Unsafe for Jews? France is shaken by Sharon's jibe

The Israeli PM's suggestion that French Jews should move to his country because of rising anti-Semitism has caused deep unease

By John Lichfield and Audrey Jacquet

The Independent

20 July 2004

Ariel Sharon should consider a career in French politics. It is difficult to imagine anyone else who could have united the political forces of such a truculent, quarrelsome nation in the space of a few sentences. Left and right, government and opposition, French Jewish leaders and French Muslim leaders: all agreed yesterday in condemning a weekend statement by the Israeli Prime Minister. They said that his words - whether cynically and deliberately or stupidly and accidentally - could encourage the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism in France.

"Move to Israel as early as possible. That's what I say to Jews all around the world but there [in France], I think it's a must. They have to move immediately," Mr Sharon said in a speech to Jewish-American organisations in Israel on Sunday. The Israeli Prime Minister spoke of an "explosion" of anti-Semitism in France - making it sound almost institutional - before going on to acknowledge that the French government was taking action to curb racism of all kinds.

A random selection of Jews approached in the historic Jewish quarter of Paris yesterday saw nothing especially wrong with Mr Sharon's remarks. Yes, he was being provocative, they said, but his words reflected genuine alarm among many French Jews about the rising curve of anti-Semitic violence, mostly perpetrated by Arab youths.

Jewish community leaders, on the other hand, were dismayed. Richard Prasquier, a member of the executive of the Council of Jewish Organisations (Crif), accused the Israeli Prime Minister of "pouring oil on the fire".

"We can't accept this kind of statement, which bears no relation to reality," he said. "A few Jews are considering leaving, it's true. But a mass clearout like Sharon suggests implies that the situation is out of control ... We are nowhere near that."

The overwhelming majority of recent cases of verbal or physical aggression against French Jews have been carried out by disaffected youths of North African origin, or fellow gang members from other races, who believe - without thinking too deeply about it - that Jews and Israelis are the same thing. Jewish and mainstream Muslim leaders in France have been united for months in arguing that the 600,000 Jews in France - the third biggest Jewish community after Israel and the US - are not Israelis. They should not even be primarily considered "French Jews", they argue; they are first and foremost French.

President Jacques Chirac made a solemn, and genuinely moving, declaration last week, in which he called on the nation to resist all forms of racism and anti-Semitism. He urged Frenchmen and women, of all religions and colours, to consider each other as French citizens with equal rights and an allegiance to the same secular state. Into the middle of these painstakingly made arguments jumped Mr Sharon, saying, in effect, that French Jews are not French; they are exiled Israelis, who are in mortal danger and should come home. This is not the first time that statements of this kind have been made by the Sharon government but it is the first time that M. Sharon himself has singled out France as a place where Jews can no longer live in peace.

He went on to imply that France was dangerous for Jews because it had a "10 per cent" Muslim population. The true figure for the Muslim population in France is 6 per cent. Using Mr Sharon's argument, Israel is doubly and triply unsafe for Jews. Israel, in its pre-1967 borders, is 20 per cent Muslim.

Haim Korsia, a senior adviser to the Chief Rabbi of France, said the question of a mass exodus of Jews from France "does not arise". The number of emigrants to Israel from France more than doubled to about 2,500 a year from 2000 but fell back slightly last year. An estimated 60,000 French Jews have emigrated to Israel since 1948; almost half of them - 26,000 - have returned.

"French Jews is a meaningless phrase," M. Korsia said. "There are French citizens who are Jewish, just as other people have other religions. We are part of the soul of this country." He accused Mr Sharon of trying to reverse the downward spiral in emigration to Israel by exaggerating the problems in France. To encourage emigration to Israel for religious, political, sentimental or family reasons, was fine, he said. To talk of a "flight" from violence - as if France in 2004 was like Germany in 1934 - was "unthinkable". The fact that Mr Sharon made his statement on the day that France was commemorating the round-up of Parisian Jews by the Nazis, and by French police, in July 1942 re-doubled the indignation in the French press.

"Sharon insults France," said the main headline in Le Figaro yesterday.

