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Barricaded in Paris By: Mireille Silcoff
National Post | Friday, November 25, 2005


A man stands before a monument in Lyon honouring Jews killed in the Second World War that was painted with a Swastika. Acts of desecration and violence against Jews in France have escalated since the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, pushing many to leave for new homes abroad.

French Jews are leaving the country in ever-growing numbers, fleeing a wave of anti-Semitism. They are moving to Israel, the United States, and increasingly, Montreal -- where the mostly English-speaking Jewish community is preparing for its greatest demographic change in decades. In the first of three stories, Mireille Silcoff examines the fear in France that is driving the emigration.

PARIS - Romain Barthel greets me at the gates of the Lycee Diane Benvenuti, a private secondary school in the leafy 16th arrondissement of Paris. It's the day after Yom Kippur and the school, a Jewish one, is closed. Mr. Barthel is the Benvenuti school's principal; a diminutive, soft-spoken, 32-year-old observant Jew, who wears a skullcap but no sidelocks, and fashionable sneakers with narrow trousers. The gates by which we meet are not the kind you open with a latch, but rather ones you pass through with the permission of a security guard provided by Service de la protection de la communaute Juif -- a security firm created and funded by France's Jewish community -- who is installed in a booth in the school's vestibule. These gates close off both the sidewalk and the street in front of the school to cars and pedestrians -- they are a barricade.

Mr. Barthel walks me through the school, which was built three years ago to what he calls "new specifications for a new reality."

"All of our windows are made with glass both bomb- and bullet-proof; there are security cameras in all the common rooms," he says. "You will also notice there is no sign outside of the school that could single it out as a Jewish place."
 
In the past few years, Jews in Canada may have become familiar with some security measures in synagogues, notably around the high holidays, but nothing approaching this level of stringency.
 
Mr. Barthel explains the buddy system instituted at the Benvenuti school for children both arriving and leaving the premises. The students must travel in a pack and are not allowed to wear visible skullcaps or Stars of David anywhere but inside the school. They are also discouraged from dressing in a manner that Mr. Barthel calls "Shalala," meaning that they asked to refrain from dressing in a style which in North American parlance might be termed "Jappy."
 
"The Diesel jeans, the tight bomber jackets, these things can also make them look like Jews," he says. "They must look more quiet now, for safety."
 
Mr. Barthel is the father of two young children. Last year, his children's school bus, belonging to a Jewish school in Epinay-sur-seine, a northern suburb of Paris, was set on fire. "The bus was empty when it was attacked, but still, nobody did anything about it, not the police, not the government."
 
He says the Jews of France have increasingly felt as if they have had to take safety into their own hands. "For us now, this means one of two things: bunker in with bomb-proof glass, or leave."
 
Mr. Barthel and his family have chosen the latter, becoming part of what could easily qualify as an exodus of Jews. In the past four years, French-Jewish immigration to Israel has more than doubled. The United States has received an influx of thousands as well, notably to the Miami area, where, as in Israel, entirely French-Jewish communities have cropped up, bringing with them everything from kosher patisseries to synagogues both French in language and culture.
 
But between these twin pillars of Israel and Miami, another column is building, a column pointing toward Canada. Romain Barthel's family is just one among the thousands of French Jewish families who are seeking a new home in Quebec. "For us it was the most obvious choice," he says.
 
That the French -- Jews included -- can hold an ingrained aversion to the United States is well-known. That, for a French Jew, moving to Israel now is substituting one unease for another is an incontrovertible truth. That Quebec contains the largest French-speaking city outside of France is a fact, and that the city of Montreal has one of the oldest Jewish communities in North America is an idea spreading by word of mouth.
 
Since 2001, French Jewish immigration to Montreal has increased by more than 700%, an influx of European-born Jews from a single country in numbers not seen since the middle of the past century.
 
Paris was burning for two weeks this month. But Jewish Paris has been burning for five years -- a steady, fiery precursor that went largely ignored by the French authorities. The rise of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 sparked a wave of mainly Muslim-led, anti-Jewish violence in France that has since brought forth thousands of hateful acts aimed at French Jews and their places of business, study, recreation, prayer and burial.
 
Jew-baiting is but one bit of the ethnic disaster occurring in France today, but it is a telling bit: chiefly a case of entrenched European anti-Semitism against Arabs -- who, let's not forget, are Semites, too -- helping kindle a violent anti-Semitism against Jews.
 
The poor, disenfranchised Muslim youth who were rioting throughout France this month are the brothers of those who for years have been attacking France's Jewish population. Almost invariably they are members of a largely North African subculture of extremism -- a blister on the skin of France's overwhelmingly moderate and peaceful Muslim community of six million -- a subculture rising up after decades of marginalization, poverty and abuse.
 
According to the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, there were 517 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2002. In 2004, the French authorities recorded 298 anti-Semitic acts between Jan. 1 and Aug. 20 alone.
 
