French Jews are moving to Israel at an unprecedented rate, leaving behind what they say is an increasingly unwelcoming atmosphere, rife with anti-Semtism and economic difficulties.
France’s Agence Juive, which tracks Jewish emigration, says 1,407 Jews left France for Israel in just the first three months of this year, putting 2014 on track to mark the biggest such move since 1948. Last year’s total figure of 3,300 was a 73 percent increase over 2012.
Others left for the United States, Britain or elsewhere.
France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, having grown by nearly half since World War II to total some 550,000 Jews, according to the community’s umbrella group CRIF.
Violent incidents like the murders of three Jewish children and a rabbi in the Jewish school Ohr Torah by Islamist terrorist gunman Mohamed Merah in 2012, or a bomb attack against a kosher supermarket that same year, have sent shock waves through the Jewish community.
The Jewish Community Security Service, a CRIF offshoot that tracks anti-Semitic incidents, reported to police ranging from physical attacks to graffiti, counted 423 last year, down from a high of 614 in 2012 but still above the 1990s average.
Daniel, a small businessman in Paris who wears no external signs of Jewish religious belief, said he feels anti-Semitic sentiment is spreading, notably online. He said he noticed harsher attitudes toward Jews when he returned to visit relatives in his old neighborhood, an immigrant-heavy area south of Paris.
“When I was little, my friends were Arab or black, and I never had any trouble with them — on the contrary,” he said. “Now, their gaze has hardened. It’s as if we’re playing for different teams.”
Dieudonne Mbala Mbala, a French comedian, has retained his popularity despite repeated court convictions for anti-Semitism. Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF, said many Jews felt Mbala’s popularity showed the French were becoming less inhibited about expressing anti-Semitism.
Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist and author of studies on anti-Semitism, said it was hard to quantify whether anti-Jewish sentiment had risen across French society as a whole, but it had “undergone a profound renewal” by attracting younger adherents.
“What we can say is that in the past 15 years it has renewed itself, finding new audiences among immigrant populations and young people who are exposed to the internet,” he said.
If anti-Semitism is pushing some French Jews out, Israel’s comparatively robust economy is pulling them in. Israel’s economy grew by 3.3 percent in 2013, versus 0.3 percent in France.
Daniel said he felt ground down by French taxes and regulations after his monthly sales of around 10,000 euros ($13,700) had fallen to about half that in the past six months.
Israel will pay for plane tickets, job placement services and one year of language training as part of a government program expanded in 2013 to attract Jewish immigrants. It aims to draw 42,000 Jews from France by 2017.