The hardest part of the day for the 230 boys at the Merkaz Hatorah Jewish high school in Gagny, a middle-class suburb of Paris, had always been getting there. During the train ride from home, the boys replaced their yarmulkes with baseball caps but were still regularly hassled by other French teenagers, usually of Arab or North African descent, who called them “sales juifs” (“dirty Jews”).
Once the boys made it to the school, a bright steel-and-glass building surrounded by trees and tidy homes, they felt safe. No longer.
About 3 a.m. on Saturday Nov. 15, the school’s brand-new building — due to open Jan. 5 — went up in flames. There are no suspects. Police believe the fire was likely started at two separate points. The blaze licked 8 m into the air, the searing heat blew out windows and warped girders. At least 60 firemen managed to save the old school building next door, but from the synagogue where the boys still gather every morning, they now look out over 3,000 sq m of charred debris. “We were in a very calm place here, a privileged place,” says math teacher Michaël Mimoun. “Now we know there is no privileged place.”
And it seems there is no place in Europe that’s immune to hate crimes like the arson attack on the Merkaz Hatorah high school. The Gagny fire made headlines across France, and on the same day, the suicide bombings of two Istanbul synagogues led newscasts around the world. But in the week before the blaze, hundreds of hate crimes were committed throughout Europe against Jews, Muslims, Roma, Pakistanis and Africans. On Nov. 10, German police discovered a large black swastika painted on the wall of an empty factory building in Marienwerder Brandenburg. On Nov. 14, a box of six Molotov cocktails was found outside a synagogue in Ivry-sur-Seine, just south of Paris. On Nov. 15, this message appeared on a web forum hosted in the Netherlands, according to Magenta, a watchdog group in Amsterdam: “Just throw that Muslim vermin, those f___ing Muslim rats out of the country.” And on the same day, Agrese 95, a Czech “white power” band, played before some 150 people in central Bohemia, singing lyrics like: “Enough tolerance … Your future is ovens and gas chambers.”
Most incidents like these do not make headlines. Although they would be denounced by the vast majority of Europeans, they are often not recognized by police — and their perpetrators aren’t necessarily hard-core extremists. Different countries have different definitions of hate crime, and different ways of punishing offenders. But most agree that hate crimes are prompted by what the victim represents — a religion, race, nationality or, in some cases, sexual preference. Hard statistics are tough to find, since in most countries data collection remains abysmal. But in Germany, for example, anti-Semitic and xenophobic attacks were up in 2002. Anti-Semitic incidents are up in Italy and Belgium, too, while in France the number of anti-Semitic attacks increased dramatically until late 2002, then dropped this year. In London, racist and homophobic attacks have dropped slightly; but anti-Semitic complaints have increased nationwide.
Is there a method to this madness? To find out, TIME has reconstructed a week in the life of the people who’ve suffered a verbal or physical assault because of their perceived differences. In this imperfect collage — Saturday, Nov. 8 through Friday, Nov. 14 — the stories share many qualities: young perpetrators, usually acting without organization, lashing out at people and sacred places. Their motivations vary, but through their action they share a desire to keep Europe’s deepest wounds unhealed.
6 P.M., SATURDAY
A 22-year-old unemployed man put his BB gun in his pocket, hopped in his car and went looking for a Roma to shoot. Angry about being out of work, angry about the recent burglary of his apartment, he blamed it all on the Roma, 150,000 of whom live on the margins of Italian society. The man found his target in a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the capital: an 11-year-old boy, walking with his aunt. He pulled up and shot the boy in the face.
The boy’s injury was minor, but the emotional trauma of having a gun fired in his face was not. His aunt went to the police and complained, but she did not file a written report — a frequent problem that renders anti-Roma attacks the most under-reported of any hate crime. The police found the man in a nearby park based on the woman’s description. He was charged with inflicting bodily harm and illegal weapon possession.
Although Italy has had an anti-hate crime law on the books since 1975, the police did not consider this a hate crime. “This was more of a vendetta,” says an Italian police official. Very often, hate crimes are dismissed as the unimpressive work of mindless, bored youths out on a bender. And very often they are. But researchers generally agree that hate crimes are not simply caused by poverty or ignorance; often they grow out of a combination of high youth unemployment, the presence of many new immigrants, and a lack of law enforcement. It is this third element that is easiest to remedy. But, says Jack Levin, a sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston who has written extensively on hate crime in Europe and America, “the police in Europe haven’t been trained to recognize hate crime.”
8 P.M., SATURDAY
Andy Gaschler, a 16-year-old high school student, was walking with friends in the pedestrian marketplace of this small town north of Berlin. Gaschler was wearing a Palestinian scarf and a backpack with the slogan nazis out written on it. (The day before, a neo-Nazi gang had firebombed a Vietnamese snack-bar in town.) Now a group of neo-Nazis, obvious by their shaved heads, stopped him. “Didn’t I see you before?” one of the skinheads asked Gaschler, before allegedly hitting him in the face and setting his scarf on fire. Gaschler called on his friends to help, but before they could respond, the thug had set Gaschler’s backpack ablaze, too, he says. “My friends couldn’t intervene as there were eight or nine of them,” he told Time. One friend did manage to call the police, who arrived too late to make an arrest. The next day, an 18-year-old man named Robin Grab was charged with inflicting bodily harm based on Gaschler’s description.
