France is home to about 475,000 Jews, the world's third-largest Jewish population. Yet its Jews are increasingly fearful of anti-Semitic violence. In late January, someone in Marseille attacked a French Jewish man with a machete, seemingly solely for the crime of wearing a kippah (Jewish skullcap). The New York Times called the attack part of "a particular strain of anti-Semitism that has left many French Jews deeply unnerved."
To show how this is being experienced by French Jews, it's worth taking a look at the rise of French immigration to Israel. The following chart shows the number of Jews leaving France — as well as the UK and Germany, which have smaller but still substantial Jewish populations —every year since 1967. As you can see, the past three years show a drastic spike in French Jewish migration:
Now, there are about twice as many Jews in France as there are in the UK, and four times as many as there are in Germany. So it's useful to look at how many Jews left for Israel per capita from each of those three countries in 2015. I also included the US data (from 2013):
When you adjust for population, the numbers are even more striking. French Jews are leading their country at a rate of about 16 per thousand annually. This is far from a total depletion of the French Jewish community, but it's still well beyond the rates in the UK, Germany, or the US.
What's driving anti-Semitism in France?
Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise. According to the Guardian's Natasha Lehrer, "Half of all racist attacks in France take Jews as their target, even though they number less than 1 percent of the population."
Lehrer's data comes from a 2014 report by Sciences Po professor Dominique Reynié and from data gathered by the French Jewish organization SPCJ. Its definition of "racist attacks" includes violence or attempted violence, bombs, defacement, and vandalism, as well as remarks, gestures, letters, leaflets, or graffiti. So it's fairly broad, and it's worth noting that different standards for "racist attacks" could possibly yield different results. That said, a 2016 report from Human Rights First came to similar conclusions.
This has been going on for some time. 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 of recorded antisemitic acts is about seven times higher than numbers recorded in the 1990s."
This rise in violence is intimately tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A 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 the 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 the 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."
One of the most heavily litigated questions here has to do with the identity of the attackers. According to 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.
But those estimates are often disputed. According to Sciences Po political scientist Nonna Mayer, only a tiny fraction of French Muslim youth are involved in the attacks. France also has a prominent far-right political movement.
In any case, it's important to note that only a small percentage of French Jews have been directly targeted by anti-Semitic attacks. Still, these crimes, together with the broader political climate that includes figures like the popular anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, have helped create a climate of fear among French Jews. "It's enough for a very small band of idiots to frighten a whole community," Meyer told Lehrer in an interview.
France is now Israel's largest source of immigrants — outpacing not only the United States, whose Jewish community is much larger, but also conflict-torn Ukraine. And unless France gets a handle on its anti-Semitism problem, there's every reason to believe this trend will continue.