TOPICS : Anti-Semitism rising, French Jews consider quitting

Peter Ford

On a sunny summer’s day in this middle-class suburb north of Paris it is not hard to imagine yourself in Israel: Jewish bookshops and kosher grocery stores line busy streets full of men wearing skullcaps and religious women wearing head scarves. But Sarcelles has been plunged into the midst of a painful debate about the future of Jews in France as a rising plague of anti-Semitic incidents fuels fears for their safety and prompts a new drive by the Israeli authorities to bring potential citizens back. Some here put on a brave front. “Jewish life is vibrant in Sarcelles,” says Marc Djebali, who heads a federation of local Jewish associations. Others take a darker, even apocalyptic view, predicting ev-er more violent conflict with their Muslim neighbors of North African descent.

Sarcelles is at the eye of the storm not least because it is home to one of the largest and most-organised concentrations of Jews in France, some 15,000-strong according to community leaders. In an offhand comment to an Israeli reporter in Jerusalem, an official of the Jewish Agency — a quasigovernmental Israeli body encouraging Jews to immigrate — last week referred to the agency’s new focus on France as the ‘Sarcelles First’ plan. That wordplay on the “Gaza First” plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip does not reflect any official policy to empty Sarcelles of Jews, insists Arieh Azoulay, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption committee. But France “is very clearly a priority for us,” he says, and he hopes to attract up to 15,000 French Jews to Israel within two years.

Until three years ago, some 1,000 French Jews “made aliyah,” or immigrated to Israel, each year. But that figure rose when the Palestinian intifadah began to spill over into Muslim-Jewish community relations in France, and this year 3,000 Jews are expected to make aliyah. The Jewish Agency has set its sights on France, home to about 500,000 Jews, partly because it is the second largest reservoir of potential immigrants after the US, and partly because most French Jews already have relatives in Israel, says Azoulay.

Taking their cue from President Jacques Chirac, French politicians have spoken out strongly against anti-Semitism in recent months, clearly shaken by attacks on synagogues, desecrations of Jewish graves, and violent assaults on Jews. Earlier this month, Justice Minister Dominique Perben announced that authorities had counted 180 anti-Semitic incidents so far this year. Sarcelles has suffered only one major anti-Semitic attack: one of the town’s five Jewish schools was burned down two years ago. Locals complain that Jews are vulnerable to repeated harassment when they leave their district. Schoolchildren are roughed up or robbed on their way home, school buses are often stoned, and identifiably Jewish men are insulted as “dirty Jews.” Most French pe-ople sympathise more with the Palestinians than with Israelis in the conflict that pits them against each other. And when young Muslims attack Jews as surrogate Israelis, they believe, French society stands aside. In that atmosphere, Djebali suggests, more and more Sarcelles Jews will begin thinking seriously about emigrating to Israel, whatever the risks of pulling up sticks. — The Christian Science Monitor