Traveling by tram through Paris, a boy heads back from school with his sister when a group of teenagers spots that he is wearing a Star of David pendant. They surround the pair and start shouting: ‘Dirty Jews — you have too much money, too much power, you should get out of France.’
Terrified and shaken, by the time Eden, 16, and his sister Elie, 12, get back home they are still in tears. For Doctor David Tibi, their father, the incident was the final straw.
And so it is that in the next few days, he and his family will pack their bags, leave France for good and move to Israel.
‘I have spent all my life in France and it is has been a wonderful life,’ said Dr Tibi, a 44-year-old dentist whose wife, Melanie, is a medical doctor, and with whom he has five children in all. ‘We have done well professionally and have the kids at good schools, but the truth is we have had enough.
‘This is about survival. When your kids have to go to schools with armed guards at the gates and when they are abused in public, the situation is out of control.’
Events have taken a turn for the worse after violent clashes between pro-Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Paris. Tensions have been inflamed by the military action in the Middle East, where the Israeli shelling of Gaza — in response to the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers — is being answered with rockets fired by the Arab group Hamas.
An anti-Israel demonstration at the French capital’s Bastille Square turned violent after protesters attacked a synagogue, trapping scores of people inside as police fought to protect them.
In response, 150 Jewish men were seen marching through Paris armed with iron bars seeking to confront pro-Palestinian groups. Then, a mob of Muslim youths reportedly shouting ‘Death to Jews’ and ‘Slit Jews’ throats’ ransacked and burned down a chemist owned by a Jewish family, as well as a kosher supermarket.
In Germany, meanwhile, Israeli ambassador Yakov Hadas-Handelsman has protested after one of his countrymen was abused by anti-Semitic thugs. He said: ‘They pursue the Jews in the streets of Berlin as if we were in 1938.’
In Essen, 14 people were arrested on suspicion of planning an attack on the historic Old Synagogue — the largest surviving example of pre-war Jewish culture in Germany — and the imam of a Berlin mosque allegedly called on Muslims to murder ‘Zionist Jews’.
Such has been the concern about anti-Semitism in France that last year the number of French Jews relocating to Israel exceeded those from America, despite the fact that America’s Jewish population is ten times larger than France’s. This year, thousands more have already made the journey — and they are not just heading to Israel.
Rioters face riot police, following a pro-Palestinian demonstration, in Sarcelles, north of Paris, on Sunday
In London, too, recent years have seen an influx of Jewish families from France. At the St John’s Wood synagogue in North London they have had to set up a separate French minyan, or congregational group, that is now regularly attended by 120 people.
While some have moved to Britain to take advantage of the economic recovery, for many others the move was motivated by fear of growing anti-Semitism in France. A recent Europe-wide survey showed that 52 per cent of Jewish people in France believe this is now a ‘very big problem’ in their country. In the UK the figure was just 11 per cent. The threat, they say, comes from multiple directions and has been exacerbated by recent, targeted killings.
On May 24 four people, two of whom were Israeli tourists, were gunned down in a cold-blooded attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
The alleged perpetrator, 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, is a man of French-Algerian descent who had spent a year fighting alongside jihadists in Syria. When he was arrested in Marseille he was found with guns wrapped in a white sheet scrawled with the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the group currently reaping bloody chaos in Iraq.
His profile is very similar to that of Mohamed Merah, who in March 2012 killed three soldiers in southern France, before shooting a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school.
With France having a Muslim population of seven million, the fear is that in time many more radicalised fighters will return home from the Middle Eastern conflicts.
Add in the success of the French far-Right National Front (FN) in the recent European elections and the furore surrounding Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, the French comedian whose anti-Semitic quenelle ‘salute’ caused such controversy, and it is easy to understand the unease sweeping the Jewish community.
‘I think the Jews leaving France are making a very rational decision and I would do exactly the same in their position,’ Professor Robert Wistrich, head of the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me ahead of a meeting with the French President to discuss the matter.
‘What is going on is quite frightening and it will get worse, I have no doubt about that,’ he said. ‘All the French state can do is prevent the worst — they can’t stop it now. It has become impossible.’
As with other Jewish communities in Europe, in recent times those who have made their home in France have been subjected to hatred and outright persecution.
The worst treatment, however, came when northern France was occupied by the Nazis in June 1940. Around 350,000 Jews lived there, with around 200,000 of them resident in Paris.
A year later, French officials rounded up and handed over Jews to the Germans with a ruthless — and often unnecessary — efficiency. The Vichy regime in the unoccupied south implemented anti- Jewish measures before it was requested to do so by Berlin, partly in order to keep the property confiscated from the Jews for itself.
