The Chief Rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, said Thursday that the January Paris attacks were a turning point in acknowledging the growing specter of anti-Semitism in the country.
Rabbi Korsia made this remark while on a trip to New York City. He was speaking at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, where he was welcomed by Jewish community leaders and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Children from French families living in New York and attending the Park East Day School welcomed the rabbi with songs in French, Hebrew and English. After the welcome, he spoke for about ten minutes.
His speech addressed the January terrorist attack against France's Jewish community and the growing incidents of anti-Semitism spreading across Europe. He outlined the climate that French Jews are living in in the aftermath of the January attacks, emphasizing how the threat had impacted the normal day-to-day life of the French Jewish community.
"For too long I witnessed a sense of indifference in French civil society to anti-Semitic and racist crimes. In wake of terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, the entire society finally rose to say -- "No" to the terrorist, "No" to muzzling freedom of speech and freedom of the press. I am of the view that if Charlie Hebdo as such had not happened, I'm not sure that so many people would march in the street," Rabbi Korsia said.
Earlier this month, about 250 tombs in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France were desecrated for anti-Semitic reasons. The desecration shocked France, where four Jews were killed in January in an attack on a Paris kosher grocery. The grocery attack was linked to the assault on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that ended with 12 dead. A total of 17 people, including journalists, policemen were killed in three days of violence in and around Paris.
In another incident this month, two French soldiers were wounded in a knife attack outside a Jewish cultural center in the southern city of Nice. After the January Paris attacks, French authorities introduced additional security measures including protection for Jewish institutions. About 10,500 soldiers have been deployed across France in the operation.
Rabbi Korsia acknowledged the additional security measures taken by French authorities to protect Jewish institutions. He also underlined that France should not differentiate between small and big crimes against Jews or any other community.
De Blasio echoed Rabbi Korsia's viewpoint, emphasizing the "dangerous" anti-Semitism trend in Europe and calling for European nations to demonstrate a willingness to defend their Jewish communities.
"It's our moment to say -- we don't like this trend we see. We don't find it acceptable," said de Blasio.
"Our allied nations in Europe bear responsibility for taking the kinds of steps that leave no doubt of their absolute commitment to defending their Jewish communities, that send no subconscious signal to those who would do harm to the Jewish community that somehow it might not be as much an offense as some others. As Rabbi Korsia said powerfully -- there are no small crimes, no small affront to the Jewish community is acceptable because it will only lead to larger affronts and more dangerous ones," he added.
Apart from addressing the Jewish community gathered at the synagogue, Rabbi Korsia also spoke separately with reporters.
He was asked by a reporter for his reaction to US President Barack Obama's earlier comment describing the January attack on Jews at the Paris grocery store as a "random shooting"
"It's very hard to listen that "random shooting" -- it means that they don't want to kill Jews. We know that they want to kill Jews. Not because we feel like it, but because the police say that. And sometime world don't say exactly what we think," he answered.
In an interview with Reuters, Rabbi Korsia said that French Jews had come to accept the reality of hate crimes against them in France. But he emphasized that such fears should not be allowed to become ordinary and mundane and that anti-Semitism must be countered boldly.
He also addressed the rise in French Jewish emigration.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have long encouraged French Jewish emigration, and French Jews are moving to Israel at an unprecedented rate. France's Agence Juive, which tracks Jewish emigration, estimates that more than 5,000 Jews left France for Israel in 2014, up from 3,300 in 2013, which was a 73 percent increase on 2012.
Under Israel's Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent has a right of immigration to Israel and, once there, can receive Israeli citizenship automatically.
When asked what he thought of Netanyahu's renewed call to European Jews to immigrate to Israel, Rabbi Korsia expressed the hope that French Jews would leave their country out of choice, not compulsion.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu plays his role and that's his role, and he fulfills it. The thing is when you make a choice, whether it's for philosophical, religious or other reasons, it must always be and remain a free choice. And that's an important thing. So when you leave a country at this point, it would mean for the French Jews to be leaving a country that they're happy to live in because they love the French society," he told Reuters.
France is home to western Europe's biggest Jewish and Muslim communities. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, having grown by nearly half since World War Two to total some 550,000, according to the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) Jewish Institutions.
Anti-Semitic threats and incidents more than doubled last year, according to France's Ministry of the Interior.