For the French-Jewish community, last week’s attacks were a confirmation of their worst fears. After a year of rising anti-Jewish violence—attacks on Jewish families, synagogue firebombings, anti-Semitic marches—Jews are now fleeing Paris in record numbers, according to news reports. French authorities have acknowledged the severity of the situation, deploying thousands of police officers to protect Jewish schools and other “sensitive sites.”
But is anti-Semitism really the main problem? We asked Michel Gurfinkiel, founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.—Rachel E. Gross
When it comes to last week’s attacks, how much are people in France focusing on the role of anti-Semitism?
The events of last week were of gigantic proportion, politically. But what was important was not that it was an anti-Jewish massacre, but that it was a massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The reason is not that the French care more about free press than Jews. It is because the people who were killed were legends in France. It was really like an enemy had declared war on France as a nation, a civilization, a way of life. I wouldn’t say that people took it lightly that Jews should be killed in France, but there was still a feeling that it had to do more with the Middle East.
The Muslim community. For instance, over last weekend you had up to 5 million people marching in the streets of France. But almost no Muslims marched. There was a clear separation. Some people realized it for the first time, other people took it as a confirmation of what they had long suspected: We now have the problem in France of a nation within a nation. And this is going to have considerable consequences on the politics of France.
Are there any statistics that connect France’s Muslim population with rising anti-Semitism?
There has been one investigation on anti-Semitism in France, conducted by the Foundation of Political Innovation, or Fondapol.
What you get from this report is, on the one hand, the French look like they aren’t anti-Semitic at all. When you take the national average, the French tend to say that the Jews are just French people. Most people say the Shoah was a terrible crime, most people support teaching about the Shoah, and so on. Even in those subsectors of the French public that are more anti-Semitic than others, you still have a majority of people giving reassuring answers and talking about the Jews in an acceptable way.
Now, the same investigation clearly has shown that there are three groups in France where you have more anti-Semitism than average. These are: supporters of the national front, Muslims, and the neo-Communist far left. When we come to Muslims, it gets extremely interesting. The more religiously observant a Muslim is in France, the more anti-Semitic he is.
That is worrisome, because there are more and more observant Muslims in France. In 2001, 36 percent of the Muslim population described itself as fully observant. In 2014, it went up to 42 percent. Of course, these figures cannot describe what really happens on the ground because when you try to have a balanced survey, you include a lot of people who are reluctant to express radical views. So you never know if they are as mainstream as they pretend to be.
What are the concerns about increasing an Muslim population and increasing anti-Semitism?
According to Minister of the Interior, the Muslim population of France is 9 percent. Nine percent out of a population of 67 million is over 6 million people, which is not a small number. But what is even more important is that the younger the population bracket, the more Muslim it is. When you talk to French citizens or residents under the age of 24, you don’t have 9 percent Muslims. You have almost 20 percent. If, among a growing Muslim population, religious observation continues to go up, we are getting into a very difficult situation.
How does the situation for French Jews today compare to attitudes toward Jews in the period following World War II?
After the Second World War there were Jews in France, but Jewish life as a religion, culture, civilization was almost dead. Gradually, in the 50s and 60s and 70s, dramatic change created a rebirth of Judaism as a living community, a living religion, a living civilization. That was done in part through proximity to Israel, in part because European and French culture opened up a little bit, and in part because the Jewish population of France doubled when Jews from North Africa came to France in the 60s. Once you have more than half a million Jews in the country, you reach a critical mass.
Every French Jew who grew up after the war grew up in a period of freedom, of assertiveness, of the feeling that being Jewish is great. Now all of a sudden, they are told: in order to be safe, don’t say you’re Jewish. In order to be safe, don’t mention your religion. In order to be safe, don’t mention Israel. So, psychologically, the entire Jewish population of France was not ready for such a decline.
How is the Jewish community reacting to increased fear of violence?
Jewish migration starts at home. Jews are leaving neighborhoods in France and going to other French neighborhoods which they deem to be less peaceful and less dangerous. For instance, a lot of Jewish families used to live in the east end of Paris, because housing was much more affordable. Now things have deteriorated in those areas to such a point that they are attempting to move to the west end of Paris, which is much more expensive. But since it is whiter and more Christian, it is considered safer.
You also have aliyah. In 2014, 7,000 people formally emigrated to Israel, which is 3 times as much as two years ago. Then you have the invisible aliyah. You have lots of people who, formally, are not migrating to Israel, either for financial reasons or other reasons. But in fact they have bought apartments of Israel, they are in process of transferring their money and businesses to Israel, and their children go to Israeli universities—even though they are not citizens yet.
In addition to immigration to Israel, you have immigration to the United States and other countries, especially Anglo Saxon counties—Canada, Australia, London, even Belgium. Of course you have heads of Jewish institutions and chief rabbis who will say that they trust the government. But the truth, the plain truth, is that we have reached the point of fear. There is a feeling that things are deteriorating too fast now, and people want to go.
When it comes to the Jewish community, you can see it. You see enormous amounts of people aren’t there anymore. Less and less students are in Jewish schools. Seats in synagogue are not filled the way they used to be.
How does France’s history affect how Jews are reacting?
What should be remembered that every Jew in France is either a survivor of the Holocaust or a son or daughter of survivors of the Holocaust, or somebody who was expelled from Islamic countries or a son or daughter of someone who as expelled form Islamic countries. So in every Jewish family you have a memory of a situation where everything deteriorates overnight, and the Jews are trapped, and things go very badly for Jews. This is why when some signs are accumulating, Jews realize what is going on.
To read Gurfinkiel’s full thoughts on the roots of anti-Semitism in France, download our free anti-Semitism e-book.