November 21, 2018

Stay or go? French Jews face a growing – and emotional – dilemma

Israel? The United States? Canada? South Korea, India, Singapore or Japan? French Jews have intensified their search for a new home, and they’ve diversified their potential destinations. For the past 15 years, anti-Semitism has become more and more common, more and more violent, and no one wants to see what it will be like in 10 or 20 years. 

When the “new anti-Semitism” began some 15 years ago, Jews were attacked almost exclusively in certain impoverished Parisian suburbs and neighborhoods. Young men would insult, spit and hit the easily identified pious members of the community. They wrote graffiti on synagogues, threw eggs at and stoned Jewish schools. The Jewish community complained about these attacks perpetrated “mainly” by young Muslims hostile toward Israel and Jews, but few of the French cared. Jewish leaders’ attempts to reverse the situation through interreligious dialogue failed.

Gradually, broader segments of the community started to face assaults. In 2003, 23-year-old DJ Sebastien Selam was murdered by his Muslim neighbor, who told police he would go to heaven because he had killed a Jew. In 2006, cell-phone salesman Ilan Halimi was abducted, held captive, tortured and set on fire by the self-proclaimed Gang of Barbarians. But the attack that convinced most Jews they were no longer safe in France was Toulouse 2012, when terrorist Mohammed Merah went on a killing spree at the Jewish school Ozar Hatorah, murdering three children and a teacher. The violence of that attack on such young children, and the fact that it happened in the traditionally open and quiet southern city of Toulouse, proved no place in France was safe any longer. Many of France’s 200,000 practicing Jews (out of the country’s estimated community of 550,000 to 600,000 ) started calling the Jewish Agency for Israel, to plan their departure. 

But for many French Jews, the situation wasn’t desperate enough to make aliyah

“There’s much more violence in Israel than here. I’m not going anywhere,” I was told by a friend I see at various Jewish events. 

As some community members immigrated to Israel, others preferred to move within their cities to safer neighborhoods. With every new attack, they re-examined their situation: Is staying in France still the right choice? Is it more dangerous to send children to public schools, where some have been attacked by schoolmates, or to Jewish schools, which have been stoned and could become a target for terrorists?

“The situation is complicated. My little brother goes to a Jewish school and a car drops him off five meters away from our building’s entrance, and yet, even in these five meters, he has been insulted. Men took his kippah away from him. What can we do? We take every precaution, and yet the problem is still there,” a 20-year-old Jewish student told me.   

In the summer of 2014, following the protests against Israel’s war with Hamas, French Jews saw for the first time whole groups of people attacking synagogues and Jewish businesses with firebombs and stones.

When the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher, located in one of France’s calmest bourgeois neighborhoods, was attacked on Jan. 9, two days after the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it became obvious that anyone could be hit anywhere.

Community members now have to choose: Will they stay in France and fight for their rights? Stay and conceal their religion? Or will they seek shelter abroad, perhaps in a country where people care as little as possible about Jews and the Middle East. 

Many in the community refuse to leave, as they feel strong attachments to France, the first country to recognize them as equal citizens, under Napoleon.

“If we don’t resist, no one will, and then it would all be over. The terrorists would have won,” I was told by a young man who had gone to a tribute to the victims killed at Hyper Cacher a day after the attack. 

Many French nationals appreciate this attitude.

“Please don’t leave! We’re with you!” several demonstrators at the Jan. 11 “Je Suis Charlie” march told a Jewish protester.

“We’re not leaving!” the protester replied.

Other Jews would rather avoid confrontation by hiding their identity, denying being Jewish, and presenting themselves as Christians. Others have made the decision to leave. 

Some have created groups to plan their departures and make them easier. People who wouldn’t ever have thought of leaving France had the situation not deteriorated are holding information meetings similar to ones organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, but for other destinations. French migrants who have already settled in Jewish-friendly countries help them out by giving as much insight and assistance as possible.

Touring with my family in Canada, hoping to find our new land of milk and honey, I met a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident who had analyzed the situation. 

“You need to get as far away as possible from France, where many in the Muslim community are hostile toward Jews and Israel. Coming to America isn’t enough. Don’t settle in Montreal; it’s too European! Go West!”

Figures show many French Jews are moving to Israel. A record 7,000 made aliyah in 2014, twice as many as the previous year. This means that approximately 1 percent of France’s Jewish community moved to Israel alone. At the same time, about 0.4 percent of all French nationals moved abroad.

Over the past week, the Jewish Agency beat another record, getting calls from 2,000 people asking to join information sessions. As French Jews start panicking, the agency is forecasting that it could bring 10,000 olim (those who make aliyah) to Israel this year.

Most of those who emigrate undoubtedly want to keep their families as far away as possible from any future terror attack, but many also may be concerned by a less bloody phenomenon — the widening rift between them and France’s growing Muslim community. After the shooting in Charlie Hebdo, people have again started pointing fingers at the Jewish community, saying Charlie Hebdo never criticized Jews, only Muslims.

“When a cartoonist criticized former [French] president [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s son when he married a Jew, the cartoonist was fired, but nobody cares when these people represent Prophet Mohammad,” several people wrote on Facebook.

“There are obvious double standards in this country,” one of my colleagues wrote.

For Jews, it’s well-known that Charlie Hebdo repeatedly criticized all religions, or all religious extremists and hierarchies, and, if anything, Muslim fundamentalists were criticized less than others. Some see this as an alteration of facts at their expense.

The growing support as well for the controversial comedian Dieudonne (his real name is Dieudonne M’bala M’bala), who has been condemned numerous times for anti-Semitism and inciting hatred, also has increased Jews’ concern for the future.

French law protects the right to criticize religion but bans incitement, which suits perfectly the local Jewish community. But this balance could change.

As Dieudonne wrote on Facebook that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly,” combining the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly — the man who attacked the kosher supermarket — French authorities and many nationals saw the move as a new incitement. But to many Muslims, his words were far more tolerable than a drawing representing their prophet.

Some fear that pressure from them and from abroad could lead to a change of French values and laws, which currently protect free speech as it exists in France, and ban racism and anti-Semitism. These are values that many Jews believe are vital for them to be able to live in France, especially now, as they face growing hatred.


Shirli Sitbon is a journalist from Paris working for French TV station France 24 and Haaretz.