Jewish immigration to Israel from western Europe has reached an all-time high as a result of a rise in anti-Semitic attacks, a leading nonprofit group said Thursday, as France’s beleaguered Jewish community grapples with whether to refrain from donning Jewish skull caps for their own safety.
The Jewish Agency, which works closely with the Israeli government and acts as a link to Jews around the world, told The Associated Press that 9,880 western European Jews immigrated to Israel in 2015 — the highest annual number ever. The figure is more than 10 percent over the previous year and over double the 2013 level.
The vast majority, close to 8,000, came from France, where a rise in anti-Semitic attacks has shattered the sense of security of the world’s third-largest Jewish population.
Just this week, a machete-wielding teen attacked a Jewish teacher in the southern French town of Marseille, prompting a local Jewish authority to ask fellow Jews to refrain from wearing their traditional skullcaps to stay safe. That sparked counter calls from other French and Jewish officials who said such a move would be a capitulation to terror.
Close to 800 Jews emigrated from Britain in 2015. Italy and Belgium were next on the list.
“That a record number of European Jews feel that Europe is no longer their home should alarm European leaders and serve as a wake-up call for all who are concerned about the future of Europe,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. “At the same time, the fact that Israel has become the number one destination for European Jews seeking to build a better future elsewhere is a tribute to the appeal of life in Israel and the values the Jewish state represents.”
Experts say European Jews have not felt this threatened since World War II, when 6 million Jews were murdered in the Nazi Holocaust. Jews have been targeted in Belgium, Denmark and other European countries, but France has seen the worst of it. Jews have increasingly reported assaults and intimidation, mostly from Muslim extremists. While some attacks have been linked to anger at Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, most have been anti-Semitic in nature.
France is still reeling from a series of attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and just marked the anniversary of attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store which killed 17 people. In each case, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
France’s Jewish community of some 500,000 is the largest in Europe. Jewish schools and synagogues are often surrounded by soldiers in combat fatigues who patrol the streets with automatic rifles. Though Jews make up less than 1 percent of the population, French officials say more than 50 percent of all reported racist attacks in 2014 were directed against them.
Concerns about anti-Semitism in France had already been high, but 2014 saw a record number of French Jews immigrate to Israel. That figure was easily eclipsed in 2015, prompting French authorities to warn about a steeper decline and saying a future France without Jews would “no longer be France.”
On Tuesday, Zvi Ammar, a Jewish community leader in Marseille, said he is asking Jews to go without skullcaps “until better days.” Observant Jews wear a skullcap, or kippa in Hebrew, in a sign of reverence to a higher power above them.
Ammar’s call came a day after a 15-year-old Turkish Kurd attacked and wounded a Jewish teacher on a street in Marseille — France’s second-largest city — then told police after his arrest that he acted in the name of the Islamic State group.
At his annual address to foreign journalists, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the skullcap controversy.
“Every Jew everywhere should be able to live safely and enjoy the protection of the authorities and I commend the government of France and other governments in Europe for taking the important stance on this issue,” he said.
“At the same time, every Jew should know that they have a home in Israel,” Netanyahu added. “As far as wearing a kippa, it’s the same thing. They have a right, should have a right and enjoy the right to wear a kippa.”