(JTA) — French Jews are experiencing the most difficult situation they have encountered since the end of World War II, the newly elected president of France’s umbrella of Jewish communities said.
Francis Kalifat, 64, said Sunday that his first priority as president of CRIF is to fight against the anti-Semitism that he said was responsible for the situation he described.
“The fight against anti-Semitism is our main cause because French Jews are in the most difficult situation they have experienced since World War II,” Kalifat said in an interview with Radio J shortly after his unanimous election to succeed Roger Cukierman as president.
Kalifat, an Algeria native and the first Sephardic Jew to hold the position since CRIF was established in 1944, was the only candidate to become the umbrella group’s 11th president.
His presidency, which will become effective next month, comes at a time of record emigration by Jews from France, partly because of anti-Semitic violence that included hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents annually in recent years and dozens of physical assaults. Since 2012, attacks on Jewish targets by French Islamists in France and Belgium have claimed the lives of 12 people. Last year, approximately 8,000 French Jews left for Israel — the highest number on record for any year, which made France for the second consecutive year Israel’s largest provider of newcomers.
“I think all of our force needs to be united to fight against this anti-Semitism in all its forms because we see this new anti-Semitism advancing under the guise of anti-Zionism,” added Kalifat, a businessman and longtime activist for Zionist and Jewish causes.
Fulfilling a role similar to Britain’s Board of Deputies of British Jews, CRIF is widely considered to be the main representative political body of French Jews, hosting French presidents and prime minister at events and gala dinners several times a year. The CRIF presidential election takes place every three years.
France’s Jewish community is predominantly Sephardic, with Ashkenazi Jews estimated to constitute a minority of 30 percent of the community. Roughly half of French Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of Jews later immigrated to France from North Africa, replenishing the community’s ranks. Yet CRIF has had a succession of Ashkenazi presidents in what some critics said reflected a disconnect between the organization’s constituents and its leadership.
Following his election by the CRIF executive council, Kalifat delivered a speech that he began by recalling his parents.
“My mother, a real Jewish mother, was always understanding, warm and tolerant,” he said. “My father was a police official who loyally served our country and taught me humbleness, patience and respect for others, but above all a sense of duty.”