French Jews were shocked when Amedy Coulibaly murdered four hostages in a Parisian kosher supermarket. After the kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006 by Youssouf Fofana, and the killings by Mohamed Merah at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, many see this as a new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across France.
It is understandable that emotions may obstruct reason. Less understandable is that many analysts are misinterpreting the evidence. It is necessary to distinguish between anti-Semitic opinions and anti-Semitic acts, and there is nothing to show that such opinions have significantly increased. All the serious surveys — especially the annual one by France’s National Human Rights Consultative Committee (CNCDH) for its report on racism and anti-Semitism — reveal a marginal phenomenon, unlike that against the Roma, and Islamophobia, which have both become rampant. The CNCDH’s latest report concludes that “Jews are by far the best accepted minority in France today”. Although their acceptance index has fallen six points since 2009, when it reached a record 85 out of 100, it is still far above levels for all other groups, six points above that for black people, 21 above immigrants of North African origin and 28 points above Muslims.
Anti-Jewish sentiment is unevenly spread across the population. The French thinktank Fondapol (Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique) published a survey last November claiming that Muslims are more inclined towards anti-Semitism than the rest of the population. But the sample only had 575 respondents, and it is questionable to have assessed them according to six “prejudices”: “Jews today are exploiting their status as second world war Nazi genocide victims”; “Jews have too much power in the economy and in the financial sector”; “Jews have too much power in the media”; “Jews have too much power in politics”; “There is a world-wide Zionist plot”; and “Jews are responsible for the current economic crisis”.
But though anti-Semitic opinion is not widespread, the rise in anti-Semitic actssince 2000 is undeniable. French interior ministry statistics show the first wave was in 2002, when racist violence increased four-fold, and specifically anti-Semitic violence rose six-fold. Both figures have been up and down since then but have never fallen to 1990s levels; and they have peaked in the last three years. In January-July 2014, the Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) recorded a 91% increase on 2013, with 527 acts of violence as compared with 276.
This chronology shows that the spurts of violence correspond to the worst episodes in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In July and August 2014, as during the second Intifada, a television audience of millions was confronted daily with images of the bombing of the Gaza Strip and crimes by Israeli soldiers. One might rightly say those had nothing to do with French Jews. But the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) fully supports the Israeli government, and so contributes to further confusing Israelis with Jews in public perception. Worse, François Hollande’s early alignment with Binyamin Netanyahu lent credence to the idea of a “Jewish lobby” powerful enough to shift French foreign policy.
The Middle East isn’t the only thing inciting attacks on Jews. There is also the role of, among others, the comedian Dieudonné and the polemicist Alain Soral, whose anti-Semitism is more virulent for being cloaked by their own “persecution”, which helps cover their collusion with the far right.
Even if the fears of French Jews are not real, they weigh heavily, as proved by the number of emigrants to Israel, which has trebled in recent years. For a long time numbers stood at about 1,500 a year but they rose to 7,000 in 2014, which is more than 1% of the estimated number of Jews in France. The Israeli government claims that 10,000 are expected this year. Like Ariel Sharon before him, Netanyahu has exhorted his “brothers” to leave France and come to Israel, going as far as to compare their situation to that of the Jews in Spain on the eve of their expulsion in 1492 (1).
Emotion and fear are driving some to leave, but this aliyah (“ascent” in Hebrew) is deeply paradoxical; they are leaving the first country in history to emancipate Jews, for a country where the danger to them is omnipresent.