On the eve of a landmark trial for terrorism in France, the Jewish victim of a violent machete attack said he has begun concealing his kippah from fear.
Benjamin Amsellem told the news website 20 Minutes on Tuesday about how his life was turned upside down following last year’s incident in Marseille, when police say a radicalized youth of Turkish descent lightly wounded the city teacher using a machete.
Having moved to the Paris region as part of his therapy, Amsellem said he now prefers “to wear a hat instead of the kippah in places where I don’t feel safe.” He said he never feared wearing a kippah in Marseille.
The interview was published one day before the opening of his alleged attacker’s trial which began Wednesday in a Paris juvenile court.
Amsellem was wearing his kippah when he attended the start of the trial.
According to the AFP news agency, which defined the trial as “a sad precedent,” this is the first time that a minor under the age of 18 is being tried in France for a jihadist attack. The youth, whose name was not published in the media, was 15 when he allegedly attacked Amsellem and fled the scene after the victim fought him off using a Bible to shield his body from the knife.
The attack, in January 2016, was particularly shocking to Amsellem’s community in Marseille, France’s second largest city with a population of 852,000, because it had seen proportionately fewer anti-Semitic attacks than in Paris, where hundreds are recorded annually. The city has a Jewish population of 80,000.
Amsellem is still undergoing therapy to deal with the psychological effects of the attack. While the trial has brought back “something I try not to think of,” he decided to talk to the media to say that “it exists, it can happen and one needs to be careful, one needs to take precautions to save one’s life.”
According to the defendant’s lawyer, Merabi Murgulia, the defendant has confessed to committing the actions for which he is standing trial and regrets them profoundly.
Following the attack 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, an ethnic Kurd from Turkey, told police he did not regret the assault, and that he was inspired by the Islamic State terror group.
In the wake of the attack a debate began in France’s Jewish community over whether men and boys should stop wearing the skullcap identifying their religion.
Zvi Ammar, the leader of Marseille’s Jewish community, urged male Jews to stop wearing the kippah “until better days,” because of fears for their safety.
At the time French President Francois Hollande 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.
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.”
Roger Cukierman, the head of CRIF, agreed, saying the call reflected “a defeatist attitude”.
The attack led several ministers and other politicians spoke out on the issue, with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem saying of the idea of shunning kippahs: “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, center-right Republicans party agreed with the chief rabbi that “giving up (the kippah) is giving in”. But he said it was impossible “not to modify your behaviour in the face of these unspeakable acts.”