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‘Happy as a Jew in France!’ – What happened to smash the dream

The Wiesenthal Centre chose to open its office in Paris as France had — and still has — the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe. Though religion is not included in state census, it is estimated that there are about 500,000 Jews and over 4 million Muslims.

Despite the 1894 Dreyfus case — the Jewish French army Captain unjustly charged for espionage — that revealed a large retinue of antisemitism in a split country, despite the Vichy collaborationist role in harassing the Jews and deporting over 72,000 to the death camps, the mantra “Happy as a Jew in France!” still persisted.

By the 1960s, French decolonization in North Africa and the establishment of Arab nationalist governments resulted in acts of violence that sent many Jews to Paris, Marseille and other cities of the metropole.

Things went relatively well in the 1970s, but broke down in late 1979, with the bombing of a university cafeteria hosting Jewish students in Paris, followed, in 1980, by the bombing of the rue Copernic synagogue and, in 1982, by the rue des Rosiers shooting. These attacks were perpetrated by terrorists brought in from the Middle East, with local assistance. Those were also the years of plane hijackings and intense political terrorism, that ended after government crackdowns.

Some 20 years later, the scene had changed, as native-born radicalized Muslim youth re-enacted the Palestinian Intifada: the “Israelis” were those Jewish neighbours targeted as “wealthy.” A combination of financial opportunity and violence, led young Jews to leave France, mainly for London, Montreal, Miami and Israel.

As attacks became more frequent – from the 2006 kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, to the 2012 “lone wolf” Islamist killing spree at a Jewish school in Toulouse, from the 2015 Hyper Kosher supermarket hostages killing, to the vicious antisemitic murder of Sarah Halimi in 2017 and of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018 – more Jews left for Israel. Others, living in the outlying suburbs, moved to growing Jewish areas in the main cities, seeking a more secure environment.

After the January 2015 attacks, then President Hollande placed military units at all Jewish institutions. Two years later, they were removed. In a meeting with the Interior Minister, I beseeched him to repeat his words at the supermarket commemoration: “there are 2,000 plain-clothes police among the crowds.” I told him, “Mr. Minister, after the soldiers go, please announce the continued presence of plain-clothes agents, even if there are none.” He agreed, but then forgot.

The Jewish Defence report of 75% more antisemitic incidents than last year and consequent rise in Jewish fear of violence, may lead to greater numbers departing from France, but a huge critical mass will remain. The question is, will they again feel “Happy as a Jew in France!?”

About the Author
Shimon Samuels is Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has served as Deputy Director of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, European Director of ADL, and Israel Director of AJC. He was born in UK and studied in UK, Israel, U.S. and Japan.
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