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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 09:54 GMT
French Jews leave with no regrets
A man inspects the remains of a synagogue in Marseille which was burnt to the ground
France has the largest Jewish population in the EU

In a small tele-sales office near the Gare du Nord, gap year student Jonathan Taieb persuades another customer that his company should be listed in a new business directory.

But nothing, it seems, can persuade Jonathan to stay in the country where he was born and grew up.

He is part of the growing exodus of French Jews leaving for Israel.

"As a Jew I don't see any future for me in France," he said. "Just put on a skull cap in the street and see the reaction you get. While Muslim girls can wear veils and no-one says a word."

Le Pen
The far right has become popularised in France
In a few weeks he will leave this office for the last time, pack his bags and head for Haifa university to study aeronautics.

Although he is a practising Jew, Jonathan is very different from the Orthodox Jews who have traditionally made the trip back to the Holy Land. This is a part of the reason why, in the past 12 months, the numbers leaving France have doubled.

Anti-Semitic violence

Olivier Rafowicz runs a Jewish agency in Paris, which helps those who have made a similar choice to Jonathan. He says you cannot pinpoint a single reason why the phones began ringing off the hook last year, although he says it should not come as a surprise.

We fear that if and when the war with Iraq starts we may face a revival of anti-Semitic acts

Roger Cukierman, Crif
"Surprise will I think be a lie, we are living in the world and we are aware what is going on of course, in France Le Pen the last year, when he got to the second round of the elections, had a serous impact, and also the aftershock effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Indeed the violence in the Middle East was seen as one of the reasons for a series of attacks on French synagogues last year. With Europe's largest Arab and Jewish communities, France is ever sensitive to the possibility of violence far away being reflected close to home.

And now after a relatively calm few months the malaise is creeping back.

Paris anti-war demonstration
There was an anti-Israeli element at Paris anti-war demonstrations
At the weekend's anti-war demonstrations it was noticeable how many protesters sang anti-Israeli songs, while just a few weeks ago a liberal Rabbi in Paris was stabbed and had his car set on fire for reasons which remain obscure.

Roger Cukierman is head of the Crif, France's largest Jewish organisation.

"There is a reduction in the number of violent acts but the atmosphere is still very heavy and we fear that if and when the war with Iraq starts we may face a revival of anti-Semitic acts."

No regrets

But at the same time he is keen to put the exodus of French Jews in perspective.

In fact, the number of immigrants from France to Israel has increased from 1,000 to 2,000 people, but out of a community of 600,000 people it is really not significant.

"Jews have lived in France for the last 2,000 years," Mr Cukierman says. "There is a saying 'happy like a Jew in France' and I think it is still valid."

Jewish school bus found burnt out in a school yard
There was a spate of anti-Semitic attacks in France last year
Not everyone is so positive though. Listening to Israeli music at home with his father, Jonathan says he is leaving this country with no regrets.

"I'm sad to say goodbye to my family and friends, but France, no. How can I be sad to leave a country which is without exaggeration, anti-Semitic?"

It is the sort of accusation which makes French leaders indignant but also concerned.

In a country which saw Nazi occupation, no-one belittles the significance of Franco-Jewish relations, and as long as French Jews continue to leave and a war in Iraq continues to look likely, it is an issue the authorities here can ill afford to ignore.

See also:

23 Apr 02 | Europe
06 Jan 03 | Europe
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