Gavin Mortimer

Why Britain’s Jews look to France with fear

Why Britain's Jews look to France with fear
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The Jewish New Year begins on Sunday and to mark the festival of Rosh Hashanah, Emmanuel Macron visited the Grand Synagogue in Paris on Tuesday. It was the first time that a president of France has attended and although he didn't give an address (that would breach the laïcité protocol) Macron's gesture was appreciated by the chief rabbi of France, Haïm Korsia. "You are like the Wailing Wall," Korsia told the president. "We confide in you our hopes and our sorrows and although we get no response we know that somebody hears us".

Joël Mergui, the president of the Israelite central consistory of France, was more forthright when he spoke. "Our children are leaving," he said, referring to the 20,000 plus Jews who have emigrated to Israel in the last four years. "France, once a land of asylum, is becoming a land of exile for Jews."

He also urged Macron to resist pressure from some elements on the right who want all religious practices – of whatever faith – to be curtailed, but Mergui's strongest words were reserved for those whose passive complicity has enabled the resurgence in anti-Semitism this century. "Out of fear of stigmatising...France has wasted years in the fight against radical Islam," he said. The reappearance of anti-Semitism in France should serve as a salutary lesson to Britain; a warning of what happens when politicians turn their face from the truth.

In 2002, the historian Georges Bensoussan published The Lost Territories of the Republic: anti-Semitism, racism and sexism in schools. The book caused a sensation, and was praised and pilloried in equal measure. The right hailed the book (which was based on the testimonies of teachers in France) as proof that a separate set of values were taking root in the Republic with anti-Semitism at its core; the left said if there was any racism to be found it came from Bensoussan, who had traduced the Muslim population. That same year, Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election and the left wrung its hands at what the New York Times described as the "resurgence of the violent hatred that caused the holocaust". Le Pen is an anti-Semite but it wasn't his supporters responsible for the majority of assaults on French Jews. "Traditional extreme-right anti-Semitism has not gotten worse in France," explained Roger Cukierman, the then president of the country's main Jewish council. "Anti-Jewish acts committed for the last year have clearly been situated in areas where Muslim and Jewish communities are neighbours."

It wasn't long before the assaults turned murderous, perpetrated by young men from the milieu described in Bensoussan's book. The first to die was Ilan Halimi, a young Parisian Jew who was abducted in 2006 and tortured to death over three weeks by a gang who had Salafist and Pro-Palestine leanings.

In 2012, Mohammed Merah shot dead three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in Toulouse; in 2015, Amedy Coulibaly executed four shoppers in a Paris Kosher supermarket; in 2017, the elderly Dr. Sarah Halimi was murdered in her Paris apartment by a man shouting 'Allahu Akbar'; and this year, Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor, met a similar fate in the French capital.

There have been hundreds of other assaults on France's 465,000 Jews, most recently at the weekend, when a man was beaten in the centre of Paris by three assailants screaming 'Dirty Jew'. Media coverage of the assault was muted, particularly on the left, prompting Bernard-Henri Lévy to tweet: "This banality of evil becomes abominable."

A vigil was held in Paris after the death of Madame Knoll but both Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen were barred from attending. The leader of the far-left La France Insoumise is no anti-Semite and he angrily objected to being bracketed alongside the "extreme right", but Mélenchon's protestations demonstrated his blindness at how anti-Semitism has taken root among some of the younger left.

In April this year, 300 prominent figures in France signed a manifesto warning that the country's Jews were the victims of "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of radical Islamists. What was noticeable to Philippe Val, the organiser of the manifesto, was how few young Socialists were prepared to put their name to the letter: "Those who signed from the Socialist Party were sixty plus and had retired from active politics," he said. "The young generation is apparently more preoccupied by the Gaza Strip and Hamas, a terrorist organisation, than by the fate of their Jewish compatriots."

What's true of the French left is also true of the British left. There are many decent men and women in the Labour Party but for too long they have stood by and said nothing as their party has been infiltrated by anti-Semites. The endgame of such apathy is evident in the fate of French Jews.