France's Jews are Fleeing Paris for London

A member of the Jewish community in north London
A member of the Jewish community collects his children from school in north London, January 20, 2015. Police presence was increased at the time due to an attack at a kosher supermarket in Paris. Andrew Winning/Reuters

Sabine Zeitouni remembers when she first realized her family had to leave France. On January 9, 2015, a gunman declaring allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) killed four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris. Soon after, the French government deployed armed guards to the entrance of the Jewish school that Zeitouni’s children attended in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. The school advised its students to no longer wear yarmulkes outside the classroom.

Zeitouni, 41, told her husband it was time to get out. “We need to go for the future of the children,” she recalls saying. On July 1, they packed their bags and moved to a house in Kensal Rise, a quiet neighborhood in North West London. “In France, it’s difficult for you to show that you are Jewish,” she says. Now her sons, aged 9 and 10, and her 7-year-old daughter, walk home from the North West London Jewish Day School wearing their uniform—which bears the name of the school and a Star of David on the blazer—unafraid that it might provoke an anti-Semitic attack.

Zeitouni and her family are far from being the only French Jews to make the move to London recently. A surge in anti-Semitic incidents in France—which doubled in 2014 and remained at a high level in 2015 (although slightly dropping from the previous year)—has led to a record number of French Jews fleeing the country. In January 2015, gunmen killed 17 people in and around Paris, including at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and that kosher supermarket; 10 months later, coordinated attacks in the French capital left another 130 people dead.

Many French Jews head for Israel: nearly 8,000 in 2015, up from 1,900 four years earlier. But others seek safety within Europe, and London has become an increasingly popular destination. Although the British government does not record the religion of people who move to the U.K., Jewish community leaders in London say an increase in newcomers from France has driven demand for French services in London’s synagogues and Jewish schools. French children now make up 40 to 50 percent of the incoming students at London’s Jewish schools, according to Marc Meyer, the French chairman of the Hendon United Synagogue and director of the Conference of European Rabbis.

“It is very noticeable,” says Rabbi Sam Taylor of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue, who will begin a French prayer service on March 26 and already runs French classes there. “We’re having a lot of French Jews moving into the area every week, every month,” he says. “It is much harder in France to be Jewish than it is in England.”

Each new attack in France raises doubts among some French Jews about whether they should stay. On January 11, a 15-year-old schoolboy stabbed a Jewish teacher in Marseille and claimed to be acting in the name of ISIS. It was the third time since October that someone had used a knife to attack a Jewish person in the city, which is home to France’s second-largest Jewish population, after Paris. The head of the Jewish community in Marseille, Zvi Ammar, responded by urging Jews not to wear a skullcap in the street “until better days”—sparking a backlash from other Jewish leaders in France, who called the attitude defeatist. The country’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, urged Jews not to follow Ammar’s advice and to form a “united front.”

French President François Hollande has promised to do all he can to protect the country’s Jewish community. "It is intolerable that in our country citizens should feel so upset and under assault because of their religious choice that they would conclude that they must hide,” he said after the Marseille attack.

But “an exodus” of French Jews to other nations is already a reality, says Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of Moscow, the chairman of the Conference of European Rabbis, who recently hosted a dinner with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to celebrate young Jewish entrepreneurs in London. “What I heard from many French Jews is that they don’t see a future there” because of the extremist attacks, he tells Newsweek . He adds that London is a popular destination because French Jews view British security services as more effective than their French counterparts.

London is not, however, an entirely safe haven for Jews. The city’s Metropolitan Police reported a 61 percent increase in anti-Semitic crime in 2015. But there are other factors besides security drawing Jews to Britain: Many cite the U.K.’s comparatively robust economy and less punitive tax regime, as well as its proximity to France. French Rabbi René Pfertzel, who holds a French-language service at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in North West London, says cheap flights and the high-speed Eurostar train between London and Paris have allowed French Jews to move to the British capital and still be able to easily return to their home country to see family and friends. Zeitouni, for instance, has gone to Paris twice since her family’s move to London this past July.

For now, Zeitouni’s trips across the channel will likely continue as the brief visits of the wary expat rather than the homecoming of the reassured, returning exile. She thinks it unlikely that she’ll ever move back to France. “We will stay for 10 or 15 years,” she says of her new home in Britain. “I see [my family’s future] in Israel, but I am happy to live in London. It’s an opportunity to learn English. The life here is good. It is safer. I don’t want to go back.”