France frowns at Jewish emigration

UNWELCOME DEPARTURES: The French don't like the country's reputation for egalitarianism to be trashed, and in this instance, Israel may be adding to the problem


Wed, Jul 21, 2004 - Page 6

Preparations for a welcome party are under way in Tel Aviv for the arrival next week of a specially chartered El Al flight carrying 200 French Jews who have abandoned their homes, jobs and families in France to start afresh in Israel.

Awaiting them is the promise of help finding work, financial assistance with accommodation for the difficult transition period, language tuition and what they hope will be a release from a growing climate of tension in their home country.

These departures are an uncomfortable subject in France, a nation sensitive to accusations of anti-Semitism. This week these migrants have become pawns in a debate raging over France's relationship with its Jewish population, triggered by the call from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for French Jews to emigrate immediately to escape what he described as "the wildest anti-Semitism."

His appeal has unleashed fury across the political spectrum, heightening unease among many politicians and Jewish community leaders alike at the way Israeli government-funded groups have been using reports of the mounting anti-Semitic climate in France to fuel an energetic program to persuade French Jews to leave.

Although official figures show that attacks and threats of attacks are growing in frequency, there is no consensus among the Jewish community over whether the country has become a worse place for Jews to live. The reason why more Jews are leaving for Israel is hotly contested.

Almost all anti-Semitic attacks are the work of disaffected youths from the large, disadvantaged Muslim communities, rather than the result of any historical anti-Jewish sentiment. Many observers fear that while the government focuses on the rise in attacks, it is failing to address the more fundamental issue of Muslim integration.

And there is growing anxiety that the significance of the relatively small exodus of French Jews is being exaggerated by Israel, as part of worsening diplomatic ties between the two nations.

"France is not an anti-Semitic nation and Mr. Sharon is simply settling scores with France through this question of anti-Semitism," said Patrick Klugman, deputy president of SOS-Racisme and a former head of the Jewish students' union.

Nevertheless, there has been an undeniable rise in French Jews ready to move to Israel. For the past two years more than 2,000 people have made the journey, double the number who have left each year since the early 1970s. Provisional figures suggest that this year the numbers will rise a further 25 percent.

Sandrine Cohen, 29, will be on the flight next Wednesday with her husband and her four young daughters aged between seven and 18 months. Pregnant with her fifth child, the optician decided in January that it was time to leave.

"Our family has been attacked several times in the past five years. We've been called dirty Jews in the street and we've been sent hate mail, and the police have failed to help us," she said on Monday.

"I'm well aware of the violence in Israel, but I'm scared for my daughters' future in France. On balance, I think we'll be safer there," she said.

Menahem Gourary, the Jewish Agency's European director, has been working on a new drive to promote emigration to Israel. Named the Sarcelles project, after a rough Parisian suburb which is home to large Jewish and Arab communities, the campaign is targeted at residents of underprivileged parts of France where racial tensions are high.

Israel paid for dozens of rep-resentatives to travel to France, allowing the agency to set up permanent offshoots in some of these cities, so that information on emigration is readily available.

"France has failed to integrate its Muslim population, and these groups have focused much of their anti-French hatred against the Jews who live alongside them in some of France's poorest suburbs," Gourary said.

The agency's latest campaign is partly motivated by the need to stem an overall decline in migration to Israel, which has slowed now that the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union is over; last year there were fewer than 25,000 new arrivals, a 15-year low.

Neither Sharon nor the Jewish Agency has accused the French government of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, only of failing to address the problems which have triggered this rash of attacks.