Dispatch

UnBonJuif

The return of French anti-Semitism is a lot scarier than just a few nasty tweets.

PARIS — A lawyer for France's Jewish students' union declared recently that Twitter has agreed to remove dozens of anti-Semitic tweets, in a small victory against hate in France. Published with hashtags such as #UnBonJuif (#AGoodJew) and #UnJuifMort -- to suggest that #AGoodJew is #ADeadJew -- the bad taste of the messages is astounding. One came with a photograph, published via Twitpic, that showed a pick-up pan full of dust, in an apparent reference to the Nazi crematoriums. Another is more explicit, showing a black and white photo of a starving young person on what appears to be a concentration camp cot. (Le Monde newspaper put together a gallery of some of the worst.)

While the anti-Semitic hashtag controversy has, understandably, garnered plenty of attention in the online universe -- #UnBonJuif was the third most tweeted hashtag in France on October 10 -- this year has seen high-profile attacks in the real world that are infinitely more troubling.

It wasn't merely hateful Internet trolling that led to a police crackdown on October 6. Amid a flurry of anti-terror operations around the country, they detained 11 suspected terrorists, later freeing five of them. That day began in dramatic fashion, when authorities killed a 12th man in a raid in the eastern French town of Strasbourg. They believe that the dead man was personally linked to an anti-Jewish grenade attack in a Parisian suburb in September, that he headed a militant group with a list of "Jewish" targets, and that he was likely involved in channeling French citizens abroad to fight alongside radical Islamists.

Paris court prosecutor François Molins declared in a statement that "a terrorist attack in our country has been avoided" and that authorities have dismantled the "most dangerous" terrorist group assembled on French territory in more than a decade and a half.

In reality, though, it doesn't seem to take a large group to inspire horror. The highest-profile attack this year was the work of a young delinquent turned freelance Islamist radical named Mohamed Merah. In March, days after executing three off-duty French soldiers in southwestern France, he drove his motor scooter onto the grounds of a Jewish school in Toulouse and coldly murdered a Franco-Israeli schoolteacher, two of his children and one of their schoolmates. The youngest victim was four years old. Merah later claimed in his rantings to police and a journalist that the school attack was in retaliation for the death of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli forces.

Days later, police cornered the 22-year-old Merah in his apartment and, during a shoot-out, put a bullet in his forehead that launched him off of his balcony and to the street below. Perhaps it should have been the end of Merah's story, but it wasn't.

Almost immediately after Merah's Natural Born Killers-like rampage ended, his name began to appear on scrawled ghetto graffiti, including these words insisting that he was a "valiant knight of Islam." (The author of that graffiti was sentenced to three months in prison for "apologizing for terrorism.") Immediately after his death, Long Live Mohamed Merah Facebook pages sprang up, with some lauding his anti-establishment ravings. Merah suggested that his murder of three off-duty military men (all ethnic minorities, incidentally) was some sort of resistance against the French State. And Merah, who filmed some of his murders, has inspired an array of video tributes, in some cases strange ones (notice the gun at the end).

Online videos have long offered extremist recruiters a way to inspire angry and lost young men, to shape them for a battle against Jews, the West, or both. They often confuse Jews with the unpopular policies of the government of Israel, but so do many people in France, Spain, and many other countries in Europe. Some 45 percent of French people surveyed believe that French Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France. In Spain, 72 percent believe the same, according to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

Anti-Semitism is a particularly sensitive topic in France -- it took until 1995 for a French leader, the incoming President Jacques Chirac, to acknowledge France's responsibility for deporting 76,000 Jews, in many cases, to their deaths during World War II. "These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions," Chirac said 53 years after the first mass arrests of Jews in Paris. "Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state." To this day, many French Jews remain suspicious of their government's commitment to protecting them.

In the six weeks after the conclusion of Merah's rampage, there was a doubling of anti-Semitic incidents (compared to that same period the previous year). A Jewish security watchdog known as SPCJ says that anti-Semitic acts leaped by 45 percent in the first eight months of 2012, and that Merah's actions have inspired others. In one notable attack near the Beth Menahem Jewish school in Villeurbanne in southern France, a dozen or so men attacked a trio of young Jewish men in yarmulkes on June 2, first insulting and shoving them around, and then beating them with an iron rod and a hammer, sending them to the hospital.

There has been other violence, too, including the strange midday attack on a kosher market in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles on September 19, days before Yom Kippur. In that attack, two masked men dressed in black entered the store and detonated a weak grenade that shattered the front window of the shop, wounding a bystander who suffered an arm contusion. Sarcelles, a commune of 60,000 people north of Paris, is sometimes referred as Little Jerusalem because of its sizable Jewish community, made up largely of Jews who left North Africa in the 1960s.

