by Cnaan Lipshiz
On April 27, Youssef Tihlah left his home near Paris planning to avenge what he later called “the situation in Palestine.”
Over the past decade, that has been the motivation for multiple perpetrators of antisemitic terrorist acts in Europe, who have targeted Jews as payback for their perception of Israel’s actions.
But Tihlah, a 29-year-old Muslim with a history of petty crime, was not after Jews. According to his own confession after the crime and a letter he had written before it, he decided to target police officers. Tihlah rammed his cars into two of them in the suburb of Combes, wounding one seriously.
French police officers and activists against antisemitism said the attack was the latest example of an emerging trend in France in which antisemites have come to see the police and other security services as extensions of “Jewish power” — a theme often discussed in the conspiracy theories that inspire and justify such attacks.
Claims of police brutality, inspired by protests in the United States in the wake of the death of George Floyd, have “only poured oil on that fire,” said Sammy Ghozlan, a former police commissioner from Paris and the founder of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Antisemitism, or BNVCA.
“The antisemitic equation between cops and Jews is a new development borne out of conspiracy theories, and it’s already inciting violence and bloodshed,” Ghozlan said. “It’s dangerous not only to Jews, but also for the rule of law in France.”
On June 13 in central Paris, at a demonstration against perceived police racism in France spurred by the Floyd killing, multiple protesters shouted “dirty Jews” at counter-protesters who had unfurled a banner reading “Justice for victims of anti-white crimes.” Not only were the counterprotesters not Jewish, they belonged to a far-right movement, Generation Identitaire, that has faced allegations of antisemitism.
The same rally also featured banners accusing Israel of teaching French police how to oppress minorities (touching on an issue that has raised debate in the United States as well).
Ghozlan said the “phenomenon of targeting Jews and security forces, making them interchangeable” was first seen “on a large scale” in the 2012 attacks in Toulouse when a jihadist, Mohammed Merah, shot dead three soldiers near that city before murdering four Jews at a school there two days later. Merah had also cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his motivation.
Amedy Coulibaly, another Muslim extremist who murdered four Jews at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris on January 9, 2015, had killed a Black police officer the day before. He, too, cited his desire to “defend Palestinians” as the reason for his attacks.
In 2018 in Saint-Quentin, a town 70 miles northeast of Paris, a man who was later arrested and sentenced to four months in prison overpowered a police officer at a residential building. He forced the officer to kiss his legs and said, according to the officer, “We’ll pull the AK-47 on you and throw you in the dungeon like the Jew Halimi.” It was a reference to the antisemitic torturing and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006 near Paris.
Michel Thooris, a Jewish police officer and police union activist from southern France, also said that the joint targeting of police officers and Jews is “particularly common.” He said he has not experienced anti-Semitic abuse personally in connection with his work for the National Police, but noted that many of his non-Jewish colleagues have.
In his view, the phenomenon has made the streets more dangerous for police officers.
“The word ‘Jew’ is an insult in immigrant neighbourhoods today, which is why it’s used as a swear word,” Thooris said, referencing French suburban areas with largely Muslim populations that have crime and radicalization problems. “But it also owes to the multitude of conspiracy theories in which Jews and Israel run the world, and France, with its police as their puppets.”
The same trend is emerging elsewhere in Western Europe, including the Netherlands. In 2017, Turkish demonstrators there rioted and shouted “cancer Jews” at police officers after learning that authorities had denied a Turkish Cabinet minister entry to the country.
Meanwhile, French Jews have not been shy about supporting the police. At rallies, they often sing “the Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, to honour police for protecting their institutions. Major Jewish groups like BNVCA and the CRIF, the country’s EJC affiliate often make statements expressing gratitude and solidarity with police, especially when security service personnel are injured in the line of duty.
At a 2017 dinner with President Emmanuel Macron, CRIF President Francis Kalifat spoke about his father, who was a proud police officer.
“French, Jewish — I know he found something that deeply connected these two identities: the attachment to the law, love of justice and the affirmation of liberty,” Kalifat said.