France was shaken by three days of violence last week, beginning with the shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and ending with a deadly hostage crisis at a kosher supermarket.
There had already been reports of a rise in anti-semitic incidents in France and an increase in French Jews emigrating to Israel before the recent terror attacks.
Stephen Pollard, the editor of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper, says France could see “the largest emigration of Jews anywhere since the war” in the coming years, adding: “Every single French Jew I know has either left or is actively working out how to leave.”
He said Jewish community leaders expected France’s Jewish population to fall from 500,000 to 400,000 within a few years, calling it “the largest emigration of Jews anywhere since the war”.
Now France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said: “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
Are French Jews really leaving the country in droves, and is anti-semitism to blame?
The Jewish population
The Berman Jewish Databank, compiled by US and Israeli academics, says there were 478,000 Jews living in France in 2013.
That means France has the world’s third biggest Jewish population behind Israel (6 million people) and the United States (5.4 million). Canada is fourth with a 380,000-strong Jewish population and Britain is next with 291,000 people.
These figures are slightly problematic because you can define people as Jewish in different ways. The university talks about a “core Jewish population” and an “enlarged Jewish population” which includes non-Jews who have Jewish parents, and a broader definition used in Israel’s Law of Return.
The total Jewish population of the world can be anything from 15.7 million people to 21.6 million depend on which definition you use.
Although Israel has a bigger “core Jewish population” than the US , America’s “enlarged Jewish population” is bigger than Israel’s – 8.3 million people compared to 6.3 million.
Since the Second World War, there has been a general trend of the population of Israel going up as the size of the Jewish diaspora around the world falls.
The net result is that the world’s total Jewish population is growing, but at a slower rate than the general population, according to the researchers.
The best evidence for this comes from official Israeli government statistics on Aliyah – the Hebrew word for the immigration of Jews from the worldwide diaspora to the state of Israel.
In 2014, some 6,658 French Jews left for Israel, more than double the 2013 total of 3,263 people. And this was already considerably more than the 1,923 Jews who left France for Israel in 2012.
This was a huge rate of increase, unmatched by any other country except Ukraine, where the number of Jewish emigration went up almost threefold in 2014 compared to the year before, from 1,982 people to 5,921.
And of course there is the relative population of the different countries to consider.
Because France’s Jewish population is relatively large, the emigrants in 2014 make up a significant proportion – more than 1 per cent – but this is much less than the percentage of Jews that left Ukraine.
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to imagine that all these numbers are accurate down to the last digit – particularly the population estimates – but they give us an idea of the scale of immigration from various countries.
Jewish emigration from France has consistently been much greater than from any other western European country for some years and in 2014, France saw the biggest exodus of Jews to Israel of any country in the world for the first time.
Although there’s no clear upward trend in the numbers of incidents over the last ten years, SPCJ says that since 2000, the number of recorded crimes is about seven times higher than in the 1990s.
And while the data for 2014 has not yet been finalised, the group says there were 527 antisemitic incidents in the first six months of 2014 alone, compared to 423 for the whole of the year before.
SPCJ also points out that Jews are disproportionately targeted in hate crimes: 50 incidents of racist violence out of 125 were directed against Jews in 2013. That means Jews suffered 40 per cent of all racist attacks committed in France, despite making up less than 1 per cent of the population.
The figures do not show who is responsible for the crimes, so it is impossible to confirm, as some commentators have said, that French Muslims are increasingly targeting Jews in perceived retaliation for events in the Middle East.
SPCJ actually plays down links between international events and anti-Jewish sentiment, saying: “Antisemitism in France cannot be considered any more as a temporary situation associated with the situation in the Middle East; it is a structural problem that has not been fought as such and has not been halted yet.”
What we don’t know
The official Israeli Aliyah figures only show how many French Jews are moving to Israel. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of people leaving France for London and New York, although we can’t confirm or deny this with statistics.
FactCheck knows of one synagogue in north London that is renting space to a community group for French-speaking Jews, but we don’t know how big a trend this is.
So it is possible that the Jewish “exodus” from France is even bigger. On the other hand, the official figures don’t tell us how much traffic is coming in the opposite direction.
It’s possible that Israeli Jews are emigrating to Europe or America in significant numbers, and in fact the Israeli press has recently been reporting on young Israelis looking for high-tech jobs in Germany.
But we are yet to find reliable figures on how big significant this emigration from Israel might be.
The data is too incomplete to give us a totally accurate picture, but there is evidence of a dramatic spike in French Jews leaving France for Israel.
It’s striking that France was number one for Aliyah in 2014 for the first time. We don’t know how many more Jews are leaving France for other countries too.
People’s motivation for leaving is also hard to know, although a poll of French Jews who participated in a survey last year found that 75 per cent were considering leaving the country, 30 per cent citing antisemitism as the reason.
Let’s not forget that France is not the only country to see large numbers of Jews leaving.
The figures for Ukraine are strikingly high, with a massive surge in emigration last year, particularly when you consider the relatively small size of the Jewish population.