Police recovered the pin of that grenade and found the DNA of Jérémie Louis-Sidney, who anti-terror authorities have said they first became aware of in the spring. A 33-year-old father of five children, Louis-Sidney was a resident of Cannes in southern France, but he often stayed with the mothers of his different children or friends outside of Paris or in Strasbourg. The son of Christians, Louis-Sidney -- who was known to many people as "James" -- did a stint in prison on a drug trafficking conviction where, some family members told French media, that he turned to radical Islam. He eventually grew a long beard. His conspiratorial post-incarceration worldview is on display in a 2009 excerpt of a hardcore rap video he recorded for a song titled, "21e siècle" (21st Century). "September 11 is just the tip of the iceberg," he declares in a rap that mentions trafficking kids and body organs. He goes on to warn viewers: "Know that you are manipulated. If you don't understand, inform yourself, prepare yourself, arm yourself with knowledge. Now it is up to you to see." He ends with the words "Allah Akbar."

If the video comes across as something of a hardscrabble inspirational tool for potential radicals, police believe that Louis-Sidney later recruited childhood friends from Cannes and the suburbs of Paris to his group, and that at least one had left prior to the police crackdown to join militant Islamists fighting in the Middle East.

That is part of why, on October 6, anti-terror police armed with clubs and sniper guns penetrated the Esplanade neighborhood of Strasbourg, in eastern France, where Louis-Sidney was at the apartment of the mother of his baby. According to the police version of events, as they emerged from the elevator, preparing to arrest Louis-Sidney, they discovered that he had placed a glass object in front of the door to alert him of arrivals. Authorities say that Louis-Sidney "immediately" unloaded the barrel of his Magnum .357 at the officers, striking one in the chest area of his bulletproof outfit, and that the anti-terror squad returned fire and killed him. (French media found several friends of Louis-Sidney who cast doubt on the official police version of events.)

Six of the Frenchmen arrested by authorities in the crackdown in Cannes and Paris stand accused of attempted assassination and of having links to a terrorist enterprise. Perhaps most troubling, French authorities discovered five wills "addressed to Allah" (although two were blank). One was found at the apartment of Louis-Sidney, who they said had just shaved his beard; a potential indicator that he was preparing to take part in an attack. Police believe that at least one friend of his, known as Mahouachi, had already left Cannes for Syria without warning his family, to join Islamists who are among the forces fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. (Other than Louis-Sidney, it remains unclear who else signed their own wills.)

But the arrest of one of the 11 men, Jérémie Bailly, 25, in the Parisian suburb of Torcy, brought a disturbing discovery. Bailly, who is one of the six men who now face charges, had a storage space where authorities discovered an array of products handy in making improvised explosives: a pump, potassium nitrate, sulfur, saltpeter, pressure cooker-type containers, and headlight bulbs. They also found a handgun and a shotgun, according to the prosecutor.

Most troubling, in their searches, police also found what they believe is a terrorist target list of "Israeli structures" that also included the name of a Jewish lawyer who has been active in battling anti-Semitism cases. (He is now under state protection and police are withholding his identity.)

In the aftermath of the arrests, President François Hollande met with Jewish and Muslim leaders in France to communicate his strong convictions in the battle against radicalization, terrorism, and anti-Semitism. Following the rampage by Merah, police tightened security around synagogues and Jewish schools. More recently, the government introduced legislation to broaden police powers to monitor the Internet, and to make it a crime for French people to travel abroad for terror training. (Given that such people don't tend to self-declare such travels, however, it is more likely to be punitive than dissuasive.)

France still has a ways to go in rooting out its anti-Semitism, and in comforting a sensitive Jewish population that has a living memory of the nation’s complicated history. There’s no shortage of common ignorance across the political spectrum about the vast majority of Jews’ relationship to France, Israel, and even to their own religion. But the true challenge is to soften the anger in French ghettos that sometimes inspires crazy conspiracy theories among young men capable of meting out pain and even death, in part so that the era when Jewish lives were swept away by murderous hate can be left to the dustbin of history.

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The War for Free Kurdistan

Can Syria's Kurds take advantage of the civil war to form their own government? Or are they too busy starting their own civil war?

DERIK, Syria — The speaker at a youth rally in this small city tucked into the far northeast of Syria's Kurdish region has a sinister message for his audience.

"If you want to be free you must first shoot the traitor ... after that you must fight the enemy," he bellows over the assembled crowd, some of whom appear no older than five or six years old. The "traitors" he refers to are fellow Kurds.

