French Jews flock to Israel amid rising anti-Semitic attacks

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested in a Paris synagogue last week that France’s Jews should move to Israel, he likely tapped into the fears of a community shaken by the recent attack at a kosher market and increasingly concerned about their safety.

Before leaving for Paris for the unity rally, Netanyahu took to the airwaves, saying Israel would welcome Jews from Paris and Europe with “open arms,” and that his government would be seeking to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe “that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism.”

And later, at a Paris synagogue amid chants of “Bibi, Bibi,”(Netanyahu’s nickname)  he repeated his claim, saying that “these  days we are blessed with another privilege, a privilege that didn’t exist for generations of Jews — the privilege to join their brothers and sisters in their historic homeland of Israel.”His comments, while sparking controversy among some European Jewish leaders, certainly resonated with Jews who have been concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in France, particularly among Islamic extremists, long before the attacks.

‘Many want to stay’

“I think you won’t find many Jews in France who don’t ask themselves the question today whether they have a future here,” said Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the Paris director of the American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy organization.

“That doesn’t necessarily always translate into action, doesn’t necessarily always translate into leaving. Many want to stay, many want to continue to fight because they believe France is their country.… But the question at least is being asked and that obviously is a problem.”

But some Jews in France, which makes up the third largest Jewish population in the world, are more than just asking the question — they are taking action.

Over the past 10 years, out of a population of around half a million, an average of 2,000 to 3,000 Jews have been emigrating to Israel from France each year.

In 2014, the number spiked, and although the final numbers haven’t been calculated, it’s estimated somewhere around 7,000 Jews left for Israel.This would represent the highest number of Jews to leave any country in the world, including the U.S., which has a Jewish population 10 times the size of France.

“So this is really a moment of quite dramatic increase,” said Sergio DellaPergola, a professor at Hebrew University who is considered the leading expert on Jewish demographics. “We’re talking more than slightly one per cent of the population, which is not insignificant, because if you take the U.S. as a country, one per cent would be three million [people].

Proportionately, more Jews left Ukraine in 2014 — around 4,000 from a population of 100,000 Jews. But Ukraine is in the middle of a civil war, while France is a functioning stable democracy.

10,000 French immigrants to Israel in 2015

Meanwhile, Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency promoting emigration to Israel, said his estimate for 2015 is 10,000 French immigrants.

“We’re still far from an exodus,” Rodan-Benzaquen said, adding, however, those statistics do not take into account Jews who leave for other countries.

“But it definitely translates into some sort of trend. Again, those who are staying have great great great concerns.”

More Jews may be leaving, or planning to leave, following a number of high-profile attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in France over the past years.

In 2012, a self-declared al-Qaeda operative on a motorcycle opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a rabbi and his two young sons as they waited for a bus. He then chased down a seven-year-old girl, shooting her dead at point-blank range.

Last summer, during Israel’s Gaza offensive, pro-Palestinian French youth set fire to cars, pillaged Jewish stores and attacked two synagogues in Paris suburbs.

And in December, at least four suspects are alleged to have specifically targeted a Paris home for robbery because the family inside was Jewish and believed to have money. Once inside, one of the men raped a 19-year-old woman.

“The feeling of the Jewish population has been a growing lack of security,” said DellaPergola.

527 anti-Semitic acts reported in 1st half of 2014

According to France’s Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ), which records anti-Semitic acts, there were 423 incidents in 2013. For the first half of 2014, 527 acts have been reported.

In the wake of the hostage-taking crises in Paris, which included the attack on the kosher market that left four Jews dead, France has deployed 10,000 troops to protect sensitive sites — including Jewish schools, synagogues and neighbourhoods.

Rodan-Benzaquen said that although France has tough laws on hate speech, the French government needs to do more to tackle radical Islam and address anti-Semitism online.

“I totally understand French Jews who don’t feel safe and want to go to Israel because they don’t feel safe here,” she said. “I would prefer that this country would make sure that Jews can live in the nation where they have always existed.”