teacher at a Jewish school in Marseille was stabbed by three people shouting anti-Semitic obscenities.

In October a rabbi and two Jewish worshipers were stabbed outside a synagogue in Marseille following Shabbat prayers. The knife-wielding assailant could be heard shouting anti-Semitic slurs at the time of the assault.

Police secure the area near where a Jewish man was injured in a stabbing, on November 18, 2015 in the southern city of Marseille. (AFP/ BORIS HORVAT)
Police secure the area near where a Jewish man was injured in a stabbing, on November 18, 2015 in the southern city of Marseille. (AFP/ BORIS HORVAT)

Marseille, a city of more than 850,000 people, has France’s second largest Jewish community with some 70,000 residents. The attacks have put the community on edge.

“When I drop my children off at school, I have a pit in my stomach,” a 43-year-old Jewish mother said in Marseille, adding that she had asked her 14-year-old son to take off his kippa.

But in Paris, Bruno Attal, a Jewish resident of an eastern suburb, said: “Why should we take off our kippas? We might as well not go out at all. Have Parisians stopped going to cafes after the November 13 attacks? It’s a false problem. It won’t change anything in terms of the community’s security.”

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