Being Jewish in France: 'Just go back to Tel Aviv!'

With roughly half a million people, France is home to the world's third-largest Jewish community, after Israel and the US. Nevertheless, many Jews no longer feel at ease in France in the face of increasing harassment.

We meet in the synagogue. It's Friday, and the Sabbath will start in a few hours. Ilan Shalom begins his afternoon prayer. His upper body is rocking back and forth; Shalom is laser-focused. He doesn't even seem to notice the little boys wearing yarmulkes rushing through the prayer room on their way to music lessons.

"Once I have started the prayer, I can't just interrupt it," he says afterwards.

The 34-year-old father regularly visits the synagogue and is an active parishioner, but first of all he is French, which he says is important to him.

Moving to the countryside

In 2018, the French Ministry of the Interior recorded a 74 percent increase in the number of crimes against Jews compared with the previous year. The total number of offenses was roughly 540.

Read more: Are France and the EU helpless against anti-Semitism?

However, these are only the official figures, Francis Kalifat, President of the Central Council of French Jews (CRIF) in Paris, told DW. According to him, not all anti-Semitic incidents, such as graffiti on letterboxes, are reported. Kalifat believes the number of unreported cases is far higher.

Kalifat says many anti-Semitic incidents in France go unreported

The consequences for the Jewish community in France are manifold. Parents are increasingly considering taking their children out of public schools because they fear their kids would be insulted there, Kalifat said. He also expressed concern that Jewish families are increasingly retreating to rural areas because they consider cities to be unsafe.

Changing environment

At the synagogue, located in Paris' 17th arrondissement, Shalom kisses the Torah before carefully putting it away. Later that evening, he will say the prayer there before he begins the Sabbath with his family at home.

For now, the synagogue is still a bustling place. Little girls in dance skirts giggle in the corridor and children paint in the corner.

Read more: 'Auschwitz did not begin in Auschwitz'

"We like to meet here, it really is a relaxed place where we come together at the end of the week," Delphine Taieb says with a smile. "Many bring their little children for the afternoon program."

But she also points out that the mood in the country overall has changed a lot and she is much more careful about what she says now.

Anti-Semitism no longer just from extreme right

"I hardly ever mention Israel or that I'm Jewish," Taieb says while we talk in the synagogue. "You can never be sure who you're dealing with."

She says she has had people yell at her: "Just go back to Tel Aviv!"

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DW News | 20.02.2019

Massive protests against anti-Semitic attacks in France

Her son emigrated to Israel four years ago. After the 2015 hostage-taking in the Jewish supermarket Hyper Cacher, which followed the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, more than 7,000 French people of the Jewish faith left the country within one year, according to CRIF statistics.

Read more: Paris attack and Europe's history of anti-Semitism

Sociologist Nonna Mayer of Sciences Po in Paris says that anti-Semitic crimes in France involve damage to property, physical violence and insults to Jewish people.

Anti-Semitism is a form of racism that has always been observed in France, Mayer told DW. "It didn't suddenly show up stronger," she said. "What's new is that it doesn't just come from the extreme right."

Anti-establishment anger

Mayer noted a new hatred of Israel, which in some instances comes from the left-wing extremist, pro-Palestinian side. She has also observed an increase in hostility from the milieu of radical Islam. But she doesn't see the migration wave to Europe in 2015 as the cause of more hatred against Jews. The hostility, Mayer says, comes from young people with immigrant backgrounds who often know nothing about the conflict in the Middle East, but who view Jews as part of an elite they cannot reach.

Read more: Did anti-Semites infiltrate France's yellow vests?

Mayer says anti-Semitism in France is not a new phenomenon

May also pointed to France's yellow vest protest movement, which she believes feeds anti-Jewish hostility. It is an expression of bitterness and social injustice and is directed against elites of all kinds, she said. The primary target of the protesters' anger is President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who Mayer says is viewed by many protesters as being close to money, power and Jews. In her view, anti-Semitism has less and less to do with actual religion.

Is showing your Jewishness 'too dangerous?'

Ilan Shalom steps out of the synagogue into the sun, wearing his yarmulke. "I've always done that; I don't want to hide and I never will," he says.

But ever since he became a father, Shalom has been pondering the issue from a different angle. "I don't know if I can really advise my sons to show their Jewishness," he says. "I have answered this question for myself. Not for my children. Maybe it is too dangerous. That's what I'm afraid of."