The Jewish victims were taken to the notorious transit camp of Drancy outside Paris, and to the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium inside the city.
They were then transported to Germany in trains operated by SNCF, France’s state railway, to their certain death in the camps.
The deportation to Auschwitz of 4,000 Jewish children aged 12 and younger in 1942, after being forcibly separated from their parents at the Vélodrome and starved for a week, was done not by the Gestapo or the SS, but by Parisian gendarmes under orders from French officials.
These deportations continued up until August 1944, by which time 76,000 men, women and children had been shipped out of France, of whom only 2,500 survived.
Today, it is estimated that there are 600,000 Jews living in France, making it the third-largest Jewish community in the world after the U.S. and Israel.
But despite making up less than one per cent of the total population, during 2013 they were the victims of one-third of all racist crimes reported in the country.
Among the assaults, one involved the attempted stabbing of a Jewish schoolboy in Paris. In another attack in the capital, two young Jewish brothers were set upon by men armed with knuckle-dusters as they left a synagogue.
More recently, a Jewish teacher was beaten up by three men who then pinned him to the ground and drew a swastika on his chest with a marker pen. And six teenagers of African origin attacked a Jewish teenager with a taser gun at the Place de la République square.
Anti-Semitic graffiti is increasingly common. In March, the words ‘Hitler burned six million Jews and forgot half’ were removed from a building in Toulouse. According to Professor Wistrich, the rise in anti-Jewish incidents can be traced to the beginning of this century, with a sharp increase in the past two years.
Coming from the Left, he says, is the ‘relentless demonisation’ of Israel that spills over in attitudes towards Jews — ‘you can’t separate the two’.
From the Right is the looming presence of the National Front. While its recent success was achieved under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, who has tried to distance herself from the party’s anti-Semitic past, the shadow of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, still very much hangs over the party.
Last month, he was condemned for making a ‘joke’ in which he appeared to suggest that a popular French Jewish singer, Patrick Bruel, should be put into an oven.
Added to that mix is a generation of young Muslims alienated from society and, in some instances, radicalised by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. Security sources put at almost 800 the number of French jihadists involved in the war in Syria. Politicians warn that the threat they pose on their return cannot be underestimated. Already across France, synagogues and Jewish schools are guarded around the clock by police.
Against this background, the number of Jews leaving the country has risen dramatically. Those moving to Israel almost doubled to 3,374 in 2013. Figures from the first few months of this year suggest they could double again in 2014.
Among the new arrivals is 20-year-old Sacha, who relocated from Paris to Tel Aviv last August.
‘My parents told me there is no future for Jewish people in France,’ said the veterinary student, who declined to give her surname to protect her family. ‘There’s a huge rise in anti-Semitism, as well as the worrying political changes with the rise of the National Front.’ While in Paris, Sacha began to hear daily reports of Jewish people being attacked, as well as experiencing growing levels of verbal abuse herself.
‘On the street, we heard jokes about the Holocaust spoken behind our backs,’ she said. ‘Things like: “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? Time in the oven.” Or “What does a bird say when it flies above Auschwitz? Cui cui” (in French “cuit” means “cooked”).’
Asked why she thought people felt emboldened to say these things, Sacha replied: ‘I think they just repeat what they hear their parents saying at home. Some people are stupid and think the Jews control everything. They are jealous.
‘But if they can hurt Jewish people and the police simply do nothing, they will do it again. I think it will be worse in the future.’
Similar sentiments are expressed by 51-year-old Valerie who left Paris, her birthplace, 18 months ago, to move to St John’s Wood with her husband and two children.
There is no future for Jewish people in France
‘Although we lived in a nice area near the 16th arrondissement, I still did not feel safe to practise my religion openly,’ she said, again speaking on condition that we did not publish her surname.
‘I was never attacked, but my nephew’s wife was reading a book in Hebrew on the Metro when an Arab man put his hand in her face and kicked her in the crotch. She was pregnant, but nobody moved to help. She was shocked.’
In England, she says she is happy for children to wear their kippah (small skullcaps) when they are out and about, but in France she was worried that they would be singled out and attacked.
She added: ‘The Arabs in England tend to come from different countries. In France, they are mainly from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and they have hostile feelings towards Jews. People always say these things are nothing, it’s just a few bad people. But I prefer to live my life freely and did not want to stay. You feel secure in England and if there is trouble, you know you can go to the police.
‘In France, even the police cannot do anything about anti-Semitism. I don’t know why, but they never do anything there. And if they carry on doing nothing, that failure to act will have a big impact in the end.’
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the moment the world learned the full truth about the Holocaust.
It seems hard to believe the terrible lessons learned then could so quickly have been forgotten.