Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, is not prone to rash statements. He weighs up every word when he speaks, and kept himself sane during years of solitary confinement in Siberia by playing mental chess.
But in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, Sharansky — who runs the Jewish Agency, the main body responsible for the immigration of Jews to Israel — issued the most blunt warning about the future of Jews in Europe that I have seen.
According to Sharansky: “We are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe.” There is, he says, an “intellectual atmosphere which asks Jews to choose between their loyalty to Israel and their loyalty to Europe”.
The Europe he describes is not that of the Enlightenment or even of the noble post-war project to bring peace to a continent ravaged by conflict. It is a Europe that “is abandoning its basic values”, such as freedom and tolerance. And it is capitulating before those who place hatred and extremism above all else.
Sharansky’s view may seem like hyperbole, but for Europe’s Jews there is something very real about the hatred. The Gaza conflict has unleashed a torrent of anti-semitism, the like of which has not been seen in Europe since the 1930s. And many Jews are wondering whether Sharansky might have a point.
Anti-semitic placards have accompanied protests over Gaza
IN France last Sunday, the largely Jewish suburb of Sarcelles, north of Paris, was firebombed by a rampaging mob of more than 400 who attacked a synagogue, a pharmacy and a kosher supermarket.
Armed with petrol bombs and rocks, they chanted “Death to Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats” as they ran riot.
Posters had been put up in advance saying, “Come equipped with hammers and fire extinguishers for a raid on the Jewish district”.
This was merely the latest incident since Israel began its military action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza on July 8. The French government had banned such protests the previous week after two synagogues were attacked in Paris.
The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France says eight synagogues were attacked in a week.
It is one thing to protest against Israel. But none of the targets of these mobs was Israeli. They were Jewish.
One of the canards thrown at supporters of Israel’s right to defend itself from terror is that any criticism of the country is shouted down by accusations of anti- semitism. Opposition to Israeli government policy does not necessarily equate to anti-semitism. Some of Israel’s staunchest supporters are uneasy about what is happening in Gaza, and it is perfectly legitimate to protest against Israel’s actions.
But who is making the link here? It is the anti-Jewish mobs, who, under the guise of anti-Israel protests, attack synagogues, Jewish areas and random Jews in the street.
In Germany last Saturday, nominally anti-Israel demonstrations were dominated by anti-Jewish slogans, and police in Berlin had to prevent demonstrators attacking a Jewish man after they spotted his yarmulke (skullcap) and ran towards him shouting: “Jew! We’ll get you.”
Other protesters on the rally chanted: “Jews to the gas chambers.”
In Essen, 14 people were arrested this month on suspicion of planning an attack on a synagogue. And the imam of a Berlin mosque was under investigation after allegedly calling on Muslims to murder “Zionist Jews”.
Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, says open anti-semitism is being witnessed on a scale not seen since the Third Reich. “They pursue the Jews in the streets of Berlin as if we were in 1938,” he said.
A football match in Austria between Israeli and French teams, Maccabi Haifa and Lille, had to be abandoned on Wednesday after pro-Palestinian protesters waving flags and placards ran on to the pitch, headed straight for the Maccabi players and started to attack them.
It is not just on the Continent that Jews are being attacked. An estimated 15,000 anti-Israel marchers gathered in Westminster last Saturday to begin their journey to Kensington, where the Israeli embassy is based. Many were genuine peace-lovers, horrified by the scenes in Gaza. Many, however, were not.
Here is a question. How many Palestinians have been killed by Syria in the civil war?
More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. For the sake of argument, let us say every one of them was an innocent civilian — although even Hamas does not make that claim. More than 1,800 have starved to death or been murdered by President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
Did you notice the protest march? Did you see the marches when thousands of Arabs were killed and injured in Turkey, Egypt and Libya? When the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) slaughtered innocent Iraqis? When entire villages were massacred in South Sudan? When Boko Haram killed more than 2,000 in the first half of 2014 alone? Of course not, because those marches did not happen.
But when Israel is involved, out they come with their “We are all Hamas now” and “Hitler you were right” placards — both prominent on last weekend’s London march.
A Jewish teacher displays the swastika drawn on his chest when he was attacked in Paris (Jamie Wiseman)
We have not had anti-Jewish riots in Britain, but in France the Jewish community is living in fear. Samuel Ghozlan, a retired French police commissioner who founded BNVCA, an anti-semitism monitoring organisation, says violence against Jews is now almost daily.
The murder by a French-born jihadist in Toulouse in March 2012 of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school was a wake-up call. But it did not come out of nowhere.
The Dreyfus affair in the 1890s showed how deeply anti-semitism was embedded in the French establishment. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was of Jewish descent, was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason for supposedly communicating military secrets to the Germans. When evidence emerged of the real culprit, it was suppressed and Dreyfus was charged with additional trumped-up offences. After a long campaign, Dreyfus was given a retrial in 1899 but convicted again — although he was given a pardon and freed.
So it was hardly a shock that under the Vichy regime, many officials, and citizens, were willing to deport Jews to the gas chambers.
