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A new anti-Semitism? Why thousands of Jewish citizens are leaving France

September 14, 2014 at 11:40 AM EDT
Some Jewish citizens in France say there is a rising tide of a new, more dangerous anti-Semitism in the country. In turn, thousands are leaving for Israel and other countries. In an effort to reassure Jewish people in France that they are safe, the government has taken strict measures against anti-Semitic demonstrations. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Jewish tradition is strong here. This is one of many synagogues in France. Jews have been in this country for centuries — numbering 500 thousand today. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe.

But for the first time in their living memory the Jews of this Synagogue in central Paris are talking about leaving France — fearing what they call a ‘new anti-Semitism.’

Lohan Layane says he is afraid that anti-Israeli sentiment has morphed into a wider, more dangerous anti-Semitism.

LOHAN LAYANE: If you have a David star over here, you can have a problem, or if you wear a kippa, some people come to you and say you are bad Jews, ‘we are going to kill you and put you in the sea.’ It’s frightening.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: In July, during Israel’s war with Hamas, the Synagogue was targeted by demonstrators who reportedly chanted ‘death to Jews’ as they attacked. These are images from inside the Synagogue — a show of force from police ended the protest.

This is the result: Constant police protection. Jews have been coming here to worship at this synagogue for 50 years, but now they say they won’t come unless the police are outside.

And it’s not just in Paris. In Sarcelles, a small community with a large Jewish population north of Paris, a peaceful pro-Palestinian march degenerated into violence against anything Jewish. Attacks like these have had a profound impact on the Jewish community.

At the Jewish Agency in Paris there has been a surge in applications for assistance to emigrate to Israel. The agency estimates 5,000 will leave this year — the highest ever.

The Melloul family of Paris is just days away from moving to Israel. Gabriel Melloul is a dermatologist and is giving up his successful practice.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: You think it’s going to get worse, not better?


YOEL MELLOUL: I’ve grown up with people from all different backgrounds. Its always been all right, but I feel it’s changing.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Sixteen-year old Judith is leaving many friends behind but she says it’s time.

JUDITH MELLOUL: In Israel we are free to live our religion and to show that we are Jewish. In France we have to hide the fact we are Jewish.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The situation has been deteriorating over the past few years. In 2012, three children and an adult were shot and killed at the Jewish School in Toulouse. And in May, killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels by a shooter later identified as French raised the anxiety level higher.

Anti-Semitism isn’t new in France. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew in the French army, was falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. He was jailed four years and eventually cleared, but not before ant-Semitism exploded. During World War II, the Vichy French government collaborated with the Nazis deporting over 75 thousand French Jews to concentration camps.

MAREK HALTER: To listen today in France, people crying “death to the Jews” for a child of Warsaw ghetto, this was a shock.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Marek Halter is a respected Jewish author and peace activist. In spite of his shock, he is urging Jews who remember the 1930’s and 1940’s not to leave.

MAREK HALTER: You are afraid, I understand. But it’s not the same. It’s not the same because at that time the governments were anti-Semitic. Today, you only have small minorities that are anti-Semitic.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Despite the rise of the far-right in France, there is agreement that the ‘new anti-Semitism’ people talk about is largely driven by radical Islam. Those killings in Toulouse and that Brussels attack both involved Muslim extremists.

Yossi Gal is Israel’s Ambassador to France.

YOSSI GAL: It is those extremists that guise this new anti-Semitism, this anti-Israel. But this anti-Zionism, anti-Israel is the new anti-Semitism here.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian feelings are strong among French Muslims. The majority come from North African countries, like Algeria and Morocco. Muslims account for as much as 10 percent of the French population.

MAN IN THE STREET: Those demonstrations were to show support for our Palestinian brothers, because of the bombs and because they are being killed.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But according to published reports, it is estimated that only a small percentage of France’s estimated 6.5  million Muslims harbor extremist views. And the people we spoke to in this predominantly Muslim area of Paris said there is a difference between being critical of Israel’s actions and being anti-Semitic.

MAN IN CAFE: I have nothing against the Jewish community because everyone has their religion, but what’s happened in Gaza is appalling.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Easy to see then how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stoked tensions over the summer. That Paris suburb of Sarcelles is still trying to come to terms with what happened here. Sarcelles has always been defined by peaceful co-existence between Jews and Muslims, so what happened here shocked both communities.

Sarcelles Mayor Francois Pupponi has been very outspoken against the violence.

FRANCOIS PUPPONI: It’s a catastrophe for this country. If Jews leave it’s a sign of the republic’s failure. We have to fight this.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: In his role as peacemaker, Marek Halter delivered a letter to the vice president of Sarcelles Synagogue from the Muslim Association here offering solidarity and support, condemning the violence.

MAREK HALTER: He’s saying it’s very good, but how many are there? The good people? He’s waiting for the big demonstration of thousands and thousands of Muslims in the street to show they are against the extremists.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: In the face of all of this France has taken steps to quell anti-Semitism. There are tough laws forbidding any kind of communication that might incite hatred, or discrimination.

Governing Socialist party spokesperson Corrine Narassiguin:

CORRINE NARASSIGUIN: The law on freedom of speech is very clear and very strict, so there are certain things you cannot say.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The government wants to reassure the Jews of France that they are safe here, that there is some hope.

So you’re prepared to wait it out, to stay?

MAN IN SYNAGOGUE: I’ll see. For now, I think wait and see, wait and see because it’s not easy to leave. It’s very brave to leave.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But four days after we met with the Melloul family, they went ahead with their plan to leave France for good.

SONIA MELLOUL: I am very happy to leave. No, I’m not sad, but there is something in my heart. It’s difficult.