Commentators who were not there provided chilling descriptions of an alleged attack on the Roquette Synagogue in the Bastille area of Paris last month. Evoking the Nazi Holocaust, they described hordes of thugs desecrating the building as they tried to harm those inside. According to the reports those responsible were Muslim, pro-Palestinian demonstrators consumed by anti-Semitism, inflamed by the slaughter of civilians in Gaza by Israel.
“Worshippers barricaded themselves inside the Synagogue de la Roquette as demonstrators tried to storm the building with bats and chairs,” is how The Independent’s absent Paris correspondent chose to put it. The seemingly authoritative claim was followed up around the world.
An alleged testimony was published by a US-based news site called The Tablet. With a mixture of blood-curdling melodrama, murderous threat and pure racism it recounted how “Parisians from Arab countries” used an axe and even firearms. The writer – allegedly a Jewish woman solely identified as ‘Aurélie A’ – says of one: “I want to leave him for dead!”
Now, more than three weeks since the 13 July incident, the international current affairs magazine Newsweek is running a cover story on the Synagogue ‘attack’ claiming it has contributed to a new “Exodus” of Jews from Europe. Elaborating on the picture of vengeful Islamists, writer Adam LeBor quotes another “trapped” witness – who is not identified at all – maintaining that the alleged siege was “like an Intifada.”
Mr. LeBor opens his piece with the words: “The mob howled for vengeance, the missiles raining down on the synagogue walls as the worshippers huddled inside. It was a scene from Europe in the 1930s, except this was eastern Paris on the evening of 13 July, 2014.”
Except it wasn’t. Such reports are pure fabrication. Nobody attacked the synagogue, nobody was trapped inside, no worshippers were hurt and there were no missiles thrown at it. Comparisons with the kind of demonic crimes committed against European Jews in the pre-war years, and during the Occupation of Paris, are profoundly wicked.
I was in rue de la Roquette on 13 July and what actually happened was that a vigilante group called the LDJ (Ligue de Défense Juive, or Jewish Defence League) stormed away from the synagogue towards a largely peaceful protest in Place de la Bastille. Armed with metal batons, gas canisters and café chairs and tables, they initiated street fights with their enemies while chanting ‘F*** Palestine’.
The truth was not only recorded on film, but Serge Benhaïm, the President of the Synagogue, confirmed categorically that there had been no attack on his place of worship, and no damage caused to it or those inside. He said that none of the opposing groups had got within 150 metres of his synagogue and that the LDJ, which is on the FBI’s list of outlawed terrorist organisations, should be banned in France “if it cannot be controlled”.
The Roquette Synagogue, more formally known as the Synagogue Don Isaac Abravanel, was built in 1962 mainly to cater for an influx of North African Jews leaving de-colonised countries from France’s former empire. Those who pray there have excellent relations with local Muslims. Despite this, the fabricated reports are now accepted as fact, and continue to be used to divide communities.
Manuel Valls, France’s Prime Minister, used them to justify bans on pro-Palestine demonstrations in Paris. He spoke of “working class” youths “who hide their hatred of the Jews behind the façade of anti-Zionism and behind hatred of the Israeli state”.
Others in authority went even further saying the Roquette Synagogue ‘attack’ was like Kristallnacht, the 1938 Night of Broken Glass across Germany and Austria, when up to 1000 synagogues were burned down, up to 100 Jews murdered, and 30,000 more arrested and sent to concentration camps. Pro-Palestine demonstrators were also publicly referred to as “terrorists” who “target synagogues”.
No genuine evidence is ever needed. Inflammatory rhetoric about anti-Semitism spreading across France now always makes reference to the “pro-Palestine mob”, linking it with hate crimes, and the Jewish “Exodus”.
The notion of the self-fulfilling media myth was confirmed on 20 July when, following widespread coverage of the Roquette Synagogue ‘attack’, a synagogue in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles surrounded by riot police was threatened by a gang of youths, who went on to vandalise a number of businesses, including Jewish ones.
The LDJ was once more out in force in Sarcelles, but the distorters were again happy to concentrate on the ‘pro-Palestine mob’. The fact that non-Jewish shops were also targeted barely got a mention. François Pupponi, the deputy-mayor of Sarcelles, referred to a crowd of mainly teenagers including schoolboys of black African origin as a ‘horde of savages’. They did not carry Palestinian flags or banners, or show any sign of even knowing where Gaza is – they were just another group of anti-social aliens who could be slotted into any narrative required, however racially divisive.
Banned pro-Palestine demonstrations have regularly degenerated into disorder in which fights with the police have broken out. This is a common trait of Paris street protests, whatever the cause. No matter that the perpetrators arrested tend to be students or anti-establishment agitators, the Roquette Synagogue deceit has had its desired effect.
It enabled Newsweek to once more display its abject ignorance for the facts of European history by comparing the Sarcelles disturbances to the murderous ‘pogroms of Tsarist Russia’. The magazine refers to shouts of ‘Death to Jews’ – a claim which is now routinely inserted into commentaries about pro-Palestinians, whether made by politicians, community leaders or anybody else with a venomous agenda.
Again, there is no evidence whatsoever. I have covered mass demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza across France and the UK in recent weeks and not heard these chants. You regularly hear ‘Israel – Murderers’, but there are never any death threats. In an age of instant video and sound recordings, would it be too much to ask for evidence of such allegations?
Certainly not, because when you want to spread hatred and prejudice, then malicious hearsay is all you need. No matter that disgusting, made-up chants and references to Muslims ‘howling for vengeance’, just like animals do, will increase Islamophobia. All are circulated globally, and without challenge.
As the war in Gaza escalates, and propaganda is used to justify alleged war crimes including the mass murder of civilians, neither French Jews nor Muslims deserve this kind of crass fabrication. It is solely designed to heighten tensions between the two communities and distract from the horrors of the conflict.
There were plenty of Jews at an authorised pro-Palestine demonstration in Paris, which ended without any trouble at Les Invalides on 23 July. Unlike ‘Aurélie A’ they were happy to be photographed and filmed, and to have their own testimonies recorded.
One, Serge Grossvak, told me: “Elderly Orthodox Jews and youngsters from local synagogues are among those marching for peace in Palestine today. We are proud to be with Muslims, and plenty of others who believe in justice for the Palestinians.
The way some people try to divide decent protesters, the majority, over this issue is horrendous. Just because you can see Israel murdering innocent civilians, including women and children, and want to challenge this outrage, does not mean you are anti-Semitic. That is a terrible lie.”
All those I spoke to agreed that all religions have been subjected to discrimination and hatred. Crimes against Muslims happen daily in France, from the vandalising of mosques to random physical attacks on those wearing Islamic dress. Parisian Muslims regularly unite with Jews to call for better protection from the authorities for all people of faith. A swing to the far right exemplified by the National Front’s growing electoral success has increased fears of violence against religious communities. The party has its roots in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
But to manufacture inflammatory incidents so as to extend potentially murderous prejudice to thousands of law-abiding and well-meaning Palestine supporters is not just immoral, but thoroughly irresponsible. The false reports on the Roquette Synagogue ‘attack’ should be corrected, and the rabble rousers perpetuating such mistruths called to account.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.