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France facing anti-Semitic attacks

airport
French police separate pro- and anti-Israeli factions at the airport  


By CNN Senior Correspondent Jim Bittermann

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Officials in France say they do not want the anger of the Middle East played out here, but earlier this week it looked unavoidable.

As supporters of Yasser Arafat returned to Paris from Ramallah, pro- and anti-Israeli factions got into a fistfight at the airport.

The police had their hands full keeping the two sides apart.

French police are having an even harder time combating a more serious series of anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish synagogues, schools, cemeteries and butcher shops.

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CNN's Jim Bittermann reports on the growing display of anti-Semitism in France (April 3)

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A synagogue in Marseilles was burned to the ground, and Jewish leaders count nearly two dozen lesser attacks against other synagogues.

Jewish community leaders have been warning about the upsurge in violence for months.

And on the eve of a presidential election the government has begun to share their alarm, dispatching 1,100 additional police to protect Jewish neighborhoods.

But community spokesman Roger Cukierman says it must go further.

"Things can only be stopped if the police are arresting aggressors and making strong examples with lots of publicity," he says.

Cukierman says strong statements against Israeli tactics by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, along with media coverage of the Middle East conflict, have inflamed the situation in France.

fire
Community members examine fire damage to a Marseille synagogue  

And there are growing protests by French Muslims angered by the Israeli government's actions against the Palestinians.

The Palestinian representative here has urged Arabs not to translate their hatred for the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon into hatred of the Jews of France.

But a Jewish leader says those behind the attacks here have neither the inclination nor the interest in making such a distinction.

Those, like French lawyer Sam Pisar, who have seen anti-Semitism in Europe at its worst believe the climate against the Jews now is as bad it has been since World War II.

Pisar, a Polish-born Jew who survived Auschwitz and two other concentration camps and has lived more than half his life in France, says he never thought he would again face a time when Jews were persecuted here.

Buses
A police officer beside two burned buses belonging to a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers  

"Not enough is being done to stem the whole thing, people are just letting it go and praying that it will not explode," he says.

"I think it could become much worse. It needs careful and rapid attention."

In a country with the largest Jewish and Islamic communities in Europe, the authorities will have to pay careful attention to keep the situation under control.