France's Jewish Community Looks to Macron for Answers After Series of anti-Semitic Crimes

Some Jewish leaders say French authorities need to change their approach as data shows 74 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents last year

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People take the streets near Republique square to protest against anti-Semitism, in Paris, February 19, 2019.
People take the streets near Republique square to protest against anti-Semitism, in Paris, February 19, 2019.Credit: Christophe Ena,AP
Shirli Sitbon

PARIS — Growing anti-Semitism has been the key topic for nearly two decades at the annual dinner organized by the umbrella organization of French Jewish community organizations known by its French initials, the CRIF. The subject has been at the top of the agenda since 2000, when what has been dubbed the “new anti-Semitism,” often surfacing among radicalized Muslims and coming on top of hatred expressed by the far right, first appeared.

French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the issue at this year’s CRIF dinner on Wednesday in the wake of several anti-Semitic incidents, which included swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans painted on some 100 Jewish graves in the eastern village of Quatzenheim and verbal abuse directed at French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.

Jewish tombstones are desecrated with swastikas in the Herrlisheim Jewish cemetery, north of Strasbourg, eastern France, December 2018.Credit: Jean-Francois Badias,AP

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Macron said that France is adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, which has not been adopted by any French political party, and that the government will “significantly increase” funding for the national Holocaust memorial.

The French president also said that he had instructed the education minister to probe schools that have seen students being pulled out by their parents over fears of anti-Semitism. 

He further said that people convicted of anti-Semitism would be banned from social media and that websites would be forced to delete hateful messages immediately. 

Macron visited the Holocaust memorial in Paris and the Quatzenheim cemetery on Tuesday.

“We had never thought this could happen in our village,” a Jewish resident of Quatzenheim told Macron. “This can happen everywhere and it shouldn’t happen anywhere!” the French president replied. “We will act, we will pass legislation, we will punish.”

French Muslim gather at the Republique square to protest against anti-Semitism in Paris, February 19, 2019.Credit: Thibault Camus,AP

Macron isn’t the first French leader to address the issue. His predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls introduced plans to fight anti-Semitism, including school programs and legislation. French hate crime legislation provides for punishment that is double that of the same offense that is not motivated by hate, but the number of anti-Semitic incidents continues to climb.

New government figures show that there were 541 anti-Semitic incidents in France last year, a 74 percent increase over 2017. Some Jewish leaders have said that French authorities need to change their approach.

“Institutions in charge of fighting anti-Semitism have been using the same general methods for all types of hate crimes and that has proven ineffectual,” Francis Kalifat, the president of the CRIF, told Haaretz. “Different types of hate crimes — anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia — are carried out by different people for various reasons and each type of hatred should be targeted specifically,” he said.

Other religious leaders have expressed similar views, but French Rabbi Michel Serfaty, the founder of the French Jewish Muslim Friendship Association, said the authorities don’t need to change direction. Instead they need to intensify their efforts.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, visits the vandalized Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, eastern France, Feb. 19, 2019. Credit: Frederick Florin, Pool via AP

“Obviously anti-Semitism is still high, but that’s because it’s a long-term fight. It will take two generations to beat,” he told Haaretz. “You can’t give up. It’s like being on a battlefield.”

Thousands of French Jews have left for Israel in recent years and community leaders say they themselves have worked hard to maintain a diverse Jewish community in France. “It’s not only that many people have left. The problem is that those who have left were the most active members of the community,” said Joel Mergui, who heads the Jewish community’s Consistoire, the organization that oversees France’s synagogues and Jewish schools. “Our temporary solution is what I call ‘internal aliya’ — enlisting Jews who were not very active in the community into more demanding positions. But if more Jews leave, we will struggle to keep Jewish life as rich as it is today.”

Although the Jewish community and the French press have given considerable attention to those who have left France, they rarely mention Jews who have immigrated to Israel but then returned to France. “We’ll see how thing develop here and if they get any worse, we’ll leave,” said Jocelyne, a 45-year-old customer at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket at the edge of Paris that was the scene of a terrorist attack in 2015. “I have sent my children to Israel, however. There’s no future for them in France,” she said.

“Anti-Semitism has pushed me to wear my kippa [skullcap] more often. It made me embrace my identity,” said Jean-Bernard, “but I don’t think we should surrender to terrorism. I’m not afraid. Making aliya is a personal religious move. You shouldn’t go to Israel to flee anti-Semitism.”

Last week the Paris Jewish community witnessed the vandalism of a memorial to Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old Jewish man abducted and killed by a gang in 2006. Halimi is officially considered the first Jew killed in an anti-Semitic attack in recent decades. A tree planted in his memory in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, where he was found following the attack, was chopped down and another was damaged just days before an annual ceremony marking Halimi’s death.

“They want to assassinate Ilan Halimi a second time,” said the town’s mayor, Frédéric Petitta.”This year, in addition to the sadness and grief, we feel disgust and anger over what has happened.

The town has planted new trees at the memorial with local junior high students participating in the ceremony.”

“Children are crucial in the fight against anti-Semitism and intolerance,” said former Mayor Olivier Léonhardt. “Firstly, children are much more open-minded than other segments of the population. And second, they have influence. People around them listen to what they have to say.”

“Fighting anti-Semitism is a constant effort. Whenever I hear anyone making an anti-Semitic comment or implying something, I call them out,” said 62-year-old Marie-Hélène, whose husband and children are Jewish. But her friend Chantal added: “I’m not as optimistic as you are. I think the situation will only get worse, and France’s Jews are doomed.”

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