French Jews Fear a New Strain of ISIS-Inspired Anti-Semitism

Marseille, France — It was the heavy leather-bound volume of the Torah he was carrying that shielded Benjamin Amsellem from the machete blows.

His attacker, a teenage fanatic who the police say was inspired by the Islamic State, was trying to decapitate Mr. Amsellem, a teacher at a local Jewish school. But Mr. Amsellem used the Torah — the only defense at hand — to deflect the blade and save himself.

It was the third such knife attack since October on a Jew in Marseille, where the Jewish population, around 70,000, is the second largest in France after Paris. And it was the latest example of how France is confronting both the general threat of terrorism, especially after two large-scale attacks in Paris last year, and a particular strain of anti-Semitism that has left many French Jews deeply unnerved.

“This was something claimed by an individual who invoked Daesh, who wanted to kill a Jew. It is extremely serious,” said Marseille’s top police official, Laurent Nunez, in an interview. “Daesh” is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Among Jews here, the attack on Mr. Amsellem, 35, has been met with a mix of anger and resignation, a response conditioned by the history of anti-Semitism in France, along with the recognition that global jihadism has made French Jews choice targets.

Mr. Amsellem said it took him only seconds to understand what was happening to him on that Monday in mid-January: a stranger was attempting to kill him because he was wearing a Jewish skullcap.

That instinctive wariness, combined with the green-leather Torah — there are now deep gashes in the book — saved him. “It is thanks to this book that I avoided some very serious blows,” he said quietly, sitting in his lawyer’s office here.

Mr. Amsellem, a father of five, was strolling to work in the north Marseille district where he grew up, attended school and now works and lives. Suddenly he felt “violent blows” on his back.

“It took me a moment to realize what was going on, that he was hitting me because I was a Jew,” Mr. Amsellem said. “I turned around and realized it was somebody I didn’t know. I realized he was there to kill. I said, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ but he heard nothing.”

Deflecting the blows as best he could, Mr. Amsellem tried to run. He stumbled and fell. “And when I was on the ground, I felt I was not going to survive,” he said. “I really saw his eyes. And I saw someone very cold.”

Passers-by heard his cries, saw what was occurring, and gave chase. The attacker fled, and the police caught him at a nearby Métro stop.

The episode soon reverberated throughout the country. From the president on down, French officials condemned it. The interior minister came to Marseille to express solidarity. Supporters of the beloved local soccer club said they would wear a hat to the next match in sympathy. An anti-racism march was organized.

Even so, this is a country that continues to grapple with its complicated history with Jews, and to balance its ideal of a secular public society against the beliefs and identities of its religious and ethnic minorities.

A wall inscribed with the names of thousands of Jews who were deported to their deaths by the Nazis — the French police assisted in the roundup — stands, largely hidden from public view, in the courtyard of the Grand Synagogue here.

In the wake of the attack on Mr. Amsellem, a top community official here called on Jews to stop wearing skullcaps in public, provoking a furious backlash from other community leaders in Paris. “It was my duty,” said the official, Zvi Ammar, who was startled by the outcry. “My only goal was to preserve human life.”

The teenager being held for the attack hardly fits the conventional profile of a radical Islamist: He is a Turkish Kurd, a group at war with the Islamic State.

The suspect — whose name is being withheld because of his age — has “very good marks in school,” said Mr. Amsellem’s lawyer, Fabrice Labi, and lives with his immigrant family in well-maintained if drab apartments north of the city center. His father, who brought the family to France five years ago, is a tile-setter with a solid income.

On a recent frigid morning, the suspect’s older brother was speaking anxiously into a cellphone outside the family’s apartment. His mother, wearing a head-covering, came to the door of the apartment. Both slammed it shut when asked for comment.

Officials here said the suspect has no known connection to radical groups, has no police record and appears to have self-radicalized — without the knowledge of his parents — while sitting in front of his computer connected to jihadist websites, for hours on end.

The case has been transferred to Paris-based antiterrorism prosecutors, a measure of how seriously officials have taken it.

Yet the young man’s connection to the perpetual undertow of anti-Semitism that exists here as elsewhere — “dirty Jew” yelled at people leaving the synagogue, conspiracy theories among Muslim youth in the city’s tough housing projects — appears tenuous to nonexistent.

“It is not the anti-Jewish discourse that formed this young man who went out to kill,” said Yamina Benchenni, a teacher who has heard plenty of such talk from her years of working in Marseille’s northern precincts. “He was in solitude. He did it alone. He was in front of a computer. He wasn’t with those youths,” Ms. Benchenni added, in reference to radical students whose views she has tried to change over the years.

At the Grand Synagogue after the morning services on a recent Saturday, the atmosphere was jovial at the kiddush, the post-prayer collation. Skullcaps were de rigueur, and while there was some talk of the attack, it was hardly laden with anxiety.

“It doesn’t shock us that much,” said Michele Allouche, who lives in the old downtown neighborhood near the 19th-century synagogue. “We’re waiting for it. There’s huge anti-Semitism in France.”

But the attack’s bloodthirsty undertones — the deadly blade, the will to decapitate, the coldness of the would-be killer — continued to stir unease.

“The machete, that evokes something barbarous,” said Hagay Sobol, a prominent doctor here.

“And this boy, he’s the opposite of any image one might have of the terrorist. He’s not marginalized. And that tells us any boy could do this.”