'We despair': French Jews feel abandoned by government and society

Prominent members of the Paris community say there is a pervasive feeling that there is no future for Jewish life in France


Jews in France are in “despair” and feel so abandoned by government and society that they see no future at all for their children, prominent members of the community have said.

Speaking the day before Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) rioters set fire to shops and restaurants on the Champs-Élysées, Haim Musicant, the vice-president of French B’nai B’rith, said the anti-establishment movement was the latest expression of a wave of antisemitism that has been building in French society for the past 20 years.  

“It began during the Second Intifada […] Today, a poll shows us 50 per cent of Gilets Jaunes think there is a global Zionist plot. Their anger is focused on President Macron, but one of the reasons constantly given is that he worked at the Rothschild bank.”

The same conspiracy theories are found among many sections of French society, added the former director general  of Crif, the French Jewish umbrella body. “The stereotypes about Jews are alive and well — Jews have money, Jews have power. 

“This has not changed, even after the Holocaust,” said Mr Musicant, whose father’s entire family was massacred by the Nazis in their Russian shtetl while he was fighting with the Red Army in Berlin.   

He added: “The same survey found 20 per cent of all French people also believe in a Zionist plot. We have to accept the idea that today there are several sections of society ranged against the Jews. Those include many Muslims — not all Muslims — the extreme right and the extreme left.” 

As a result, he said, “For 20 years Jews have been feeling like they are in a boxing match — and now they feel they are on the ropes.” 

Georges Bensoussan, a prominent historian and editor of the Shoah History Review, agreed: “There is no future for Jews in France. Lots of community leaders do not want to hear this. But you can hear everywhere people asking themselves — ‘Where should we go? When should we go?’ This is not an easy option. But they go. The majority feel that the peaceful years are finished.”

In early February this year, it was reported there had been a 74 per cent rise in antisemitic acts in France in 2017. A few days later, amid  an ongoing deluge of hate crimes against Jews across France — including cemetery desecrations and a verbal attack on prominent philosopher Alain Finkielkraut by Gilets Jaunes protesters — 20,000 Parisians gathered at the Place de la Republique to protest against Jew-hate.

Fourteen political parties urged people to attend, with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and more than half his cabinet attending the rally.

Earlier the same day, Mr Macron had promised to crack down on hate crimes during a visit to a cemetery in Quatzenheim in the Alsace region where 96 Jewish graves had been spray-painted with blue and yellow swastikas the previous night.

“It was great,” said Mr Musicant, “but day afterwards we felt lonely again. Macron’s response was not enough. We don’t need discussions, statements. We need concrete action to give us hope.”

Mr Musicant added: “Mr Macron announced five proposals. In the first, he said he would launch a study into why Jews are not entering state schools. But we already know the answer.”

Jewish families, he said, no longer feel state schools are safe enough for their children because teachers are either unable or unwilling to “fight” for them when they face antisemitic attacks or abuse.

“There are hardly any Jewish children left in state schools. The teachers can’t stick up for them. So now, when there aren’t enough places in Jewish schools, Jews take places in Catholic schools, which are private and they feel more protected. There are  more than 5,000 Jewish children in Catholic schools in Paris.”
March 19 was the seventh anniversary of the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, in which a rabbi and three children were shot dead by an Islamist terrorist.

“Before [the attack], it was impossible to get a place for a child at a Jewish school in Toulouse,” he said. “Now there are empty places. Most of the families have gone to Israel.”

Paris, the scene of the massacre at the Porte de Vincennes Hyper Cacher supermarket by a terrorist in 2015, has also seen major demographic shifts.

“There used to be areas in north east Paris such as Sarcelles with large Jewish populations, where the Jewish and other ethnic minority groups coexisted well. But since the antisemitic attacks started ramping up, people have moved out of those areas to the 16th and 17th arrondissements.”

He added that the judiciary was failing to grasp the gravity of the situation, pointing to a recent decision by a judge that a shooting attack on a man leaving a synagogue was not a hate crime.  

Parisian Jews have not just swapped neighbourhoods, but also huddled closer together — physically and culturally — over the past few years, he said. “There are more kosher restaurants in Paris than in Tel Aviv. It doesn’t mean that all Jews eat there are religious — it’s just a way of affirming their identity. There is much stronger need for that in the current climate.”

Mr Bensoussan said that while already-high aliyah had stopped rising in France — after a spike following the Hyper Cacher atrocity — there were no figures for Jews leaving to the US, Canada, Australia or the UK.

Mr Musicant said: “There is this feeling, ‘There’s nothing I can do. I’m off.’”

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