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The one sentence you need to read to understand France’s anti-Semitism crisis

Armed soldiers patrol outside a School in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district on January 13, 2015 in Paris, France.
Armed soldiers patrol outside a School in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district on January 13, 2015 in Paris, France.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

You may know, after the attack on the kosher supermarket during the Charlie Hebdo assault, that French Jews have faced discrimination and attacks for years. What you may not know is the scale of France's anti-Semitism problem. This statistic, in Natasha Lehrer's big Guardian feature on anti-Semitism in France, puts it in context:

Half of all racist attacks in France take Jews as their target, even though they number less than 1% of the population.

There are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews in France, the world's third-largest Jewish community, after the US and Israel. "It changes everything, when you are living every day thinking about your safety and your children's safety," Joanna, a 37 year old Parisian Jew, told Lehrer. And no wonder.

The hate crimes stat isn't perfect. It's taken from a report by Science Po professor Dominic Reynie and from data gathered by French Jewish organization SPCJ; SPCJ works closely with the French Interior Ministry to get an accurate count. The SPCJ data defines attack pretty broadly. It includes violence, attacks or attempted attacks, bombs, defacement, vandalism, remarks, gestures, letters, leaflets, or graffiti. And the data only covers the first seven months of 2014, a narrow window. So using other ways of measuring racist attacks, or longer time periods, might not necessarily return this same statistic.

But it's broadly consistent with years of data on anti-Semitism in France. The SPCJ's 2013 report found that 40 percent of racist violence (as opposed to the broader "attacks" category) targeted Jews. "Since 2000," SPCJ reports, "the number or recorded antisemitic acts is about 7 times higher than numbers recorded in the 1990s."

anti-semitic attacks france 1998-2013

(SPCJ and French Interior Ministry)

This epidemic is intimately tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The spike in anti-Semitic acts in 2000 correlated with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and subsequent spikes in 2009, 2012, and 2014 all coincided with outright wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

But French anti-Semitism isn't fundamentally about Israel. As SPCJ notes, the baseline level of anti-Semitic attacks is much higher than it was in the 90s — even in years without major fighting in Israel. Thus, "anti-Semitism in France cannot be considered anymore as a temporary situation associated with situation in the Middle-East." Instead, SPCJ concludes, "it is a structural problem that has not been fought as such and has not been halted yet."

According Eleanor Beardsley, an NPR Paris correspondent, "95 percent [of these attacks] are carried out by youths of African, North African origin," communities that are often themselves marginalized in French society.

Such high estimates are often disputed, though. According to Science Po political scientist Nona Mayer, only a tiny fraction of French Muslim youth are involved in the attacks. France also has a prominent far-right political movement.

Only a small percentage of French Jews are directly targeted by anti-Semitic attacks. But these crimes, together with the broader political climate created by figures like the popular anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, have been enough to create a climate of fear amongst French Jews. "It's enough for a very small band of idiots to frighten a whole community," Meyer told Lehrer in an interview.

There's no doubt that French Jews are scared. France is now Israel's largest source of immigrants — outpacing not only the United States, but also conflict-torn Ukraine.

One last scary note: the upsurge in anti-Semitism isn't confined to France. Anti-Semitic violence has been on the rise globally for about two decades.

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