Does a gritty ex-cop’s move to Israel symbolize the end for France’s Jews?

When I enter Sammy Ghozlan’s apartment in Netanya, he’s at his computer, looking at an email. It features a photograph of the metal shutters of a Jewish-owned optician store in Paris. Freshly painted graffiti on the shutters shows a Der Sturmer-style purple and black caricature of a hook-nosed Jew. It looks pretty horrible to me, but Ghozlan is not hugely fazed. Routine, he calls it wearily. Unremarkable. Just one more sign of the times.

A former Paris-area police commissioner, Ghozlan in retirement established a liaison organization between French police and the Jewish community, the BNVCA (National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism), alerting both sides to attacks and threats against Jews. He made aliya this summer, but will be paying frequent return visits to France, he says, and is still running the BNVCA.

I’d arranged to meet Ghozlan after reading an August 2015 Vanity Fair profile of him, headlined “Paris is Burning,” which described him variously as a “Sephardic Columbo” and a “beat-up version of Yves Montand” and said he had made his police counter-terrorism reputation by identifying Palestinian sympathizers rather than neo-Nazis as the perpetrators of a 1980 synagogue bombing on Rue Copernic in which four people were killed. In retirement, it said, he has been “almost alone in his fight to protect the Jews of the banileues” — the suburbs surrounding Paris.

The question I most want to ask Ghozlan, 72, is whether his decision to move to Israel signals that there is no future for the Jews in France. And the answer he gives me is revelatory: “It’s not that there’s no future for the Jews in France. It’s that there is no future for the Jews in France that they want,” he says.

France is not 1930s Germany for the Jews, he elaborated. It’s not the regime, the government, that is persecuting them. Quite the reverse. The government is trying to protect them. But they are persecuted nonetheless, he says, to the point where you cannot wear a skullcap or a Magen David outdoors for fear of attack by Islamic extremists, cannot leave overtly Jewish material in your car for fear of it being torched. Which is why a record 10,000 French Jews are expected to have moved to Israel by the time this calendar year is over, up from 7,000 in 2014, and why there is every likelihood that 2016 will see a still higher exodus.

We used to lament that Israel was revived too late to save Europe’s Jews from the Holocaust; we used to express relief that Israel was able to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews in the Middle East and North Africa; and we used to assume, with anti-Semitism so marginalized after the horrors of World War II, that Israel in our lifetime would continue to constitute a homeland of choice, not necessity, for the Jews of the modern free world. Except it turns out that anti-Semitism is back and that Israel is coming to be regarded as a vital safe haven, again, for some communities in the ostensibly free world, with French Jews emphatically among those feeling oppressed.

As an ex-cop, Ghozlan makes for an unsurprisingly no-nonsense interviewee — earnest and precise with his words. The story he tells, of the intensifying persecution of the world’s third-largest Jewish community (after Israel and the US), is dismal.

He argues that the current oppression of Jews in France really got going in 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada, when French television highlighted footage ostensibly showing that Israeli troops had shot and killed Gaza teenager Mohammad al-Dura — a claim initially accepted by Israel, and subsequently vigorously disputed. This marked the start of what Ghozlan says was a series of attacks on Jews that French police proved ill-equipped to grapple with at first, and too often disinclined to grapple with later on.

Initially, the new millennium’s new wave of attacks on synagogues and physical assaults on Jews was assumed by police to be the work of the extreme right — even though the victims were describing North African assailants. The police also claimed to be hamstrung by French legal definitions, under which there had to be physical injury for an attack to be classified as “a hate crime.” “The cops would say, if a synagogue went up in flames but nobody was hurt, ‘it’s a criminal act, not a hate crime.'”

Amid growing disquiet in the community, Ghozlan says he found himself approached by Jewish leaders, journalists and others, asking him who was responsible for the rising tide of violence, because the police were telling them they didn’t know.

So “I set up a 24/7 hotline to report attacks. I produced a form for victims to fill in. I found Jewish representatives in communities around Paris. And I arranged to serve as a liaison between the communities and the police.” His organization, the BNVCA (National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism), has been running for 15 years now, updating reporters, the police and thousands of others on his mailing list about hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks (851 in 2014) on synagogues, on schools, on public transportation, in the streets.

Spreading from the suburbs

In the early days, leaders of small Jewish communities around Paris highlighted newsletters produced by local mayors as inciting anti-Semitic violence, he says.

