The Israeli government has stepped into the fray of Jewish politics in France.
Following the latest anti-Semitic attack — the firebombing of a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Creteil in the early hours of the new year — Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior, sharply denounced the French authorities and French society for tolerating such violence.
“France is the worst Western country concerning anti-Semitism,” Melchior told the French daily Le Monde.
Referring to the 320 acts of anti-Jewish aggression reported by the Jewish community in 2001, Melchior condemned “French society” for not reacting forcefully enough when the incidents began.
“The political leaders and intellectuals did not take them seriously enough,” Melchior said of the dramatic rise in anti-Semitic violence that began with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.
In a suggestive bit of timing, his comments came at the same time that Israel issued a communique stating that, in light of “the wave of anti-Semitism in France,” French Jews emigrating to Israel would receive the best aid package offered by the Israeli government.
This aid status also is granted to immigrants from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. It also recently was granted to Jews emigrating from Argentina and South Africa.
The aid allocation is intended to allow newly arrived immigrants to live for seven months without having to spend any of their personal savings. The sum ranges from about $4,500 dollars for a student to $13,000 for a family with two children under age 4.
The communique justified Israel’s decision by stating that 40 percent of France’s 600,000 Jews live surrounded by Muslim hostility.
“The wave of anti-Semitism that strikes in France offers an opportunity to the state of Israel to bring in thousands of Jews,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in the communique.
In their immediate responses to Melchior’s remarks, top French Jewish leaders criticized Israel’s reading of French anti-Semitism.
Jean Kahn, the president of the Consistoire of France and an instrumental figure in lobbying the Israel government to give French olim enhanced benefits, called Melchior’s statements “a bit over the top.”
“There is in France a wave of anti-Semitism, different from the old anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair,” he explained. “Its authors are of Maghrebin origin and somewhat on the left.”
Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, took a similar perspective.
“The traditional anti-Semitism of the extreme right is not as serious in France,” he said. “The anti-Jewish acts committed in the last year here are very clearly localized in communities where Jew and Maghrebin live side by side.”
Most surprising, perhaps, was the reaction of Eli Barnavi, Israel’s ambassador to France.
Interviewed on Israeli radio, Barnavi claimed that “all the polls reveal a state of increasing integration for the Jewish community.”
The polls also “show that only some 10 percent of the French population manifests any anti-Semitic feelings,” Barnavi said.
For his part, French President Jacques Chirac refused to comment on Melchior’s criticism.
But he did use a recent meeting with French religious leaders to reconfirm his “severe condemnation of all anti-Semitic acts.”
Sharon, who formally has retained the post of absorption minister since his government took power last March, hopes to take advantage of the ferment in the French Jewish community over the Socialist government’s refusal to take a hard line against anti-Semitic violence.
One of Sharon’s priorities as prime minister has been to increase the Jewish population in Israel. The number of olim, or immigrants, from France — which has Europe’s largest Jewish community — has been flagging during the past few years.
In 2001, some 1,200 French Jews emigrated to Israel, a 20 percent drop from the previous year. The decline might reflect concern about rising Arab terrorism in Israel.
Such concerns persist in many Jewish communities here, particularly in Paris and its surrounding suburbs, but signs are beginning to appear of a revived interest in aliyah, or immigration to Israel, among French Jews.
Last fall, the French office of the Jewish Agency for Israel reported a sharp increase in the number of Jews requesting information about aliyah.
According to Dov Puder, the Jewish Agency’s director, many of the potential olim expressed being “bothered” by the problem of anti-Semitic aggression.
“They are motivated by the situation in France as much as the situation in Israel, but they are more concerned than in the past with the situation in France,” Puder recently explained.
Melchior’s polemic against France, leaked to French correspondents in Jerusalem to coincide with the release of Sharon’s communique, appears intended to give a boost of encouragement to such people who may be considering aliyah.
Israel’s new financial incentives may be enough to motivate families of Sephardic Jews from the working-class suburbs of the Paris region.
Many of the most recent anti-Semitic acts have struck schools and synagogues in subsidized housing areas inhabited both by Sephardic Jews and Maghrebins, as Arabs of North African descent are known.
France’s sluggish economy has made it difficult for many Jewish families to put aside the kind of savings that relocation would require.
A recent study of the financial situation of French Jews, undertaken by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption, found that 30 percent depend upon social support provided by the French state.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.