There is, doubtless, an element of guilty conscience here on the French side (an element which Mr Sharon is exploiting partly because France has been the most insistent of EU nations in pursuing its own, non-American policy in the Middle East).

France was very slow to recognise the responsibility of the French state machine - albeit under the collaborationist Vichy flag - in the deportation of tens of thousands of French and foreign Jews during the war. President Chirac was the first head of state to make an apology, in 1997.

Indigenous French anti-Semitism is by no means extinct. In coded form - and sometimes quite explicitly in private conversations - it persists on the far right, and even in the high Catholic, conservative right of French politics. The far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is plainly anti-Semitic. President Chirac, who has a good record on all racial questions, is plainly not.

French Jews also complain sometimes about a "new anti-Semitism of the left in France", which, they allege, takes the covert form of the pro-Palestinian line of the French media.

There have been troubling anti-Semitic incidents in France in recent weeks which cannot be attributed to Arab youths: the desecration of a frieze painted by Jewish children in a transit camp near Perpignan in 1942-3; the painting of swastikas on Jewish graves in Alsace.

But these are the actions of a few obsessive die-hards. (There have been similar attacks on Muslim graves and British war-graves.) The new wave of "anti-Semitism" in France - the development which worries the Jewish community - is the growing tendency of marginalised youths in the poor suburbs of French cities to take out their frustration and aggression on Jews. The suburban children - not just Arab in origin but also Turkish, African and even Eastern European - began by identifying with the stone-throwing Palestinian children in the intifada.

They have now, more disturbingly, taken aboard neo-Nazi propaganda and accuse "les fuijs" (backwards-slang for "Juifs" or Jews) of being too wealthy and too powerful and responsible for the oppression of Arabs and blacks. In the first six months of this year, there were 135 acts of anti-Semitic vandalism or personal violence, compared with 127 in the whole of 2003 and 192 in 2002.

From this, to suggest that 600,000 people are in mortal danger is wilful, even destructive, French politicians complained yesterday.

But a random series of interviews in the old Jewish quarter of Paris around the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais area yesterday suggested that many "French Jews" do feel under siege and do increasingly identify with Israel. Michael Murciano, 30, speaking in his bakery, said: "If the economic situation was not so unfavourable there I would go to Israel. Since the second intifada, anti-Semitism has definitely worsened in France. I do not feel safe to go anywhere wearing a kippa. I grew up in France but at the same time I have different traditions and religious practices. Israel is a refuge. A place where we feel safe and where we can assert our religion.

"There is a strong feeling [between French Jews and Israelis] that we are all part of the same community, the same country."

Yaguil Allouche, 38, who runs a bookshop, said: "Most of the Jewish people I know, whether they are religious or not, whether they are on the right or on the left of the political spectrum, want to leave France. Not all of them want to go to Israel though."

Laurent Benchetrit, a 50-year-old food exporter, said: "I have been thinking of leaving France for some time now. I will stay maybe two or three more years, just enough time to put money aside and go to Israel. I have had enough of France for many different reasons, not only because of anti-Semitism, even though we feel less safe than before ... I am fed up with French politicians. France is not firm enough with anti-Semitism. Offenders have to be condemned. Repression is the only solution."

French republican ideology insists that everyone is equal, fraternal and primarily French but it appears that that "secular" dream is in danger of breaking down (hence M. Chirac's appeal two weeks ago). Arab youths pick on anyone wearing a kippa; French Jews, feeling under threat, increasingly identify with Israel. Both increasingly believe that Jews and Israelis are the same thing. With 600,000 Jews and about 3.7 million Muslims, the implications are disturbing.

The Jewish sociologist and philosopher, Edgar Morin, wrote in Le Monde recently: "An infernal dialectic is in play. Anti-Israeli sentiment reinforces the solidarity between the Jewish diaspora and Israel. And Israel wants to prove to the Jews of the diaspora that the old European anti-Judaism is still rampant and that Israel is the only proper country for the Jews. It therefore seeks to exaggerate Jewish fears."

By accident, or with unerring skill, Mr Sharon pushed a sharp finger on to precisely this red button. Whether he was acting in the best interests of Jews in France is another question.