21/02/2019 4:29 AM AEDT | Updated 21/02/2019 11:47 AM AEDT

French Rally Against Anti-Semitism Draws Thousands After Sharp Spike In Attacks

Massive crowds gathered at rallies in cities across France a day after vandals defaced a Jewish cemetery with swastikas.

Thousands of people attended nationwide rallies against anti-Semitism in France on Tuesday night, after a recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks heightened concerns among the country’s Jewish community.

The massive demonstration, organized by French Jewish groups and the country’s major political parties, united crowds in the streets of Paris and other French cities under the theme, “That’s enough,” The Associated Press reported.

The desecration of a Jewish cemetery with swastikas on Monday was just one of many recent anti-Semitic attacks.

Vandalized tombs tagged with swastikas are pictured in the Jewish cemetery of Quatzenheim, in eastern France, on Feb.19, 2019.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited the vandalized cemetery in the northeastern Alsace region on Tuesday and said he was ashamed at the sight of the desecrated graves, the AP reported. He later visited a Holocaust museum in Paris.

“Every time a French person, because he or she is Jewish, is insulted, threatened — or worse, injured or killed — the whole Republic” is attacked, Macron said at a news conference Tuesday.

Philippe Wojazer / Reuters
A photo, taken with a fish-eye lens, shows people attending a national gathering at Place de la Republique to protest the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in France on February 19, 2019. 

Government statistics indicate over 500 anti-Semitic incidents took place in the country in 2018, representing a 74 percent increase from 2017.

On Friday, two people were arrested for allegedly shooting air rifles at a synagogue in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb that is home to a significant number of Jewish families, the AP reported. Earlier this month, swastika graffiti was found on street portraits of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and French politician. A tree memorializing a Jewish man who was murdered in 2006 was reportedly cut down. Someone painted the German word for Jews ― “Juden” ― on the window of a Paris bagel restaurant.  

With about 550,000 Jewish residents, France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population.

A photo taken on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 shows mailboxes with swastikas covering the face of the late Holocaust survivor and renowned French politician, Simone Veil, in Paris, France. 

Some researchers have linked anti-Semitic incidents to France’s immigrant, Muslim communities, claiming that the hate attacks tend to flare up during times of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. France’s Muslim leaders have resisted that notion, saying it paints overly broad blame on the country’s Muslims, who are also experiencing an uptick in hate crimes.

Some Jewish leaders have also called out anti-Semitism among theranks of yellow vest protesters. The street movement started out criticizing gas tax rises but has widened into a broader, anti-government protest that has included anti-Semitic incidents.

French Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faith leaders on Tuesday issued a joint declaration condemning anti-Semitism. Signatories included prominent figures like Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, Dalil Boubakeur, leader of the Great Mosque of Paris, and Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, spokesman for France’s Catholic bishops’ conference.

“Anti-Semitism is a crime, tried by history and condemned by law. It suffers neither excuse nor banalization,” said the letter, translated from the French. “That is why we solemnly condemn all acts, doctrines and speeches that, by stigmatizing, by calling for hatred and sometimes even by justifying violence, degrade human dignity and the unshakable respect due to it.”

On Saturday, yellow vest protesters hurled anti-Semitic taunts at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Auschwitz survivor and a right-leaning essayist.

French police confirmed on Wednesday that they arrested a man suspected of taunting Finkielkraut during the incident, AFP reported. 

Erika Larose contributed reporting.

This article has been updated with an excerpt from a joint declaration against anti-Semitism by French religious leaders.