There have been dozens of synagogues and community centres firebombed, Jewish schools covered with anti-Semitic graffiti and set on fire, kosher shops peppered with bullets, and tombstones toppled and desecrated, a domino effect of nauseating proportions. In Paris, on the statue of Alfred Dreyfus, the words "sal juif" -- "dirty Jew" -- were painted in 2002, an epithet that has made a comeback in parts of France, although perhaps not spray-painted on brick or stone as often as "Jews Get Out."
 
And so they are. The actual number of people moving into Quebec seems small on its own: Last year Jewish Immigration Aid Services (JIAS) helped about 550 French Jews relocate to Montreal. An estimated 200 or 300 arrived without the help of JIAS. But the number of incoming French Jews has been doubling annually, and JIAS believes 2005 might end with the association having helped close to 1,000 French Jews settle in the province. Add to that number those who have come this year on their own (often the more moneyed, who enter Quebec through business, the purchase of property or university transfer programs), and what becomes clear is that this is an infusion that will have a massive effect on Montreal's Jewish community of 85,000, a community that has for decades been steadily ageing and shrinking due to low birth rates, intermarriage and several waves of Anglo flight.
 
"It must be understood that our welcoming of Jews from countries such as France is a delicate undertaking," says former Quebec Cabinet minister Victor Goldbloom, who next month will be instituted as the new president of JIAS Montreal. "We want to be responsive, and welcoming, we want to even be encouraging, but it has to be passive encouragement. It must be clear that we are not on a recruiting campaign to draw people away from their home communities." This is especially true in the case of France, a country that has a special relationship with Quebec.
 
From the perspective of such Canadian Jewish groups as Federation CJA, which are closely watching the situation in France, there is also a Zionist concern. Israel remains the first choice for most French Jews seeking to relocate, with about 2,500 French moving into cities such as Tel Aviv or Netanya annually at a time when emigration to Israel from most other countries has decreased to a trickle due to the heightened state of the Arab- Israeli conflict.
 
A source at the Canadian federation told me that while they are attentive to the cause of French Jews, as an organization, their message to the Jews of France wanting to move is "choose Israel. If Israel is not your choice, then Canada might be a great home for you."
 
The insinuation is that these are highly desirable immigrants. This is a point no one I spoke to at JIAS, Federation CJA or Quebec Immigration (whose Paris office now has an close relationship with Canadian Jewish organizations) would elucidate deeply, but behind the quiet front lies a fairly obvious truth: Not only are these immigrants French-speaking, they are also usually educated, often young and economically comfortable. It is also no small boon that once they arrive in Quebec, they are well taken care of -- given help in finding work, schools and housing -- by an organized community that needs their youth and their vibrancy in order to stymie what had begun to seem like an inevitable trajectory of decline.
 
"New immigrants now," says Shellie Ettinger, executive director of JIAS Montreal, "means that there still is a strong Jewish community in Montreal in a couple of generations. It's as simple as that."
 
Romain Barthel's brother moved to Montreal three years ago. Mr. Barthel, along with his wife and children, will be making the journey next September. "We are emigrating to Quebec for our children. You will find that this is the case with many of the Jews leaving. Even with all the aggressions, we are in many ways comfortable here. We have nice homes, jobs, family and a rich cultural life. We just can't see a Jewish future in France. There are the attacks [by extremists], but almost worse, we feel there is lethargy in this country to help us against the abuses."
 
In 2002, the same year Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme right Front National party came second in the general election, the same year hundreds of anti-Semitic crimes were recorded, the same year Le Monde published an article so searing in its anti-Jewish sentiment that a French court has since found its writers and editor guilty of "racial defamation," French President Jacques Chirac admonished a Jewish editor to "stop saying there is anti-Semitism in France. There is no anti-Semitism in France."
 
Author Salomon Malka, a Jewish community leader and director of one of the Jewish radio stations in Paris, says a president who says "no anti-Semitism" when synagogues are being bombed is a president saying "not France's problem" when it comes to its Jews.
 
"There is a tendency in thought here that much of what happens between a Jew and a Muslim is a Middle Eastern problem -- not a European one," he says.
 
"This is impossible for a French Jew. Many of us consider ourselves equally French and Jewish -- this balanced, mixed identity, for many centuries, has been our description, our key to success and ease in this country."
 
Mr. Malka, who is not planning on leaving France, but whose son is now considering a university in Quebec, agrees with Mr. Barthel that the exodus has to do more with what might become than what is.
 
"Today is tolerable," he says, noting there has been an earnest, if rather ineffectual, clampdown on anti-Semitic violence on the part of French authorities this year.
 
"But our future here is hard to envision, even if [we are] just looking at demographics." There are 500,000 to 600,000 Jews living in France, and the population is dwindling. "There are six million Muslims," he says, "and their population is growing." Mr. Malka says even though most Muslims in France are moderate, "for Jews this is still not a comfortable situation, even from the standpoint of politics. For politicians, it's plain where the votes are."
 
"Sometimes it's best," says Mr. Barthel, "to just look clearly and say, 'OK, it's been nice in the past, but now it's time to move on.'
 
"In the span of history," he adds, "this is a not an altogether unfamiliar situation for us."
 

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