Why French Jews are frightened

30th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

French Jews are emigrating to Israel in record numbers, amid what many now feel is an intolerable climate of anti-Semitism in France. Hugh Schofield reports.

Statistics released in January by the Jewish Agency, the body responsible for arranging immigration into Israel, show that 2,566 French Jews made "aliyah" — a word from Hebrew meaning immigration to Israel — in 2002, more than double the numbers who went in 2001 and the largest figure since 1972.

The agency refused to attribute the sharp rise purely to anti-Jewish attacks in France, citing instead Jews' deep-seated attachment to Israel, the agency's own stepped-up information campaigns and the generous aid programmes on offer to young families.

However, the Israeli government has itself linked its calls for greater emigration from France to the alleged growth of anti-Semitism there since the start of the Palestinian intifada two years ago, and many French Jews say it is growing constantly harder to wear their Jewishness openly.

The knifing at the new year of rabbi Gabriel Farhi, a leading figure in liberal Judaism in France, appeared to mark a new escalation in the wave of anti-Jewish attacks that led to the destruction of a Marseille synagogue a year ago and hundreds of other acts of vandalism and low-level aggression since.

Farhi escaped serious injury in the attack, which he said was carried out by a man who shouted "Allahu Akbar" with a French accent, but on Monday he was the victim of a second assault when his car was torched in the parking lot of his apartment building.

Around the time of the attack on Farhi, an anonymous note was sent to the headquarters of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France (MJLF), founded by Farhi's father Daniel, which read: "We will have the skin of Rabbi Gabriel Farhi and avenge the blood of our Palestinian brothers."

The attacks have been loudly condemned across France — President Jacques Chirac called the knifing "a hateful act" — and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was due to attend a meeting of support at an MJLF synagogue.

However they have confirmed the anxieties of many in France's 450,000-strong Jewish community who say that anti-Semitism is on the rise again, and that they are forced to take unacceptable steps — such as not wearing the kippa, or skull-cap, in public — in order to conceal their identity.

One 20-year-old emigré, Julie, was quoted by Le Monde newspaper on 7 January as saying she had decided to emigrate after being attacked with two friends who were wearing kippas. "Up to now we were proud to be French. Not any more. Now we are proud to be Jewish," she said.

Many French Jews criticise an intellectual climate fomented in universities and Paris salons which they say lays the blame for the Middle East crisis solely on Israel and thus serves to legitimise the hostility to which they are increasingly exposed.

Last month the governing body of one of Paris's leading universities passed a motion calling on the European Union to suspend a research cooperation accord with Israel, arguing that by sending aid money the EU was actively supporting Israeli policies.

Several hundred people — led by philosopher and media celebrity Bernard-Henri Levy — staged a demonstration on 6 January at Jussieu University on Paris's Left Bank to condemn the call, which Levy said showed that the professors behind it were "more extremist than extremist Palestinians".

Levy also read out a message from film-director Claude Lanzman, maker of the holocaust epic "Shoah".

Evoking Nazi campaigns to isolate Jews, Lanzman said, "There is in the word 'boycott' a sinister and intolerable connotation of which the university bureaucrats would be aware if they had only the slightest memory or knowledge."


January 2003

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