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France's Jews flock to Israel amid anti-Semitism

In 2014 alone, 7,086 French Jews moved to Israel, more than any other year in Israel’s history.

JERUSALEM – In March 2012, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat stood on Har Hamenuchot, the Mount of Rest, alongside four coffins flown in from France. Among them were three children -- ages 3, 6, and 8 -- and a 30-year-old rabbi. All four had been gunned down at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, and were laid to rest in Jerusalem at the request of their bereaved families.

Monday, less than three years later, Barkat prepared his city once again to bury four more victims of terror and anti-Semitism in France. This time, the victims -- four men -- were killed by the armed gunman who seized a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday as part of a string of coordinated attacks that terrorized France.   

On Tuesday morning, the bodies of Phillipe Barham, 45, Yohan Cohen, 22, Yoav Hattab, 21, and Francois-Michel Saada, 64, will arrive in Israel, along with family members who requested that the men be laid to rest in Jerusalem. The funeral is scheduled to take place at the same cemetery where the children and rabbi were buried in 2012.

“No matter where you live, if people taunt you because you’re Jewish, or in this horrible case, kill you because you’re Jewish, you know you have a home in Jerusalem,” said Mayor Barkat. “The desire and the prayers and the will to come to Jerusalem is 3,000 years old for the Jewish people. And throughout history, since the destruction of the temple, Jews have prayed to return to Jerusalem.”

Anti-Semitism in France

Jan. 10, 201505:21

Just as millions rallied through the streets of France on Sunday in a show of solidarity against the forces of terror and extremism, Barkat sees the act of being buried in Israel as another show of defiance. “We will bury them in Jerusalem tomorrow and immediately go back to our normal life,” said Barkat. “This is how we will overcome the terrorists and show them that if anything, they got the exact opposite of their goal. More French immigrants will be coming to Jerusalem, and they will strengthen the city of Jerusalem.”

France’s Jewish community has been rocked by a continuous string of anti-Semitic attacks that have stoked fears among residents and propelled thousands to leave for Israel. “[T]his may indeed be a watershed moment,” said Avi Mayer, a spokesperson for the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit organization that handles Jewish immigration to Israel in partnership with the Israeli government.

In 2014 alone, 7,086 French Jews moved to Israel, more than any other year in Israel’s history. That figure is more than double the 3,293 who came in 2013, and more than triple that of 2012, when fewer than 2,000 French Jews moved to Israel.

RELATED: Still in mourning, France's Jewish community remains threatened

Half a million Jews remain in France, making it Europe’s largest Jewish community, and the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. Prior to last week’s attack, the Jewish Agency had predicted that migration from France to Israel would reach 10,000 in 2015. Now that number is expected to be substantially higher, said Mayer, noting that calls from France to the Jewish Agency’s hotlines in Israel had doubled over the weekend, as more French Jews are contemplating the move.

“The French Jewish community is gripped by a very deep sense of insecurity and that sense is often traced back to the attack in Tolouse in 2012,” said Mayer. “But there’s also a lower-level sense that it’s simply impossible to be openly Jewish in the streets of France, and that's something that’s manifested itself with Jewish discomfort with wearing yarmulkes in the streets or necklaces with Jewish stars.”

The French Jewish community has a very strong connection to Israel, said Mayer, because most French Jews are of North African descent. Many of those who left North Africa moved to France or Israel, so those living in France frequently visit their family members in Israel.  

"I’m glad I’m not in France anymore, but I’m scared for my family and friends because you don’t know when it’s going to strike again."'

Samuel Teboul, 25, was born in France but his grandparents are from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. He spent childhood summers in Tel Aviv and moved last year from France. An observant Jew who wears a yarmulke and keeps Kosher, Teboul said he feels safer now. “When you’re wearing a kipa [yarmulke] in Paris, you feel that something bad could happen to you,” said Teboul, who was a friend of Yoav Hattab, one of the young men who was killed Friday. “Last time I heard from Yoav was on Rosh Hashana. He wished me a happy new year and said we should be grateful to be alive.” 

France's government has stepped up security at Jewish sites and schools in wake of the attack, but that has not allayed the fears for many in France.

RELATED: France, US pledge war against terror

For Samantha R., who requested that her last name be withheld out of concern for her family in France, the decision to move from Paris to Israel last year was vindicated by Friday’s attack. “I’m glad I’m not in France anymore, but I’m scared for my family and friends because you don’t know when it’s going to strike again,” said Samantha, whose parents, sister and brother are still living in Paris. “French people are waking up now, but it’s too late. For me, the anti-Semitism is nothing new.”

Now 29, Samantha said she witnessed anti-Semitism as student, seeing others write “Death to Jews” and plaster swastikas on the walls of her high school. School officials did nothing about it, she said. A few years ago, she said, a friend was attacked on the subway because he was Jewish.

Barkat and other Israeli leaders express hope that the attacks in France might awaken world leaders to the threat of terrorism that Israel faces on a near-daily basis. “I believe the world is now starting to realize what Jerusalem and Israel has been going through in the last few decades of terror attacks that try to change our course of life and derail our values,” said Barkat.