“In many cases, these are areas with communist mayors,” says Ghozlan, “and their mayoral newsletter always has a section on Palestine — especially on deaths in Palestine,” in which the content is viciously skewed against Israel. These local councils sometimes organized “trips to Palestine — touring Palestinian villages,” he says, further bolstering anti-Israel sentiment back home.

“While Europe is fighting terrorism,” he protests, “there are left-wing mayors who celebrate terrorists — and name streets in their honor.” Indeed, Ghozlan says he runs a group that focuses on working to reverse local council decisions to name streets for terrorists.

In recent years, he says, Algerians, Moroccans and other immigrants have moved into many of these Paris suburbs, where Jews had long been living. “We started to see synagogues routinely attacked — bottles and stones thrown. A girl beaten up when a Magen David was spotted under her shirt. Jewish kids attacked physically and verbally on the way to school.”

Initially focused in the Paris area, Ghozlan says the attacks gradually spread, “to Marseilles, Toulouse, Strasbourg, the Jewish quarter of Lyon…” It was about a decade ago, he recalls, that the chief rabbi of France advised Jewish men not to wear their kipot (skullcaps) in public. “And it’s only gotten worse in the last few years” — with world headline-ranking incidents such as the killings at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and this year’s Paris kosher grocery store attack, interspersed with relentless lower-level attacks: shots fired at synagogues, stabbings, violent robberies at Jewish homes.

“If people leave religious objects — a kippa, tefillin — in a car, the car will be attacked,” says Ghozlan. “Jewish homes find swastikas on their mailboxes. White powder sent in envelopes.” That Der Sturmer-style cartoon at the Jewish optician.

He also sees a surge in resonant anti-Israel activism, such as activists in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement staging anti-Israel protests in supermarkets, “squeezing oranges and saying, ‘This is the blood of the Palestinians.'”

Ghozlan traces a “direct connection” between incitement and violence against Jews in France and what’s happening in Israel, with a surge in attacks whenever conflict flares between Israel and the Palestinians.

But he is adamant that “Arabs and Africans in France would not be as brazen in attacking Jewish targets and staging hostile protests “if they didn’t have the sense that they were encouraged by (extreme left) political movements and opinions in France that incited them to behave in this way.” Muslim immigrants, he says, would not have dared defy police bans on some demonstrations or police efforts to disperse others if the far-left had not encouraged them to do so. He is thinking in particular of two major incidents in July 2014: when hundreds of rioters attacked Jewish targets in Paris’s historic Jewish Marais district, laying siege to hundreds of Jews trapped inside a synagogue; and a mass demonstration two weeks later in the Place de la Republique, in which Palestinian, Hamas and Islamic State flags were brandished by thousands and the cry of “Kill the Jews” rang out.

As for the French mainstream, Ghozlan castigates French media for painting what he says is a deeply inaccurate picture of what unfolds between Israel and the Palestinians. This is bolstering hostility to Israel among the French and, by extension, hostility to the Jewish community because of its support for Israel. French media presents Israel “as an occupier and as an aggressor that shoots up Palestinian villages and bombs the Gaza Strip,” he says flatly. “It’s never reported in the French media that Israel gets attacked from Gaza,” for instance. “So Israel is seen as evil. Ordinary French people see Israel as the bad guy. It’s the message that’s repeated to them and they have taken it in.” In France now, he goes so far as to say, “Israel and Israelis are seen as detestable.” In the thinking of “an anti-Israel French person,” he says, “the Israeli is perceived as a Nazi. So no matter what Israel does, whether it’s innovations or other good things, it will stay a Nazi.”

Ghozlan even asserts that “the French public doesn’t care when the Jews get attacked. If there had been no attack on (the offices of the satirical magazine) Charlie Hebdo (in which 12 people were killed in January), the attack on the Hyper Cacher (kosher grocery two days later, in which four people were killed) would not have been a big deal in France.”

Pressed on this assertion, Ghozlan notes that, in the 1980s, when the Jewish community sustained a series of anti-Semitic attacks — including the synagogue bombing on Rue Copernic, and the 1982 killings of six people in a terror attack at the Goldenberg restaurant on Rue de Rosiers — the French mainstream showed broad solidarity.

“That’s because these attacks were perceived as perpetrated by the extreme right, and therefore were to be condemned. Now, there’s less solidarity for the Jews because the Jews don’t hate Israel, because the Jews are seen as very supportive of Israel.”

