SARCELLES, FRANCE — On a sunny summer's day in this middle-class suburb north of Paris it is not hard to imagine yourself in Israel: Jewish bookshops and kosher grocery stores line busy streets full of men wearing skullcaps and religious women wearing head scarves. A giant menorah stands atop the synagogue.
But Sarcelles has been plunged into the midst of a painful debate about the future of Jews in France as a rising plague of anti-Semitic incidents fuels fears for their safety and prompts a new drive by the Israeli authorities to bring potential citizens to the Jewish state.
Some here put on a brave front.
"Jewish life is vibrant in Sarcelles," says Marc Djebali, who heads a federation of local Jewish associations. "We are trying to expand our community center because Jewish life is developing, not slowing down."
Others take a darker, even apocalyptic view, predicting ever more violent conflict with their Muslim neighbors of North African descent.
"There is no future for Jews in France," laments Daniel Haik, one of the syna- gogue's administrators. "We suffered one ethnic cleansing when we were forced to leave Tunisia and we are on the verge of another."
Sarcelles is at the eye of the storm not least because it is home to one of the largest and most-organized concentrations of Jews in France, some 15,000-strong according to community leaders. In an offhand comment to an Israeli reporter in Jerusalem, an official of the Jewish Agency - a quasigovernmental Israeli body encouraging Jews to immigrate - last week referred to the agency's new focus on France as the 'Sarcelles First' plan.
That wordplay on the "Gaza First" plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip does not reflect any official policy to empty Sarcelles of Jews, insists Arieh Azoulay, chairman of the Jewish Agency's immigration and absorption committee. But France "is very clearly a priority for us," he says, and he hopes to attract up to 15,000 French Jews to Israel within two years.
Until three years ago, some 1,000 French Jews "made aliyah," or immigrated to Israel, each year. But that figure rose when the Palestinian intifadah began to spill over into Muslim-Jewish community relations in France, and this year 3,000 Jews are expected to make aliyah.
The Jewish Agency has set its sights on France, home to about 500,000 Jews, partly because it is the second largest reservoir of potential immigrants after the United States, and partly because most French Jews already have relatives in Israel, says Mr. Azoulay.
Meanwhile, rising anti- Semitism has fed "anxiety that could increase aliyah," he adds. "The atmosphere means France is a priority because aliyah is a response to local situations."
Local Jewish leaders have reacted angrily to news of the agency's decision to woo Jews to Israel without consulting them. "I am surprised and shocked by this," Roger Cukierman, head of the Council of Representative Jewish Institutions in France, said on Europe 1 radio last Sunday.
"We have to keep calm and not panic" in the face of anti-Semitic incidents, he added, praising the French government's commitment to combating racism.
Taking their cue from President Jacques Chirac, French politicians have spoken out strongly against anti-Semitism in recent months, clearly shaken by attacks on synagogues, desecrations of Jewish graves, and violent assaults on Jews.
Earlier this month, Justice Minister Dominique Perben announced that authorities had counted 180 anti-Semitic incidents so far this year, though suspects were arrested in only 35 cases. He pledged an "even firmer and more dissuasive judicial response."
Sarcelles, a collection of high-rise apartment blocks 10 miles north of Paris where a large proportion of residents are of North African origin, has suffered only one major anti-Semitic attack: one of the town's five Jewish schools was burned down two years ago. Nobody was ever charged.
Locals complain that Jews are vulnerable to repeated harassment when they leave their district.
Schoolchildren are roughed up or robbed on their way home, school buses are often stoned, and identifiably Jewish men are insulted as "dirty Jews." Few of these incidents are ever punished.
"I take my skullcap off when I go down towards the station," in an area more heavily populated by Arab immigrant families, says Rafael Hazout, a young kosher butcher. "People look at you as if you are an animal. So as not to make trouble I take it off, and I'm left alone."
Most Arabs and Jews in Sarcelles get along, insists the local rabbi, Laurent Berros. "The trouble comes from a few criminals and young hooligans. Compared with other places, Sarcelles has few problems, far fewer than there might be."
That may be because there is safety in numbers, suggests Mr. Djebali. If his community center does not have enough room, he explains, it is because Jewish families are moving to Sarcelles from neighboring towns where they are more isolated and feel less secure.
"We cannot meet the demand for housing," he says. "With the rise in anti-Semitism in places like Saint Denis," a nearby working-class suburb, "Jews feel safer in an area where they are in the majority."
This voluntary ghettoization, says Rene Smadja, manager of Erev, a kosher pizzeria, reflects "a very profound unease in the Jewish community," and a sense that French society and the French state no longer cares about its Jewish citizens. "Our foster mother is not taking care of us any more," he complains. "We can go to the police" when Jews are attacked, "but what good does that do?"
That sense is deepened, he and other Jewish residents of Sarcelles say, by the fact that most French people sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israelis in the conflict that pits them against each other.
And when young Muslims attack Jews as surrogate Israelis, they believe, French society stands aside.
"It seems that French people see anti-Semitism as ordinary," worries Djebali. "We get the feeling that we are being told, 'If you want to complain, go and complain to [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.' "
In that atmosphere, he suggests, more and more Sarcelles Jews will begin thinking seriously about emigrating to Israel, whatever the risks of pulling up sticks.
"The mood now is one of weariness," Djebali explains. "We are tired of being on the front line all the time. People are saying, 'Thank God Israel exists. We are even ready to put up with bad-tempered Israelis.' "