The first thing you see is the machine gun, casually slung over the shoulder of a soldier. He stands in front of a concrete barrier topped with spikes that hides the entrance to a private Jewish school in Sarcelles, 12 miles north of Paris.
On a warm afternoon in April, students stream out of the well-guarded gate as their parents hover, mothers in long skirts, fathers dressed in black.
“The soldiers are here to protect us,” shrugs seven-year-old Shana Haddad, a petite redhead with a wide smile. But she’s at a loss when asked why. “They just do!” she replies, puzzled.
Her parents talked about the events in Paris earlier this year at a Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket and the offices of Charlie Hebdo—a satirical magazine that lampoons Islam along with other mainstream religions—but kept the details of the slaughter to a minimum. Of course, she never watched the news as police hunted for the gunmen or heard stories about the funerals of the victims—14 civilians and three police officers—in the days that followed.
But her father Laurent Haddad, a burly judo instructor, and his wife Daniella Haddad were transfixed. They know all too well why soldiers have to guard their daughter’s school and patrol synagogues and Jewish community centres. More than half the Jewish families in Villepinte, their working-class town about 12 miles south-east of Sarcelles, have already left. The local synagogue, which has been torched twice, is barely holding on, scrambling each day to gather a minyan—the ten men required to hold prayer services.
Now they are leaving too.
Unable to sell, they rented their house and left France with their five offspring, aged two months to seven years, for Haifa in the north of Israel, in early August.
“It’s for the kids’ future,” Laurent, 37, tells me. “The threat of violence here is part of our daily lives.”
The family is part of what’s becoming a trend in France: last year, 7,231 Jews from a population of 475,000 moved to Israel, compared to 3,280 the year before. With mounting anti-Semitism and a national unemployment rate that’s been stuck at around ten per cent for the past three years, thousands more are expected to continue the exodus this year and next.
“We don’t expect Israel to be a magic solution to everything,” Laurent says. “But we’re convinced it will be better than what we have now.”
Anti-Semitism has been in France as long as Jews have been there, from expulsions in the Middle Ages to the collaboration of French police and civil servants in the Nazi round-up of 13,152 Jews, including more than 4,000 children, over two days in 1942.
But in the last 15 years, since the beginning of the second intifada in Gaza, the source of most of it has quickly changed from a nationalist right wing replete with those who deny or downplay the Holocaust to those who confuse their hatred of Israel with Jews in general. Mix in unemployment, abject poverty in suburbs with high immigrant populations and the conversion of those serving time in French jails to extremist Islamist ideologies, and you get a powerful recipe for hatred.
Over the years, the acts have ranged from name-calling and racist flyers to assaults, muggings and the defacement of Jewish graves. In January 2006, Ilan Halimi, a mobile-phone salesman, was kidnapped by a gang because its members thought Jews, being Jews, would have money to pay a ransom; after being tortured for three weeks, he died from his injuries.
In March 2012 the world was horrified when a jihadi killed three children and a father outside a Jewish school in Toulouse because, he said, “Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” and it was horrified again this year by the massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices and Hyper Cacher supermarket.
But for Jews living in certain areas of France, anti-Semitism has become so much a part of their daily lexicon that the world’s knee-jerk vows of “never again” have become devoid of meaning. Like when a Jewish family just north of Paris was set upon in June 2013 by a group of white men who shouted epithets such as, “Heil Hitler, we should have burned you and finished the job in 1940”—all because a family member asked one of them to respect the 20-mile speed limit as he rode his motorcycle.
Richard Krawczyk, an accounting professor at a Lycé in Paris, found himself flat out on the pavement in the city’s 19th arrondissement in March last year, his nose broken, with severe bruising and a swastika scrawled on his body in black ink. The 50-year-old had just left a kosher restaurant after supper with friends and was walking towards the metro. All of a sudden, three men were upon him, calling “Dirty Jew! Death to the Jews!” His assailants ran off when they heard sirens. He spent the night in hospital, made a police
report and missed a week of work.
“For me, being Jewish is a way of life,” Richard tells me. “I’m married to a Christian woman and our children weren’t raised Jewish. But they all respect my choices. Yet when I am walking among strangers, people look at me with hate in their eyes.”
I’m sitting with Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in a cafe next to the Place de la RÃÂ©publique, where the Marianne statue that towers over the square is draped with a banner that reads “Je suis Charlie,” the phrase taken up by much of the western world to show solidarity with those who were slaughtered in January and their survivors.
Samuels is at once disillusioned and realistic:
“Would the reaction have been the same if only the Hyper Cacher had been targeted? Charlie Hebdo made it a crime against us all. But can you imagine a banner that says, ‘I am the Hyper Cacher?’ ”
In response to such acts, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced in April this year that the government was funnelling £75m to a national anti-racism programme that includes a national awareness campaign, harsher punishments and an increased monitoring of hate speech disseminated online.
Samuels shrugs. If they haven’t moved outright, many French Jews like himself are hedging their bets, buying property in Israel and even moving their families while continuing to work here. “With flights that last just over four hours between Paris and Tel Aviv, it’s easy to do,” he says.
Still, many Jews are staying. The solution, they say, is not flight but dialogue. Diana Pinto, a prominent historian, cautions against the position that France is bad for Jews. The sheer size of France’s Jewish community may have turned it into a crucible for the rest of the continent but many anti-Semitic acts, including extreme ones, occur outside its borders too.
As examples, she quickly points to the killing in May last year of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and a shooting rampage earlier this year by a Muslim gunman outside a synagogue in Copenhagen, which claimed the life of a young Jewish man and injured two police officers.
“There are certain neighbourhoods you wouldn’t enter as a yarmulke-wearing Jew, but the old image of Jews packing suitcases and fleeing a pogrom is plain wrong,” she continues. “The fact is that the majority of Jews, including me, aren’t going anywhere.”
Rabbi Michel Serfaty is an activist based south of Paris in the community of Ris d’Orangis, less than two miles from the high-rise apartment building that was home to the Hyper Cacher gunman. Three civil bodyguards watch over him 24 hours a day, checking bushes, parking lots and cars for suspicious packages or the blink from binoculars or a firearm ready
Once a professor of linguistics and Jewish studies at the UniversitÃÂÃÂ© de Nancy, Rabbi Serfaty, bearded and grave, believes the solution is reaching out to people in underprivileged
communities. When not ministering to his small congregation, he travels throughout France on a “bus of peace” to promote a group he helped found in 2005—L’AmitiÃ© JudÃ©o-Musulmane de France [the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Association]
“When someone says, ‘But you’ll be stoned going there,’ I say that’s a good thing because people will then realise where the work has to be done,” he tells me. “We have to say no to hate and misunderstanding where it will count most.”
Laurent Haddad and his wife Daniella didn’t decide to pack up on the spur of the moment. Should they tear their children from everything that was familiar? Would Laurent be able to learn enough Hebrew to land a good job?
While his wife was born in Israel, he was born in France, and although Jews who move to Israel get immediate citizenship, he’s torn about leaving his parents, siblings and other relatives behind. “It feels like I’m giving up on a place that I love, on my home,” he admits.
But every time he feels a pang of regret, he remembers the grainy images from last January—the four dead Jewish men who tried to stop the jihadi and cowering hostages who hid in a freezer in the basement. He says: “It’s my refrain for goodbye.”