Among those attending the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington last week was Roger Cukierman, president of an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in France.
Anti-Semitic violence there has gotten global attention since the January attacks on a Jewish deli and the headquarters of a satirical magazine in Paris, but the trend began more than a decade ago, Cukierman says.
“In 1991, there were 70-80” violent incidents directed against Jews for the whole year, Cukierman told reporters at a press conference at the Washington residence of the French ambassador. “Last year there were 851 incidents” against Jews in France, he said.
According to Cukierman, the numbers started rising exponentially after the year 2000. Asked whether the U.S. attacks on Muslim countries following 9/11 played some role, Cukierman said, “I never thought of any connection with U.S. responsibility.”
Perhaps the collapse of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in 2001 and the onset of the second intifada was a factor?
“I believe anti-Zionism is only a pretext,” Cukierman said.
Jews have lived in France for 2,000 years, he said, and endured far worse periods, including a World War II government that collaborated with the Nazis and let French Jews be gassed at Auschwitz. But more and more French Jews are choosing to leave now because of hostility from the extreme right, the extreme left and elements in France’s growing Muslim population, he said.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced criticism in January for suggesting that France’s half million Jews should move to Israel for their own safety, Cukierman said it was a reality that emigration is on the rise.
Some 3,000 Jews left the country for good in 2013, 7,000 in 2014 and “I expect between 10,000-15,000” in 2015, he said.
They are going not because of Netanyahu’s appeal, he added, which he said he has heard before from previous Israeli leaders.
“A man who is considering leaving France does not do it because the prime minister of Israel has requested his presence,” Cukierman said. Instead, he blamed an “atmosphere” in which Jewish children must be protected by both police and the army and young men wearing skullcaps are accosted in the subway.
Only a third of Jewish families now send their children to public school in France to avoid harassment, he said.
Stuart Eizenstat, a former undersecretary of state, ambassador to the European Union and special adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry on Holocaust Issues, told a panel at the AIPAC conference that Belgian Jewish friends had told him recently that they were moving to Florida because as one put it, “there is no future for my children in Belgium.”
Other friends in Britain recounted that one their daughters, a teacher, was advised by her principal not to let her students know she was Jewish, while another daughter was asked by her professor at Bristol University, “ ‘Isn’t it odd that no Jews were killed in the 9/11 attacks?’ ”
While anti-Semitism has long plagued Europe, the current animosity suggests an increasing conflation of attitudes toward Jews and Israel.
Eizenstat quoted the results of a 2012 survey by the Anti-Defamation League in 10 European countries in which more than half of those polled said Jews were more loyal to Israel than to their native countries and 65 percent said their opinion of Jews had gotten worse because of Israeli actions.
Of European Jews polled in 2013 by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, almost 60 percent had been confronted by the claim that the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated, a third said they had experienced harassment because of their religious or ethnic identity in the previous five years and nearly a third said they had considered emigration because they did “not feel safe” anymore, Eizenstat said.
Over the past three years, besides this year’s attacks in Paris, there have been fatal assaults in Belgium, at a school in Toulouse and a synagogue in Denmark.
Both Eizenstat and Cukierman noted that the situation in Europe today could not be compared to the 1930s and 40s, when governments actively colluded in anti-Semitic actions. European governments have vehemently condemned the recent attacks and taken immediate steps to increase protection for Jewish people and property.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went so far as to say that France without Jews would not be France.
But Cukierman said there was much more that could be done to block hate speech from the Internet and to inject accurate depictions of Jews into French public schools.
His organization took out a full page ad in the New York Times recently to urge social media giants such as Google and Facebook to remove anti-Semitic content as soon as it is identified.
“Help us defuse the hate where it moves most freely – on the Internet,” Cukierman wrote.
Much more could be done to deal with the causes of anti-Semitism’s rise, particularly among Europe’s Muslim population.
Kenan Malik, an Indian-born English author, wrote recently that both “multiculturalism” and “assimilationism” had failed to integrate the children of Muslim immigrants in Europe.
This generation is “caught not between two cultures, as it is often claimed, but without one,” Malik wrote. “Moving forward Europe must rediscover a progressive sense of universal values [and] a renewal of civil society.”
Renewed tolerance is sorely needed not just in Europe but in the Middle East, where minority populations are increasingly under threat from the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
Unless these trends can be reversed, it will be harder and harder to find Christians in Arab countries and Jews will increasingly flee Europe, if not to Israel, than to the United States and Canada.
As for French Jews, Cukierman said, whether they stay or go “is a very personal decision. It’s respectable if they decide to leave and respectable if they decide to stay.”
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.