When I ask Ghozlan whether it’s time for France’s Jews — of whom there are perhaps half a million — to leave, he gives a series of not quite definitive responses.

He notes that “in France, remember, during World War II, Jews were rounded up and betrayed. There’s still remembrance of that.”

He says, “It won’t be the 1940s, but I think it’s getting worse.”

He observes that those targeted Jewish communities from the Paris suburbs have “moved wholesale” and “regrouped in the 16th and 17th arrondissements” of the city, in what he describes as “a bit of ghettoization.”

He points out that the Jews of France now need to live “under protection the whole time: schools and synagogues under military protection,” and says that’s not tenable. “A child celebrating a bar mitzvah in France today has not known anything but anti-Semitism,” he says. “And it’s the same in Belgium, in Spain and in Italy. And now with the migrants, Arab Muslims, you’ll see more Islamism and it’s going to get worse.”

Does that spell more attacks like Hyper Cacher? “Yes, and the government knows it,” Ghozlan says emphatically. “The intelligence services have been a failure.” Attacks such as Hyper Cacher were carried out by suspects who were known to the authorities and yet were not intercepted. And more potential terrorists are being created all the time, he warns. “Those who carry out such attacks are seen as heroes of Islam. Petty criminals get out of jail and want to do an act of ‘Islamic penitence,'” he says. “They used to ask my friend, an imam, whether killing Jews will get them to paradise.”

In absolute contrast to 1930s Germany, when the regime was the oppressor, the French government is making “a considerable effort” to protect the Jews, he notes, “But the attacks are also beyond anti-Semitism,” he asserts. Jews, that is, are also being targeted by those who want to harm France. “Today, France has military forces deployed in Mali, Afghanistan and Syria,” he says. “Often, these attacks are really against the state, but Jewish targets are favored. They are seen as more resonant. When they desire to harm the state, they know when a Jew is targeted, the state is hurt.”

In the current grim climate, Ghozlan is certain that this year’s record figures of immigration to Israel will be topped next year and the year after. “Young families want to get away. They’ve increasingly been putting their kids in Jewish schools for security reasons. But after Toulouse” — where a rabbi, two of his children and a third child were murdered in 2012 by an Islamist gunman — “they are too scared even to send their kids to Jewish schools. The very fact that their young children see that they are being protected by soldiers and the military is very disturbing for them.”

Ghozlan asks rhetorically why the four Jewish victims of the Hyper Cacher attack were buried in Israel. “Why? Because families didn’t want their graves to be desecrated.”

Not exactly fleeing

Sammy Ghozlan says he decided to leave France, in part, because some of his children and grandchildren moved to Israel. But “I’m very French,” he declares. He did military service in the French air force, Vanity Fair reported. “I watch French TV; I’m constantly linked with my team who fight anti-Semitism in France; I often go back to France,” he tells me.

He contrasts this late-in-life change of country to what was evidently his own formative experience, fleeing Algeria for France as a college-age kid in 1962: His father, a hospital security chief, took his mother, his sister and Sammy to the airport in what sounds like a matter of hours after receiving a threat that apparently stemmed from an incident at Sammy’s school: Sammy was deemed responsible for a number of Arab sympathizers with the revolutionary FLN National Liberation Front being suspended, and violent revenge was threatened. “The man who replaced my father at the hospital was shot in the head immediately afterwards. They killed the wrong man,” Ghozlan says. “The FLN also killed my uncle after we left — my aunt’s husband.”

Moving to Israel, he says, was not a case of fleeing. “I can return if I want to,” he points out. Still, he acknowledges, “my activities in France have made me a bit of a target. My car was set on fire outside my home (near Paris in 2010). The police investigated. Made a big show. Intercepted phone calls. Didn’t catch anybody.”

Ghozlan says he wonders “how Jews in France see my departure, what does it signal to them. Some have criticized me for abandoning them when there’s a big job to do in combating anti-Semitism… Others have thanked me for what I did. I’ve been saying what they’re not ready to say. I don’t ignore any attack — from the biggest to smallest.”

Well, what should the Jews make of his departure? “I don’t know,” he admits. “I’m not very optimistic. As long as politicians and journalists in Europe portray Israel in this very negative light, the problems won’t be reduced. It’s so sad.”

By now, Ghozlan is musing aloud, rather than waiting for questions. “I’ve been asking myself,” he says, sighing, “whether it is better to be someone who says ‘Follow me,’ or someone who saves himself from a sinking ship.”

I prompt: And?

“I keep asking that question.”