Last Updated on January 24, 2019
When a gunman stormed into a kosher supermarket in Paris, seizing hostages and killing four people, Julien Catan felt tremors all the way to Montreal. A Paris native, he had walked the streets around the Hyper-Cacher market thousands of times.
“What happened in January was a real shock, like never before,” Catan said in an interview. “I think the impact it had is very profound, and I think the Jewish community has taken a real hit.”
This latest murderous attack was aimed at shoppers buying groceries before the Sabbath, two days after an attack on the journalists of Charlie Hebdo. It came amid a surge in anti-Semitism that has Jews questioning how long they can remain in France. More than ever, Canada is seen as a safe haven, and leaders of Montreal’s Jewish community are only too happy to extend a welcoming hand.
The sight of heavily armed soldiers guarding Jewish schools is in stark contrast with the safety felt by North America’s Jewish communities.
Montreal Jewish organizations have recently created a task force in response to a steep increase in requests for information from French Jews interested in moving to Canada. Monique Lapointe, manager of immigration services for the social services agency Ometz, said her organization alone received 70 such requests in the three months since the January attacks, double what it would normally receive in a year. The task force is looking at how the community can smooth immigration from France, starting by helping potential immigrants navigate the bureaucracy and letting them know what services are available once they arrive.
Even though France’s Jews represent an attractive pool of potential immigrants for Quebec, the issue is delicate as they are not refugees, and the official line from the Jewish community is that asking the government to speed up an immigration process that usually takes two years has been ruled out.
Anti-Semitism saw a rise in France 10 years ago with assaults on Jewish children, anti-Semitic graffiti near Jewish schools and advice from rabbis not to wear Jewish symbols in public.
According to the latest annual report on anti-Semitism in France, compiled by the Jewish Community Security Service in conjunction with France’s Interior Ministry, anti-Semitic acts more than doubled in 2014, rising to 851 from 423 in 2013. Of the total, 241 were classified as violent acts while 610 were threats. While France’s roughly 500,000 Jews represent less than 1% of the population, they were the targets of 51% of all racist acts committed in 2014.
To counter the rise in hatred, last week Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a 100-million Euros ($131-million) program to combat “racism and anti-Semitism” over the next three years.
Proposed changes would provide for stiffer penalties for hate speech. Jewish leaders welcome the effort but are pessimistic about the prospect of success.
Figures published in December showed that 7,000 French Jews left for Israel in 2014, more than double the number in 2013. Serge Benhaim, president of a Paris synagogue that came under attack last summer by participants in an anti-Israel March, estimated that another 3,000-5,000 left for other destinations.
Richard Prasquier, former president of France’s main Jewish organization, CRIF, said that while France is not an anti-Semitic country, it does not know how to handle an anti-Semitic wave originating from its growing Muslim population. He gave the example of the comedian Dieudonné, whose popularity only grows the more he is taken to task for his anti-Semitism.
“We are Democrats, but we know that democracy today does not have the proper tools to confront the rise of Islamist radicals and anti-Semitism,” Prasquier said. “We have trouble combating it.”
Laurent, a 30-year-old working in information technology in Montreal, moved from France last year with his wife. He said anti-Semitism was one factor among others that prompted them to leave. In Montreal he has been surprised by how open people are about their Judaism. “We feel we are flourishing with our Jewish identity, able to live it fully,” he said. Still, some old fears linger. He asked that his full name not be published in case co-workers or immigration officials judge him based on his faith.
Moshe Sebbag, rabbi at Paris’s Grande Synagogue, sees congregants leaving regularly, and after Israel, Canada is a popular destination.
“As rabbi of the Grande Synagogue, I have to tell Jews to stay, that it’s going to pass, but I understand why people are worried,” he said. And he has no doubt that if Canada were to shorten immigration delays and roll out the welcome mat in Jewish publications in France, many more French Jews would choose it as a destination.
On Thursday, Saadoun took part in the annual march through downtown Montreal marking Israel’s Independence Day, and said that such an event could never be held in Paris without heavy police protection for the marchers. In Montreal, he said, “We can express ourselves as Jews. We feel safe.”