France and the problem of anti-Semitism

France has a big problem. I am not talking about the dire economic conditions of the eurozone or the number of French troops fighting Islamists in Mali. I am talking about a resurgence of anti-Semitism that has seen French Jews flee their native country for the safety of the UK.

A new report by the Service de Protection de la Communaute Juive (SPCJ) contains some shocking figures. Physical and verbal attacks increased by 82 per cent in the past year, from 171 cases in 2011 to 315 in 2012. A quarter of these incidents involved the use of a weapon.

What’s particuarly upsetting is that in the days following the awful Toulouse shooting in March 2010, there was an average of nine anti-Semitic incidents every 24 hours. And after the October bombing of a kosher supermarket in Sarcelles, there were a further 28 incidents in the subsequent week.

The report makes clear that the number of anti-Semitic attacks far outweighs the number of other racist attacks. In fact, the increase in anti-Semitic acts in France in 2012 is more than 8 times higher than the increase of the other racist and xenophobic acts. This clearly shows that France has a problem with anti-Semitism, rather than racism in general (which is bad enough).

Alarmed by the state of affairs in France, many French Jews have come to Britain, with St John’s Wood and South Kensington being the most favored places of refuge.

In fact, St John’s Wood Synagogue in London has set up a separate French minyan, attended by 120 people every Shabbat. Rabbi Mordechai Fhima, who is from Paris, leads the growing congregation. “Every Shabbat there are new faces,” he says. “My congregants tell me that here they can practise as a Jew more openly.”

French Jews speak of a climate of fear in France, with many afraid to read Hebrew-language books on the trains or wear a star of David. Most of the attacks take place on the street and on public transport. Paris, it seems, is the worst place to live if you are Jewish. Indeed, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the capital vastly outstrips Judeophobic incidents in Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg.

But even places like Marseille, where anti-Semitic incidents are fewer, the nature of the attacks are disturbing and are reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s. The following is an excerpt from the SPCJ report:

A Jewish young man and his friend is yelled at by a group of individuals: “We are for Palestine; we don’t like Jews; we’re gonna kill you. We’re gonna exterminate you all.” The two men keep walking when about 10 individuals storm onto them. The victim is hit on the head, which makes him fall. He is then kicked all over the body while on the ground. They steal his gold Star of David. He suffers from a sprain neck, an internal hemorrhage and needs stitches near the eye.

Britain’s chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, has spoken out against the climate of hostility in Europe, saying that “the position of Jews in Europe today is very difficult,” before adding: “There are threats at this moment to brit mila and shechita, and Jews in Europe have begun to ask, is there a place for us here?”

The sad truth is that Europe does not cherish its Jewish communities. Between 2001 and 2005, around 12,000 Jews left France and went to Israel. Many of those who made Aliyah cited Muslim anti-Semitism as the reason for leaving.

France’s political elite – and the EU leadership as a whole – must do more to tackle anti-Semitism. And they must face the fact that many of the incidents are perpetrated by Muslims. This is not a racist observation. It is statement of fact. Physical attacks, cemetery desecrations, firebombing, graffiti and the bullying of Jewish children by their Muslim peers are frequent events in countries across Europe.

To be fair, the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is trying to do something about the issue of anti-Semitism. A few days he ago, he and his ministers convened for the first time since 2009 to discuss how to combat racism and anti-Semitism.

 It remains to be seen what the committee actually achieves in practical terms. But let’s hope committee actually does something rather than just talk about it. The right to live a Jewish life in France must be protected and fought for by policymakers. As Simon Wiesenthal once, “freedom is not a gift from heaven: you must fight for it every day.”

 

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