Deep in the Kurdish heartland of the Al Hasaka region, this city of around 30,000 people sits amid some of the country's most valuable oil reserves. Nodding pumpjacks dot the plains around the town, but residents complain they've been able to reap none of the benefits of the rich resources under the soil, instead toiling in the cotton and wheat fields that stretch out to the rugged Turkish mountains in the north, and the Iraqi border in the south. Traditionally one of the bastions of opposition to Baath Party rule, the Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the Syrian population, have long been marginalized. But in the streets of Derik, where agricultural workers from the surrounding villages mix with the city's burgeoning middle classes, there is an air of excitement -- though one tinged with trepidation. 

As President Bashar al-Assad's forces are struggling to contain a bloody 19-month uprising, the Kurds in the country's northeast have largely been left to their own devices. The Assad regime still remains a presence in Derik, and its loyalists can be seen holed up in the intelligence building in the center of the city -- but they do not come out or react to the presence of foreign journalists. A freshly painted sign in the main square displays new name, in the formerly banned Kurdish language. "Azadi (Freedom) Square," it reads.

However, as the Kurds seize their opportunity to put in place the building blocks of autonomy -- and cultural centers blossom and new courts and local councils open -- there are fears that political infighting could shatter the fragile calm.

Hassan Kojar, the speaker at the gathering, is affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the separatist militia which has been fighting an invigorated campaign against Ankara in recent months.

"There are some traitors among the Kurds speaking ill of Ocalan, but speaking ill of Ocalan is speaking ill of all the Kurds," he continues.

A large flag above him bears the face of the PKK's incarcerated founder, Abdullah Ocalan, whose image can be seen hanging from the walls of most public buildings in Derik, which also goes by its Arabic name al-Malikiyah. PKK graffiti can be seen scrawled the walls near the city's main square.

Rival Kurdish parties complain that the PYD is holding a tight grip on power, not allowing them to participate in new institutions or hang the red, green, and white flag emblazoned with a yellow sun that is used in Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, a yellow, red, and green striped flag preferred by the PYD, flies above local buildings.

The internal disputes are threatening to derail efforts to build the foundations of an autonomous region in the northeast of Syria. Local officials refrain from talking of independence, instead stressing they want federalism or autonomy, but what is clear is that they are determined to run things here themselves, racing to put in place the means to protect and govern before the state's or the opposition's attention turns to this resource rich region.

However, for neighboring Turkey, the dominance of a party linked to its bitter adversary, is provocation -- and a development that could spark further conflagration of the Syrian civil war outside the country's borders.

At Derik's newly opened Mala Gel, or People's House, set up to arbitrates in local disputes, 20 of the 30 council members belong to the PYD, according to one council member. The party also runs the new local police station and town checkpoints, which are manned by armed civilian volunteers.

"They are controlling everything now with weapons," says Mohammed Ismail, a grey-haired, bespectacled politician and leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. A photograph of him meeting Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, sits in pride of place in his living room. Ismail complains that members of his group have suffered harassment and been detained.

Lacking their own political figurehead, most Syrian Kurds look to either the PKK's Ocalan in Turkey, or Barzani in Iraq, for leadership. With its links to the PKK, which has in the past found common cause with the Assad regime and now once again has its interests aligned in a mutual hostility toward Turkey, rumors have flown that the PYD has made common cause with the Syrian regime. In the Barzani camp are a slew of more traditional political parties that attract the Kurdish intellectuals and, like the Iraqi Kurdish president, have more favorable relations with Turkey and the United States.

It's difficult to assess which of the two broad factions has the most support. From a cramped workshop in central Derik, a young artist named Serbest Cacan sells wooden key rings etched with the faces of the two political leaders. He says they are equally popular. "This one nobody buys," he says, pulling out another bearing the face of President Assad.

Why the Assad regime has left the Kurdish region alone remains unclear, but it may be a move to avoid opening up another front in the civil war or a gambit to rile Turkey, which has expressed concern about the dominance of a PKK offshoot in the area. The PKK, deemed a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States, has in the past found a common cause with Assad, with Ocalan previously spending a decade in exile in Syria, a history that has spurred rumors that its Syrian offshoot has cut a deal with the regime. As Turkey becomes Assad's enemy number one, their interests fall into line once more, whether or not a formal agreement has been struck, a claim the PYD's leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed vehemently denies.

"This regime has tortured us and killed us and should be gone," says the rotund moustachioed politician, speaking from his far star hotel room in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. He points to clashes that took place in Kurdish towns and villages on July 19, when YPG forces launched a coordinated attack on Assad troops, as proof that there was no coordination with the Syrian government.

