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Anti-Semitism rising, Jews in France ponder leaving

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2004


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.

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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.

Setting sights on Israel

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.