The only reason I am alive today is because one of them said ‘Stop, he isn’t worth killing’.
— IFTIKHAR ASLAM, Victim of Hate Crime
Because of its past, Germany has one of the most impressive systems for tracking hate crimes in Europe. There were almost 11,000 politically motivated criminal acts committed by rightwing extremists in 2002, according to the Bundeskriminalamt, Germany’s federal police agency, an 8% increase over 2001. Just as worrisome is a shift in mainstream discourse, says Salomon Korn, vice president of the Central council of Jews in Germany. “The change now is that people are getting more outspoken. They don’t see the same amount of risk in making anti-Semitic statements.”
9.30 P.M., SUNDAY
Iftikhar Aslam came to Greece from Pakistan three years ago on a student visa. He soon had to give up his studies to work at a plastic factory to send money home. On the night of Nov. 9, he was walking home from evening prayers through this working-class suburb of Athens with five friends. “We were passing through a local square, and these everyday-looking guys were standing there shouting ‘Bloody Pakis’ and other abuse,” he says. There were about 50 young men, and some of them began throwing bottles at Aslam and his friends. They broke into a run; four of them got away, but Aslam and one of his friends were surrounded. “I was pushed to the pavement and kicked in the face and ribs several times,” he says. “They did not look drunk or out of control. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing. The only reason I am alive today is because one of them said ‘Stop, he isn’t worth killing.'”
When the police arrived, they found Aslam sitting on the sidewalk with blood streaming down his face. “They told me to forget what happened and go home in order not to make things worse,” he says. This month, Greece — which has also experienced a surge in anti-Semitic crimes — is expected to adopt a new law under which Greeks found guilty of discriminating against religious or ethnic groups will face up to a year in prison. But a law would need someone to enforce it. In Aslam’s case, the police have yet to begin inquiries.
TRUTNOV, CZECH REPUBLIC
There is a cluster of plain sandstone tombstones, some carrying names, others a simple Star of David, at the edge of the cemetery in Trutnov. They line a narrow path that leads up to a polished granite plaque. In the brutally blunt language common to postwar reckoning, the sign reads: here are buried 41 jewish girls murdered by the Nazis at a labor camp in Porici near Trutnov. The girls had all been slave laborers, and they had died between the ages of 14 and 29. On Monday morning, Lucie Motycková, the caretaker, noticed that 15 of the tombstones had been kicked over and broken off cleanly at the base. It had probably happened the night before, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night the Nazi pogrom against Jews was launched. Motyckova suspects the perpetrators were interrupted — or else they would have finished the job, knocking over all the tombstones and spraypainting death to Jews on the granite plaque, as they had five years ago.
The number of racist and extremist crimes investigated by the Czech police has been rising steadily, from 131 in 1996 to 473 last year. Police attribute this to better law enforcement, but Ondrej Cakl, chairman of Tolerance and Civil Society, which monitors neo-Nazi activity, disagrees. He says police complacency explains why the Czech Republic has one of the biggest skinhead populations in Europe as a proportion of the population: some 7,000 members and sympathizers, according to Czech police.
9:45 P.M., FRIDAY
A 16-year-old performing-arts student walked briskly through the center of Devizes, 155 km west of London, to meet her stepfather. Clara (not her real name) passed a group of 11 young women near a pub, some of whom she recognized. One of the girls was staggering, so Clara offered to help. But the girls suddenly circled her menacingly, she says. One teased Clara, who is openly gay, about her girlfriend. When Clara tried to move on, one of the girls lunged at her, bruising her face around the eye. Then the group pushed her against a wall, punching and shoving her, she says. Eventually, she squirmed her way along the wall and into a fish-and-chip shop, where the staff drove her attackers away. “The incident is being treated as homophobic,” says Sergeant Guy Williams of the Devizes police force.
Starting in January, the U.K. will include offences targeting gays and people with disabilities as hate crimes, making perpetrators eligible for longer sentences. Detective Inspector Kevin Concannon, who heads the London borough of Camden police team investigating hate crimes, says such legislation is proving effective. “Race crime in the past was often not reported, but now people know that incidents believed to have a racist element carry tougher sentences,” he says.
Of all the misconceptions about hate crimes in the U.K., the most common is that people who commit them are always hardened extremists, says Paul Iganski, a criminology and sociology lecturer at EssexUniversity who has co-authored books on the subject. The truth is more mundane, but no less chilling. “The offenders are basically people engaged in anti-social behavior, but at times drawing on cultural bigotry.” That populist bigotry — the idea that it’s O.K. to target certain kinds of people — represents the real danger. What Yonathan Arfi, president of the Union of French Jewish Students, says about anti-Semitism in France could apply to prejudices underlying other hate crimes: “It’s become a banality, part of the atmosphere.”
Five days before the fire that ravaged the Merkaz Hatorah school in Gagny, a group of students was taunted by a teenage girl in the subway: “The Jews, we have to eliminate you,” she sneered. Says Jacques Benisty, the school’s director, as he looks out over the charred remains of his building: “These are idiotic expressions. We are used to that.” Rooting out this kind of casual bigotry may be key to protecting students at Merkaz Hatorah — and targeted minorities throughout Europe.