One person in Derik died in the fighting. Nazir Younes Ramadan, a 55-year old man who spent 11 years in regime jails -- including the notorious Tadmour prison -- says that when he heard the YPG was launching an attack on the eight government soldiers stationed in his village of Dirka Barave, about 12 miles outside Derik, he took his gun and rushed to join them.

"Because it's near the border everyone has guns. At first we said that we don't want to fight, just arrest them, but the Army started to shoot," he explains, pulling down the collar of his shirt to show the bullet wound to his collar bone that kept him in a hospital for two months. "We could have killed all of them but we let them go free."

The PYD's Mohammed also refutes the allegation that his party is preventing other parties participating, making the case that his faction is the only one sufficiently organized to run things. At checkpoints "there should be three of them and three of us, but some of them don't have people to send and then they say the PYD is not letting them share," he says, adding that civilians just volunteer themselves, and are not paid salaries.

At a dusty shack next to a checkpoint on the edge of Derik, Sadoon Omar, an image conscious 20-year old student, is on his shift at the post."We are just civilian security, we want to protect the city," he says, readjusting the blue keffiyeh around his neck. Though he says he is not a member of the PYD and is not paid by the group, his Kalashnikov was provided by the local asayis ("security") station in Derik, which is run by the PYD.

Omar said he received no training other than briefly being shown how to shoot his gun, and other guards at town checkpoints appeared equally poorly trained and armed. But that doesn't mean the Kurds can't hold their own among Syria's many armed factions: They are also protected by a secretive paramilitary group called the Popular Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials YPG.

Though the PYD denies that it has any armed wing, the YPG -- whose men now man the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan -- is often described as such. "They are all the same," claims Ismail.  

The force, which Mohammed says numbers around 1,500 fighters, appears well armed. At the border, the men drive trucks mounted with duska machine guns, their faces obscured by keffiyehs. A recently released video filmed by a PYD-affiliated channel shows hundreds lined up in a clearing in the woods; the film switches to slow motion as the men run past the camera, AK-47s in hand. Fighters vow protect the Kurds and their territory and their new institutions.

Now that the PYD and the YPG have won the upper hand in Syria's Kurdish regions, they show no sign of letting potential rivals gain a foothold. They have been accused of blocking a force of Syrian Kurdish army defectors trained in camps across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan from returning back to Syria, where Barzani had said he hoped they could be used as a defensive force. The return of the 650 trained fighters allied with Barzani could weaken the PYD's grip on the Kurdish territories.

"We refused them entry because basically we have a popular militia here, and if anyone wishes to protect the Kurdish areas, they should join us," an unnamed YPG commander told the Kurdish English language newspaper Rudaw. "We cannot accept any other armed forces outside the YPG, if we did, then the Kurdish areas will become a battlefield."

There have been efforts to forge unity between the PYD and other Kurdish factions. In July, Barzani called the quarreling parties to the Iraqi city of Erbil to sign a power sharing agreement. The result was the Kurdish Supreme Council, which attempted to balance power between the PYD and other Kurdish Syrian parties.

On the ground, however, tensions between the groups remains high. In Derik, hundreds of Kurds loyal to the PYD's rivals take to the streets to call for the regime's ouster on Wednesday rather than the traditional Friday, when the PYD holds its protest. Unlike on Fridays, at the Wednesday protest there is not an Ocalan poster in sight, and the traditional golden-sunned flag is waved by the crowds who chant in support of Barzani's peshmerga, rather than the protection units.

With fighting raging across Syria, however, the Kurds' only hope of securing their interests is to put aside their differences in the face of a shared enemy. Most Kurdish factions are not only suspicious of Assad, but also the Free Syrian Army, which they distrust due its historical ties to Turkey. Daham Ali, a member of Derik's Mala Gel council, explains that the Kurds want to be a third power in Syria. "First the state, second the Free Syrian Army, and thirdly the Kurds. We are not with the state or the Free Syrian Army."

At the youth rally, however, unanimity is hard to come by. Kojar's tirade against "traitors" continues, not only covering those in opposition to Ocalan, but also those in contact with the rebels and the regime.

"There are some Kurdish traitors who are in contact with the Free Syrian Army and have asked them to come to this area," he says. "There are some traitors in our movement who have been in contact with the government. The FSA, they aren't Kurds, and they'd sell out all of Kurdistan for five Syrian pounds. Our sons are here to protect the Kurds. They are from Derik, and Qamishli and Efrin, and they are in their thousands."

BULENTKILIC/AFP/Getty Images