Benjamin Amsellem didn’t see the blade before it struck him. The 35-year-old Jewish teacher was on his way to work at the Franco-Hebraic Institute in the French port city of Marseille on Monday morning when a machete-wielding attacker charged him from behind.
The assailant, a 15-year-old ethnic Kurd from Turkey, stabbed Amsellem, then proceeded to chase him down as he ran. Amsellem fell to the ground, where he tried to defend himself, kicking the teen away and using the Torah in his hands as a shield against further blows. The attacker eventually dropped the knife and fled, leaving the traumatized teacher with injuries to his shoulder and hand.
“I told him to stop hitting me,” Amsellem said, recounting the experience in the newspaper Le Provence and recalling the “hatred” in the youth’s eyes. “But he continued and I didn’t think I would get out of it alive.”
More disturbing, still, are reports that during the teen’s confession he said that he had acted in the name of the so-called Islamic State, was “proud” of his act, and “regretted” that he hadn’t killed Amsellan.
The shocking attack is one of at least three such hate crimes against Marseille’s Jews in recent months, a disturbing turn of events in a city where large Muslim and Jewish populations have coexisted peacefully, if sometimes uneasily, for generations.
In November, three people, one of whom was sporting an Islamic State T-shirt, accosted and stabbed another Jewish teacher while hurling anti-Semitic insults at him.
A month earlier, a mentally unstable man known to police stabbed a rabbi and two other worshippers outside a synagogue.
The crimes have Marseille’s Jewish community on edge.
“The community of Marseille lives together in harmony,” Zvi Ammar, the head of the Israelite Consistory of Marseille, told BFMTV. “But for the past several months we’re sensing a radicalization.”
He attributed this to social networks, which he called a “runaway success” among disaffected young people who are vulnerable to the pull of jihad.
The machete-wielding teen behind Monday’s attack also appears to have been seduced by extremism via the Internet. On Wednesday, Le Monde reported that the young attacker was a “good student” who had “never exhibited signs of mental instability.” Investigators told the paper that the teen had discovered ISIS online, and that neither his family nor his friends had any clue as to his newfound ideology.
Whether or not these recent incidents signify increased radicalization in the city, the undeniable hatred behind Monday’s attack has left many shaken.
“It’s very traumatizing,” Michèle Teboul, the head of the Marseille branch of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), told Le Figaro. “He claimed to have acted in the name of Islam and because of his hatred of Jews.”
Marseille’s CRIF was itself the victim of a recent cyber attack, which is still evident on the group’s website. On the site, a self-identified Moroccan hacker using the name “Prosox” has left an anti-Israel statement in English fraught with misspellings. At the bottom of the page are the words: “Security is just an illusion.”
This fragile sense of security is apparently what motivated Zvi Ammar to suggest on Tuesday that Jews refrain from wearing the traditional skullcap in public in the name of self-protection. His comments unleashed criticism from other Jewish groups, including the CRIF, whose national president, Roger Cukierman, called it “a defeatist attitude.”
“We will not cede! We will continue to wear the kippa!” France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia tweeted, echoing Cukierman’s sentiments.
For Elsa Charbit, the head of Marseille’s Jewish radio station, Radio JM, Ammar’s comments were simply motivated by a genuine concern for his fellow Jews.
“He was acting like ‘a good father’ and he spoke from the heart,” she told The Daily Beast in an email. “He wanted to tell everyone to be careful.”
Charbit also believes that the threat to Jews is ongoing, and long precedes Monday’s vicious attack.
“For the past 10 years, extremely serious anti-Semitic acts have struck France’s Jews,” she said. “It’s as though all of a sudden the rest of France is becoming aware of our anxiety.”
On Monday, Marseille’s Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin released a statement condemning the attack and calling for the city’s residents to stand united in “difficult times.”
“The authorities are doing the most they can,” Charbit added. “To do any more would be to put a police officer behind every Jew. That is neither possible nor desirable.”