Antisemitism has become a chronic and recurring problem for many French Jews and has damaged the fabric of the Jewish community in certain parts of France, according to Francis Kalifat, president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for Jewish organizations in France.
A central concern of French Jews is antisemitism from all sides of the political map, he said Tuesday in an interview in Jerusalem during a CRIF mission to Israel. Antisemitism from the Muslim community has had an especially malign effect on Jewish communities, he added.
Nevertheless, Jewish life in France is flourishing, Kalifat said, adding that Jewish communities are growing and expanding their institutions and activities.
Kalifat is in Israel together with other French Jewish officials on CRIF’s first mission here since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group is set to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and has already met with Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai.
Asked what is on the agenda for French Jewry, Kalifat said the main concern is ongoing and persistent antisemitism.
Anti-Jewish hatred continues to emanate from the far Right and the extreme Left, which is often masked behind anti-Zionism, he said.
But antisemitism from radical parts of the Muslim community is what concerns French Jews the most, Kalifat said, adding that 12 French Jews have been killed in France over the past 15 years by extremist Muslims.
Antisemitism in the Muslim community, particularly in the suburbs of French cities, has been especially damaging, he said. Those areas often have large immigrant communities from North Africa of low socioeconomic status, but they also have significant Jewish communities, he added.
Antisemitic incidents have included stealing the mail from the mailbox of a Jewish residence, antisemitic graffiti, removing a mezuzah, scratching up a Jewish-owned car or puncturing its tires, along with general antisemitic abuse.
“This is what makes Jews uncomfortable in these underprivileged areas of big cities and makes them leave to more privileged areas once they can to avoid being harassed by this kind of daily antisemitism,” Kalifat said.
Antisemitic incidents do not necessarily happen every day, but French Jews in these neighborhoods constantly have to live in a reality where they might be subjected to antisemitism, he said.
Regardless, the phenomenon is having a real effect and leading to an exodus of Jews who can afford to move from such areas, Kalifat said.
“It’s domestic exile,” he said.
This situation also has an impact on the many Jews who do not have the means to leave these suburbs, since it reduces the size of the local Jewish community and therefore weakens it.
Synagogues face reduced membership, it impacts the ability to run prayer services, and it sometimes leads to the closure of local kosher grocery stores that cannot survive due to fewer customers.
This is “a total failure of the French Republic in these neighborhoods, not only over antisemitism but for the lack of public authority,” Kalifat said.
France already has strict laws against racism and antisemitism, but these laws are not well enforced in many instances, and such crimes are not given severe enough sanction by the courts, he said.
“This encourages people to re-offend,” he said.
Political parties are involved in efforts to address the issue, but the struggle is taking place against a background of “the indifference of the general population” to antisemitism, Kalifat said.
“To get rid of antisemitism, we need the mobilization of all French society in all its diversity and across all sectors,” he said.
“Antisemitism is not the problem of the Jews; it’s the problem of the French Republic at large, and the public authorities must understand that these threats to Jewish life can affect the decision of people living as Jews in France and Europe and needs to be taken into account,” he added.
Despite the gloom of antisemitism in France, French Jews are doing well, Kalifat said.
“Jewish life in France is flourishing,” he said. “We are building synagogues, Jewish community centers, [and] there are a lot of Jewish cultural events in France. Jewish education is doing well, and France is really the center of Jewish life in Europe.”