For French Jews, Hebdo attacks are just latest sign of anti-Semitism's rise

After last Friday's attack on a Jewish market by an accomplice of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, France's Jewish community is increasingly nervous – and hopeful that the public will take a recent spike in anti-Semitism more seriously.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
French soldiers secure the access to a Jewish school in Paris as part of the highest level of 'Vigipirate' security plan after last week's attacks by Islamist militants Wednesday.

On a gloomy winter’s afternoon, a group of mothers chat among themselves as they wait outside a primary school for their children to emerge. But this is not a typical Parisian scene: soldiers armed with automatic weapons patrol the school’s surroundings and the mothers are visibly anxious. For this is Beth Hanna, a Jewish establishment.

“I’m scared,” says Vanessa Ganum, who has come to pick up her daughter.

“We have seen how easy it is to touch our lives, to enter into our establishments, our stores," adds another mum, who gives only her first name, Sarah. 

Precisely a week after the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket, France’s Jewish community is more nervous than ever. Many are thinking of emigrating, joining a rising tide of their co-religionists who have fled increasing anti-Semitism in recent years. Others hope that the attack, and its link to the earlier massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, will finally force ordinary French people to face up to the fact that their fellow citizens commit more anti-Semitic crimes than any other European country.

“Now that France’s core values have been attacked, people see that Jews are only the first target on a longer list,” says Yonathan Arfi, deputy president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions. “I hope they will see that they have a responsibility for the problem we face.”

France has the largest Jewish population outside Israel and the United States, more than 500,000 people. The community has been subjected in recent months to a mounting wave of anti-Semitic attacks, ranging from arson and vandalism against Jewish schools, cemeteries, and grocery stores to the recent rape of a Jewish woman and gunfire directed at a Paris synagogue.

In the first seven months of last year, the Jewish Community Protection Service reported 527 such acts, nearly double the number for the same period in 2013. 

“We have the feeling that things are going downhill ever faster,” says Mr. Arfi.

Though classical anti-Semitism still colors the thinking of some traditional supporters of far-right parties such as the National Front, police lay most of the recent anti-Semitic violence at the door of radical Islamist young men from Muslim backgrounds.

That violence tends to spike at times when tensions are especially high in the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel, official figures show; the Israeli bombardment of Gaza last summer provoked anti-Israel demonstrations in Paris that degenerated into anti-Semitic raids on Jewish synagogues and grocery stores.

Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher market, was not the first jihadi gunman to kill several French Jews; in 2012, Mohammed Merah shot three Jewish children and one of their teachers dead at a school in the southern city of Toulouse.

Few citizens paid the attack much mind once the headlines had faded, and even some Jews shrugged off the growing number of violent anti-Semitic incidents. “I told myself they were isolated acts, that there was no general phenomenon,” says Mickaelle Bensussan, a journalist.

“This time it has really changed,” she adds. “This time I felt it in my flesh; for the first time I have been afraid for the future; for the first time I was frightened; for the first time I felt maybe I should leave” France.

But that feeling lasted only half an hour, she says. “I thought ‘this act was meant to frighten people – I won’t be frightened.’ And fear is not a good reason to leave your country. The sense of panic did not last.”

Others, though, are gloomier. Sitting in a kosher bakery not far from the Beth Hanna school that serves as a meeting place for local Jews, plumber David Cohen says that his friends and neighbors have felt “for some time” that their future is not in France.

“France is a boat that is sinking,” he says, and he is considering following his parents who emigrated to Israel two years ago.

That is an increasingly common choice. Nearly 7,000 Jews left France for good last year, according to figures from the Jewish Agency; that is twice as many as emigrated in 2013. A poll last year by Siona, a French Jewish group, found that 74 percent of respondents had thought of emigrating, one-third of them because of rising anti-Semitism.

Many Jews feel that Coulibaly’s murderous attack on the Hypermarché Cacher last Friday would soon have been forgotten had it not been for his links to the Kouachi brothers, whose assault against press freedom sparked massive revulsion throughout France.

Those links, however, “make it plain that Jews may be the first targets of jihadist terrorism but the West is a wider target,” argues Shimon Samuels, head of the Paris office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “What starts with the Jews never ends with them.”

The French government has made it plain in recent days that it is fully aware of the scale of anti-Semitism, and of its wider dangers. “The awakening of anti-Semitism is a symptom of a crisis of democracy, a crisis of the Republic,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls Tuesday in a speech to parliament.

“The national community … did not perhaps react sufficiently” to the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents, Mr. Valls suggested. “We were not indignant enough.”

“Government leaders are saying all the right things,” says Mr. Samuels, “but now it has to filter down.”

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