France has had senior Jewish politicians — such as Pierre Mendès France, prime minister in 1954-5, and the Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, a minister in the 1970s and 1990s — and Dreyfus had many supporters. But where anti-semitism has lain dormant in much of Europe since 1945, in France it has remained alive and well.
The National Front first rose to success as an openly anti-semitic party under Jean-Marie le Pen. With his daughter Marine now in charge, its anti-semitism is carefully unspoken. The party won a third of France’s seats in the European parliament in this year’s election.
But the most potent recent version of French anti-semitism has come from the Arab gangs of the banlieues (squalid housing estates around Paris and other cities). According to Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and its Arabs, chatter in the banlieues is full of references to sale juif (dirty Jew), sale yid, sale feuj and youtre, originating in the German Jude.
All of which helps explain the circumstances of the 2006 murder of Ilan Halami, a 23-year-old Jew — such as the support his young Muslim killers received from their community. Halami was kidnapped and taken to a Paris banlieue where he was tortured for three weeks. Residents heard his screams and rather than helping him, cheered his captors.
These young people also form the support base for Dieudonné, the French comedian who invented the quenelle, a form of inverted Nazi salute, for which the footballer Nicolas Anelka was banned after using it to celebrate a goal last year.
It is no wonder that French Jews are leaving en masse. From about 500,000 in 2010, the largest Jewish community in the EU, it is expected to fall to under 400,000. Between January and May, 2,254 French Jews moved to Israel, against only 580 last year — a 289% increase.
The Jewish Agency is certain that by December that figure will have more than trebled. Not since Israel was founded in 1948 has a western country provided Israel with such numbers.
In addition, an even larger group is engaging in “informal immigration” — buying flats in Israel, registering children at Israeli universities and travelling frequently between France and Israel. The real number of French immigrants arriving in Israel is more likely to be nearer 7,000 a year.
And there are even greater numbers moving elsewhere — especially Britain. There are believed to be more than 6,000 French Jews living here.
One of them is the Strasbourg-born banker Myriam Amsellem, who says: “If you work in France, you can’t be Jewish. You cannot take off chagim [Jewish religious festivals] from work and you cannot leave early on Shabbat. I look at France now and I know I would not want to be there.”
Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle (Bradley Ormesher)
Marc Meyer, the Paris-born chairman of Hendon synagogue, in northwest London, believes that two factors drive the influx. One is the economy. “But the second and growing factor is the rampant anti-semitism in France. It’s more obvious than it ever was before.
“I know people who come here because they just can’t stand being there any more — not when you read about what happens to those who walk around in France with kippot [skullcaps] on their heads.”
Naima Jewish Preparatory School in Maida Vale, northwest London, has had a large increase in French families since 2012, while the voluntary-aided North West London Jewish Day School in Willesden now has 56 French pupils out of a total roll of 285. French signs are posted around its premises, and the school newsletter is printed in French and English.
Joel Mergui, the lay chairman of Consistoire, the umbrella body for French synagogues, says: “You can feel the bite at every level.” Rising emigration means synagogues and Jewish schools struggle for numbers. “At some synagogues, whole benches are suddenly empty.”
NOBODY would compare the situation here with that of France, which is why French Jews emigrate to the UK. But there is a poison in much of the British anti-Israel protests that is deeply disturbing. And there has been a sharp rise in anti-semitic incidents after Israel’s operation in Gaza.
The Community Security Trust, which monitors such incidents with the Metropolitan police, says about 100 have been reported since the start of the month. And that is without counting the anti-semitic tweets and posts on social media. Tweets such as “Hitler kept some Jews alive so people would know why he was right” — one of the milder examples — are circulated among perpetrators and to Jews. Unlike verbal abuse in the street, these are permanent visible records.
On the streets, a Jewish woman was surrounded by a group who called her a “Jew Zionist” and stole her phone. Another who was with her two young children was told to “burn in hell”. And at last week’s protest march, one of the Jewish Chronicle’s reporters was called a “stinking Yid spawn of Satan”.
In other incidents, a rabbi walking in north London was verbally attacked by a group of youths who shouted “free Palestine, f*** the Zionists, f*** the Jews” and “Allahu Akbar”, and a Jewish boy cycling was attacked by a woman in a niqab who threw a stone at his head.
In Belfast a brick was thrown through a synagogue window; in Liverpool people shouted “baby murderers” at a synagogue; in Manchester a couple carrying a bag from the Israeli cosmetics firm Kedem were harassed; and in Gateshead a rabbi was assaulted as he left a Jewish school.
These people were not attacked because they were somehow demonstrating their support for the Israeli government. They were attacked because they were Jews, going about their daily business. That distinction between being anti-Israel and being anti-semitic is starting to wear thin.
Anti-semitism is often a warning light about deeper fractures within society and reasserts itself when there is an issue that needs fixing. In France, the government appears to be learning a lesson about the separation of too much of its Muslim population from democratic western norms.
The big question for us in Britain, despite our recent history of relative freedom from anti-semitism, is whether France in some way predicts our own future.
Or even whether, in fact, Sharansky is right.
Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle