PARIS - Lucien de Hirsch, a Jewish school located on the 19th arrondissement of Paris, looks like a fortress. The gigantic school, attended by 1,250 students from kindergarten to the 12th grade, is protected by a platoon of camouflage-attired commandos, rifles at the ready. Since the attack at a kosher Jewish supermarket in January 2015, in which four Jewish men were murdered, the French don’t take any chances, and there are just as many security personnel here as there are at the Eiffel Tower. This is the situation in France in 2016, where it is dangerous to be a Jew. This is how every Jewish school is protected, as well as synagogues and other institutions in the Jewish community.
Baron Hirsch, who founded the school in 1901, named it after his son Lucien. He wanted to preserve the Jewish identity of the students, but had no idea that 115 years later, most of its alumni would be making aliyah to Israel. This is not only because of the Zionist education they received, but primarily because of the growing anti-Semitism in France. Out of the 70 high school students that graduated in 2015, 40 of them immigrated to Israel without their parents.
The classrooms are becoming increasingly empty, causing principal Paul Fitoussi to seek new students among those that up to now studied in the public schools in Paris. The task is not hard: Jewish parents who thought in the past that if their children study in a public school, they would not be bothered - realized they were wrong, and prefer to enroll their children at Lucien de Hirsch and take advantage of the security offered there.
A survey conducted recently by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry showed a substantial increase in the number of Jews wishing to make aliyah to Israel from France. The current number is about 57 percent out of about 500,000 Jews in France.
“Praise God, our children are immigrating to Israel,” Fitoussi says. “Every child that studies at the school and immigrates to Israel is a success in my opinion. My daughter also immigrated a year and a half ago, after graduating, and she is now doing National Service (Sherut Leumi).
"People nowadays think it is dangerous to be Jewish in France because there was a series of events: The kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi ten years ago, the terror attack at the Jewish school in Toulouse four years ago, the stabbings in Marseille, last year’s attack at Hyper Cacher, there is a problem. For the French, worrying about security issues is new to them. I talk to the police and I understand they don’t know what to do. They brought armed soldiers to the schools, but I know that in the long term this is not a solution.”
These soldiers became part of the landscape of the school. They sit down to eat with the teachers, so it is not unusual to see a Jewish teacher with a skullcap on his head eating a kosher chicken with cauliflower and endive salad, sitting next to a commando who is armed from head to toe.
The students there feel safe. Their problems start when they go home from school. Zechariah Berkovich, an eighth grader, says, “Paris is now more dangerous than Jerusalem. We receive insults on the streets constantly, saying, ‘dirty Jews'. I feel safer in Israel, because there are plenty of weapons there. Here there is not enough security.”
His classmate Reuven Cohen explains, "Not long ago I came home from school, and an Arab saw me with a skullcap and wanted to beat me up, so I ran away from him.”
The students say verbal abuse against the Jews is a matter of routine. In other cases, they endure spitting, kicks and threats.
Fifth-grader Yitzhak Marciano suffered through an ordeal three weeks ago. "When I went to Saturday afternoon prayers at the synagogue with a black skullcap, eight black men jumped me and pinned me to a wall. They were older than me. Each had a stick with which they threatened me and demanded that I give them my coat. They asked if I was Jewish, I said yes, they said that the Jews are full of money, and if I did not give them my coat, they will kill me. I tried to argue. I told them that this coat is a special gift that I received from my mother. They laughed and threatened me with pepper spray. Then they gave me some smacks, pushed me and finally they stole the coat.
"On Saturday night we went to file a complaint with the police. It was an expensive coat that cost my mother 800 euros, but the police did not care. They showed me sketches, but they all looked the same to me."
Lior Azoulay, eighth grader, relates, "not long ago, Arabs swore at me on the way to the synagogue on Saturday and told me: 'This is not your country, remove your skullcap!’ I was very scared, I was scared, but I kept going. I'm not willing to remove my skullcap."
Eighth grader Nathan Lambrozo says he is especially shocked at the fact the French public is demonstrating indifference to anti-Semitic attacks. "My friends walked down the street," says Lambrozo, "and the Arabs attacked them. They cried for help, and the French people who were there moved to the other side of the street and said, 'This is not my problem .' If such a thing happened in Israel, everyone would immediately call for help. Israel is our country, not France."
Maybe we can be armed?
Last week, 85 eighth graders from the school arrived in Israel via the Experience Israel initiative, the Jewish Agency's education organization. The organization works in 50 countries, and every year brings 35,000 young Jews to Israel from age 10 to age 30.
"We came to the conclusion that what helps impede assimilation and the abandonment of the Jewish collective is visiting Israel," says Amos Hermon, the director of Experience Israel. "Visiting the country strengthens the relationship with Israel and Judaism. Twenty-five percent of the participants in our programs make aliyah within two years."
The children's trip to Israel won the title of "A Bible in Hand.” Its goal is to introduce children to the country for a week through the world's oldest tourist guide – the Bible. "Judaism teachers complained that children were not really connected to the Bible," says Fitoussi. "At the same time, a generation grew up here that has to deal with claims against the right of Israel's existence and our right to the land. The goal is to connect the younger generation to their historical roots. We teach them the story of the people of Israel and show them all the places mentioned in the Book of Books."
The students were accompanied by an armed guard throughout the journey to Israel, and not only in sensitive areas as was done in the past. The security situation also meant that recreation at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem was replaced by a visit to a secured mall, and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron was cut from the program. Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem remained part of the tour.
On the evening of their flight to Israel, the children were very excited, even if a bit concerned. "I've wanted to come to Israel," said Aaron Zruk, eighth grader. "My dream is to visit the places which we learned about at school. I would like to go to Jerusalem the most."
Classmate David Brami added: "I'm a little scared. We were told that we would be with guarded by armed personnel. Can we get weapons too?"
At the head of the delegation of students was Corinne Ben Yishai, who is responsible for non-formal education at the school. She is eager to immigrate to Israel herself and join her three daughters who already made aliyah. Ben Yishai said that despite the security situation in Israel, there were not many cancellations.
Margalit Bitton, a math teacher who accompanied the students on the trip, said most parents were afraid to send their children to Israel, "but we spent a lot of time talking to them and convinced them that everything will be fine. Most of them were persuaded and sent their children. Only ten students stayed home."
When I asked the children who would like to immigrate to Israel, almost all the hands went up. If it were up to them, not just their parents, they would have become Israelis a long time ago. Until then, they were content with a week, which probably strengthened their connection to Israel.
The mothers are afraid of the soldiers
Despite the consensus that France is now dangerous for Jews, the local Jewish community has been angered by the president of the community in Marseille, Rabbi Zvi Amar, who called for the Jews of France to remove their skullcaps until the indignation be overpast and in the meantime make do with a baseball cap. This indignation, it turns out, was at the fact he actually said that, not at what he said. Amar said these things following an attack where a Jewish teacher, Benjamin Amsalem, was stabbed in Marseille three weeks ago.
"He should not have said that we need to remove the skullcaps," says principal Fitoussi. "The meaning of this statement is that we are afraid. If all the Jews remove their skullcaps, it will be a victory for terrorism."
Alon Benayoun, eighth grader, disagrees. "I take off the skullcap on the street, because it's dangerous. No need to just create provocation."
Naftali Fayet, eleventh-grade student, acted differently. "After the attack at the Hyper Cacher, I hid my tassels in my pants and took off my skullcap," he says, "but now I won't remove it. I'm not willing to give in to this anymore. I am proud of my Judaism and am willing to pay the price."
Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jews, believes that Rabbi Amar's comments serve as an achievement for terrorists. "Although there are areas in which it is dangerous to walk around with a skullcap, like the metro stations in Paris, it is not the role of a community leader to say something like that," he says. "I understand a father telling his son, 'Do not walk around outside with a skullcap, wear a baseball cap,' but the call to remove the skullcap in general is too much."
Daniel Ben-Haim, who heads the Jewish Agency’s delegation in Paris, has his own interpretation of the situation. "It may sound funny, but I think precisely the fact that France has placed soldiers near Jewish institutions increases concerns among many Jews. Jewish mothers told me that the fact there are soldiers at their children's schools increases their anxiety. There is probably a reason for this security, and it scares them."
Shalom Belzam, a guide at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, came to Paris to teach children travelling to Israel about the Holocaust. According to him, when he talks to them about the processes leading up to the Holocaust and presents them with anti-Semitic caricatures, they immediately find similarities between those events and what is happening in France today. "This leads to comparisons," he says.
At the Lucien de Hirsch school, this is a loaded subject: The school lost 79 students and 12 teachers when they were taken by the Nazis on the last train from the Drancy concentration camp to Auschwitz in 1944. Every time an anti-Semitic incident happens, the issue surfaces again.
On Friday two weeks ago, just before Shabbat, dozens of elderly Jews marched to the Beit El Synagogue in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. A look at the street from above does not reveal th fact that beyond the iron door exists a lively and active Tunisian synagogue. Only the four soldiers stand out, armed with rifles, and hint at what is actually going on. While they pray and sing "Lecha Dodi," one of the soldiers suddenly entered and patrolled inside the synagogue. Regular worshipers are already used to this surreal scene, but tourists from Be'er Sheva tensed up. "Do not panic, everything is fine, it's just a security measure," Jacques Tsarfati, a Tunisian-born Jew who lives in Paris for over 50 years, assured them.
Tsarfati is the beating heart of the synagogue, and recently suffered two attacks nearby: on the first occasion, stones were thrown at him, and in another incident he was spat upon and shouted at that he's a "dirty Jew." Following the incidents, he decided to walk the streets without a skullcap and wear it again right at the entrance to the synagogue.
At the end of the prayer, the singing of "Yigdal Elohim Chai," the congregation of the synagogue leaves; every one of them kisses the mezuzah, then removes his skullcap and pockets it. They put a baseball cap on their heads instead. French Jews are perhaps angry at Rabbi Zvi Amar, but in practice they obey his call.