In Israel, anguish and a dash of politics in solidarity with France

Prime Minister Netanyahu has arranged for the Jewish victims to be buried in Israel tomorrow, and warns Europe it’s time to unite against Islamic fundamentalism. 

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
A woman wears a yellow Star of David, like the ones Jews were obligated to wear during World War II, and holds a sign of "Israel is Charlie" during a gathering in the Municipality in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bodies of French Jews killed in a hostage standoff in a Paris grocery store will be buried in Israel.

The Paris attacks in which four French Jews died have so reverberated in Israel that even the revelation of a suspected Syrian nuclear weapons facility went virtually unnoticed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who joined Sunday’s solidarity march, has spared no effort to reach out to France’s Jewish community, the largest in Europe. He offered a warm welcome to any French Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel, which is already seeing a spike in French immigration.

And at his government’s initiative, the bodies of those killed in Friday’s kosher supermarket shooting are being flown to Israel and buried in Jerusalem tomorrow with Mr. Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin in attendance.  

Seizing on the attacks in Paris, Netanyahu has insisted that this is not a purely Jewish issue, since Israel and Europe share a common threat from Islamic fundamentalism. But Israelis are skeptical that his message of solidarity will resonate in France, whose public increasingly supports the Palestinian cause. 

“My sense is that as much as the government or Israel might like to persuade the Europeans that we’re all in it together, I think that there’s a general sense in Europe that that’s not really the case,” says Mark Heller, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

In a symbolic move, French lawmakers voted 339-151 this fall to recognize Palestine as a state. And last month, France was the only European country to support a resolution at the United Nations Security Council to end the Israeli occupation by 2017. An increasing number of Europeans blame Israel’s politics in the West Bank and Gaza for the violent attacks carried out against its people, while Israel casts such violence as part and parcel of a wave of Islamist extremism that showed its face last week in Paris. 

“Israel supports Europe in the struggle against terrorism and the time has come for Europe to support Israel in the exact same struggle,” said Mr. Netanyahu in Paris. “If the world does not unite now against terrorism, the blows that terrorism has struck here will increase in a magnitude that can scarcely be conceived.”

But some say that Netanyahu undercut his own message of standing firm in the face of Islamist extremism by rushing to invite French Jews to move to Israel.

Chemi Shalev wrote in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Israel’s message was clear: “Paris is either unwilling or incapable of overcoming the Islamic terror and anti-Jewish forces that threaten it, and Jews should run for their lives.” 

Rising French immigration to Israel

After a bloody attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, an Islamist gunman killed four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday night.

Leaders of France’s Jewish community, by far the largest in Europe at about 550,000, say that is but the latest of more than 8,000 anti-Semitic acts since 2000. France’s Interior Ministry has calculated that anti-Semitic threats and incidents have doubled in the past year. Surveys indicate that such sentiments arise largely from the fringes, particularly far-right political parties and disgruntled French Muslims, many of whom see racism as a far bigger problem than anti-Semitism. 

Marc Knobel of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) says that the government has firmly condemned anti-Semitism, but was lacking in resources.

“We can’t put a police officer behind each Jewish person, we can’t protect all the synagogues or Jewish schools 24 hours a day, or now if we have to also protect kosher grocery stores, I don’t where things will go,” he says.

Since the attacks, France has deployed 5,000 police officers to protect Jewish schools and has promised protection for synagogues as well, though Paris’s Grand Synagogue was closed for Shabbat for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Some French Jews disagree with Israeli assertions that the Islamist threat to France parallels that posed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and other militant groups opposed to Israel.

“The Israeli-Palestinian problem is one of colonial domination, it has nothing to do with international rise of Islamic fundamentalism,” says Richard Wagram, honorary president of the Paris-based French Jewish Peace Union.

However, an increasing number of French Jews are seeking refuge in Israel.

Last year marked a record year for French immigration to Israel, with 7,000 Jews arriving – more than triple the number just two years earlier. That made France the No. 1 source of immigrants in Israel for the first time.

According to a study in July 2014, 52 percent of French Jews were considering emigration – by far the highest rate of the five European countries surveyed. Among the most vulnerable are an estimated 40,000 Jewish welfare recipients, who live in public housing projects dominated by Muslims, says Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.

Capitulation to extremists?

Mr. Shalev of Haaretz argued that mass emigration is tantamount to capitulation, and could motivate Islamist extremists elsewhere in Europe – or even in Israel.

“Israel might view the absorption of thousands of French Jews as a rescue operation that strengthens the Zionist enterprise, but the Islamic fanatics could draw the opposite conclusion: First we’ll kick the Jews out of Paris, Berlin and London, they’ll tell the Muslim world, then we’ll take Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem,” he wrote.

Others argue, however, that a spike in Jewish immigration to Israel could boost the economy with highly skilled workers and bolster the state against its Arab neighbors.

“It will be a historic opportunity for Israel,” says Rabbi Maimon of JPPI in Jerusalem. “And for sure demographically it will strengthen Israel regarding the not so nice people all around.”

Correspondent Colette Davidson contributed reporting from Paris.

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