French President François Hollande today visited the Jewish cemetery where hundreds of graves were desecrated last week, where he condemned the "odious act," vowed to defend the Jewish community with all the country's strength, and announced a plan to tackle "ignorance and hate."
Vandals attacked and upturned nearly 300 tombs and damaged a monument to Holocaust victims in the rural town of Sarre-Union in Alsace last Thursday. Yet the damage was only discovered on Sunday by a local resident, just one day after a lone gunman shot and killed a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Hollande said that he had never seen a Jewish cemetery attacked "with this determination, this intensity, this frenzy."
The attacks have also added to concerns over anti-Semitism in Europe following a recent spike in attacks, as well as fueling diplomatic tensions after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for Jews to return "home" to Israel was rejected by European leaders.
Five minors, aged 15- to 17-years-old, were being held for questioning on Monday in connection with the Sarre-Union vandalism, said local prosecutor Philippe Vannier, adding that one of the five had turned himself in.
According to Vannier, the suspects claimed they believed the cemetery to be abandoned, and only realized it was a Jewish graveyard once the destruction was underway. A forensic police source told AFP that the vandals had not written on any of the gravestones.
"One doesn't knock over heavy slabs like that dating from the 19th century very easily. It was a deliberate act of destruction," said Sarre-Union mayor Marc Séné, however, disagreeing with the theory that the vandalism was not pre-meditated.
Anthropologist Véronique Nahoum-Grappe echoed Séné, ruling out the possibility that the desecration had been carried out by a group of "intoxicated young people with no political motive." Speaking to VICE News on Monday, Nahoum-Grappe called the systematic destruction of hundreds of headstones "a stubborn and dogged effort" and "cold hard evidence that [the vandals] were carrying out a plan."
A surge in anti-Semitic attacks
The incident in Alsace occurred as France is still reeling from a recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks, which have left the Jewish community feeling increasingly vulnerable. France is currently home to between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews — the largest Jewish population in Europe.
A report published earlier this year by the French Jewish Community Protection Services (SPCJ) claims the number of anti-Semitic attacks in France more than doubled from 423 in 2013, to 851 in 2014. The report also says that 51 percent of racist attacks carried out in France in 2014 were against Jews, despite the community representing less than 1 percent of the French population.
France was left shocked in December 2014 after three armed men forced their way into an apartment in the Paris suburb of Créteil, reportedly attacking a young couple, tying them up, raping the woman, and stealing jewelry. According to the witness statement, the attackers then withdrew money using the victims' credit cards at a nearby ATM, and said: "We're here for a reason. You Jews have money."
In November, a 70-year-old man was beaten and robbed in the same neighborhood in a similar anti-Semitic attack.
On January 9, 2015, one day after two attackers killed 12 at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, gunman Amédy Coulibaly attacked a Kosher supermarket in Paris, leading to the deaths of four hostages. Following the bloodshed, France tightened its security outside Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions, deploying an extra 4,700 police officers.
On February 3, a lone attacker wielding a knife injured two soldiers who were patrolling outside a building that housed Jewish community organizations in the southern town of Nice.
Aside from these violent attacks, tensions have also been exacerbated by anti-Semitic incidents involving French public figures. The comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who has had several convictions for anti-Semitism, had his TV show Le Mur (The Wall) banned in several French cities in 2014. Dieudonné is infamous for creating the quenelle, a provocative gesture said to resemble a Nazi salute.
In January, the government urged prosecutors to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism, and those deemed to be defending terrorism. Speaking on Monday, President Hollande sought to further reassure the Jewish community, declaring that that Jews had "their place in Europe and in particular in France."
Netanyahu Tells European Jews to "Come Home"
Following Saturday's attack in Copenhagen, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged European Jews to migrate to Israel.
"To the Jews of Europe and the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms", Netanyahu said at a weekly cabinet meeting. Netanyahu said Israel encouraged "mass immigration," and urged French, Belgian, and Ukrainian Jews to come "home."
French Prime Minister Valls criticized Netanyahu's remarks on Monday, pointing out that the Israeli prime minister was, "in the middle of an election campaign."
This led to further controversy as former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas waded into the debate, implying Valls' comments had been influenced by his Jewish wife.
This is Netanyahu's second call for a Jewish exodus since the January terror rampage that left 17 dead in Paris. On January 10, the prime minister tweeted to French and European Jews that "Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray," but that it was also their "home."
At the time, Valls had also dismissed the offer, remarking that, "France without Jews is not France."
Netanyahu's comments have irked European leaders, who responded by calling for national unity in the wake of the Copenhagen shootings. Hollande said he wouldn't "allow words spoken in Israel that lead people to think that Jews don't have their place in Europe and in France, in particular."
In 2014, more than 7,000 French Jews made aliyah (the Hebrew word for diaspora Jews migrating to Israel) — the highest number ever recorded since the creation of the Jewish State in 1948.
Jeppe Juhl, a spokesman for the Jewish community in Denmark, however, declined Netanyahu's invitation, saying that, "We are Danish Jews but we are Danish, and it won't be fear that will make us go to Israel."
Cemeteries: An Easy Target
"Alsace is one of the regions most affected by desecrations," local deputy Phillipe Bies told regional daily DNA. The Jewish cemetery in Sarre-Union has already been damaged six times by vandals.
In 2011, a French parliamentary taskforce led by former deputy Claude Bodin released a report on desecrations in the country. According to the report, 181 French graveyards were vandalized in 2011, including six Muslim cemeteries and four Jewish ones.
Bodin told VICE News that since most desecrations go unreported, most of the statistical evidence in the report was collected from religious authorities in charge of the cemeteries.
At the time, Bodin recommended round-the-clock video monitoring of cemeteries and nearby roads — a suggestion which has gone unheeded.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray