Shortly before Nicolas Sarkozy became president, he had lunch at the Four Seasons with a dozen or so New Yorkers. While the government in Jerusalem was trying to protect the Jews of Israel, I asked him, did he feel confident he could protect the Jews of France?
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Sarkozy looked slightly startled and called the question “tres grave,” as in very serious. Then he averred that France was unified in its hostility to anti-Semitism. He declared that he would be able to protect the security of the world’s third largest Jewish community.
No doubt his heart was in the right place, like that of the current president, Francois Holland. But things are getting dicier. The attack on a Paris synagogue over the weekend is, to judge by news reports, one of the most chilling anti-Semitic attacks in years.
It began with a protest in support of the Arabs in Gaza. A faction splintered off and went for the synagogue in the rue de la Roquette. Members of the mob, according to a French Jewish journalist quoted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, had “murder on their minds.”
The gendarmes were inadequate. The mob managed to trap something like 200 congregants inside the shul. A special Jewish security patrol, members of Menachem Begin’s former youth group, Betar, and the Jewish Defense League saved the day.
What strikes me about the episode is that it comes ten years almost to the day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued his famous warning for the Jews to get out of France. Sharon was speaking to American Jews visiting Jerusalem, and he sought to draw a distinction.
All Israeli premiers encourage Jews living in other countries to move to the Jewish state, Sharon noted. “I say that to all Jews around the world,” Sharon said. In France, though, “I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”
The reaction from the Quai d’Orsay, as the French foreign ministry is called . . . well, let’s just say it set a new standard for French indignation. Yet Sharon didn’t flinch. He’d spoken after an astonishing string of attacks on French Jews.
In the space of a few weeks, vandals destroyed a mural painted by Jewish schoolchildren, a 17-year-old Jewish student was stabbed in the neck in a Paris suburb, a town hall in Vichy was painted in swastikas, “Jews out” was painted on graves at Colmar, a Jewish center was set on fire at Toulon, and a school for Jewish boys was firebombed.
Yet what was so alarming was the French government’s hostility to Israel. This had started under Charles de Gaulle and had turned ever more hostile turn. When arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat died in a French hospital, his corpse was given a French honor guard.
That was not surprising. President Jacque Chirac and other leaders had already embraced Arafat. Plus, the Quai d’Orsay had publicly endorsed the “right” of the Palestinian Arabs to take violent action against Jews in Israel.
So no one took seriously the French government’s indignation at Ariel Sharon’s warning. French Jews have been quietly leaving. This has been marked in a series of dispatches by journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. Gurfinkiel has cautioned that numbers are hard to come by, because French law doesn’t permit a census by religion. By all accounts, though, France’s Jewish population is down from the peak of 700,000 reached when Algeria’s Jews, among others, left after independence.
“I did not leave Morocco for France to be confronted by Morocco again in France,” Gurfinkiel was told by a Casablanca-born Jewish physician. He was in the process of fleeing to a less hostile neighborhood of Paris.
Gurfinkiel’s reporting finds many others, particularly large Orthodox families, eyeing Israel and America. Their worries about anti-Semitism, he reports, are exacerbated by campaigns to make kosher slaughter and even circumcision illegal.
That phenomenon that is not restricted to France but it is being watched by Europe’s largest Jewish community.
“Registration with the Jewish Agency for emigration to Israel is soaring,” he reported last year. “Students are enrolling in Israeli or American universities. Families are buying apartments in Israel, or houses in Florida.”
It would be inaccurate to say that France is expelling its Jews, but the distinction dwindles. Spain never recovered from the expulsion of its Jews, and France faces a serious situation. Or, as Sarkozy put it, “tres grave” indeed.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.