PARIS — Twenty-five years after he graduated from a public high school in the French capital, Stephane Tayar recalls favourably his time in one of the world’s most thorough education systems.
As for many other French Jews his age, the state-subsidized upbringing has worked out well for Tayar, a 43-year-old communications and computers specialist. Eloquent but down to earth, he seems as comfortable discussing the complexities of French society as he is adept at fighting — curses, threats and all — for his motorcycle’s place in the brutal traffic here.
“You learn to get along with all kinds of people – Muslims, Christians, poor, rich,” Tayar said in recalling his school years. “You debate, you study, you get into fistfights. It’s a pretty round education.”
But when the time came for Tayar and his wife to enroll their own boy and girl, the couple opted for Jewish institutions — part of a network of dozens of private establishments with state recognition, hefty tuition and student bodies that are made up almost exclusively of Jews.
“Enrolling a Jewish kid into a public school was normal when I was growing up,” Tayar said in a recent interview as he waited with two helmets in hand to pick up his youngest from her Jewish elementary school in eastern Paris. “Nowadays forget it; no longer realistically possible. Anti-Semitic bullying means it would be too damaging for any Jewish kid you put there.”
This common impression and growing religiosity among Jews in France are responsible for the departure from public schools of tens of thousands of young French and Belgian Jews, who at a time of unprecedented sectarian tensions in their countries are being brought up in a far more insular fashion than previous generations.
Whereas 30 years ago the majority of French Jews enrolled their children in public schools, now only a third of them do so. The remaining two-thirds are divided equally between Jewish schools and private schools that are not Jewish, including Catholic and Protestant institutions, according to Francis Kalifat, the newly elected president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities.
The change has been especially dramatic in the Paris area, which is home to some 350,000 Jews, or an estimated 65 percent of French Jewry.
“In the Paris region, there are virtually no more Jewish pupils attending public schools,” said Kalifat, attributing their absence to “a bad atmosphere of harassment, insults and assaults” against Jews because of their ethnicity, and to the simultaneous growth of the Jewish education system.
Whereas most anti-Semitic incidents feature taunts and insults that often are not even reported to authorities, some cases involve death threats and armed assaults. In one incident from 2013, several students reportedly cornered a Jewish classmate as he was leaving their public school in western Paris. One allegedly called him a “dirty Jew” and threatened to stab the boy with a knife. A passer-by intervened and rescued the Jewish child.
The increase in schoolyard anti-Semitism in France, first noted in an internal Education Ministry report in 2004, coincided with an increase in anti-Semitic incidents overall. Prior to 2000, only a few dozen incidents were recorded annually in France. Since then, however, hundreds have been reported annually. Many attacks — and a majority of violent ones — are committed by people with a Muslim background, who target Jews as such or as payback for Israel’s actions in what is known as the “new anti-Semitism.”
In 2012, payback for Israel’s actions in Gaza was the stated motivation of a jihadist who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Since then, Jewish institutions across Europe and French Jewish schools especially have been protected by armed guards – most often soldiers toting automatic rifles.
In neighbouring Belgium, the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism has documented multiple incidents that it said were rapidly making Belgian public schools “Jew-free.” Some blamed Belgian schools for being more reluctant than their French counterparts to punish pupils for anti-Semitic behaviour.
The latest incident there involved a 12-year-old boy at a public school outside Brussels. Classmates allegedly sprayed him with deodorant cans in the shower to simulate a gas chamber. The boy’s mother said it was an elaborate prank that also caused him burns from the deodorant nozzles.
In April, another Jewish mother said a public school in the affluent Brussels district of Uccle was deliberately ignoring systematic anti-Semitic abuse of her son, Samuel, in order to hide it. She enrolled him specifically at a non-Jewish school because she did not want him to be raised parochially, the mother said, but she had to transfer him to a Jewish school due to the abuse.
In addition to charting anti-Semitism among students, watchdogs in France and Belgium are seeing for the first time in decades a growing number of incidents involving teachers – as victims and perpetrators.
Last month, the Education Ministry in France began probing a high school teacher who shared with her students anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook — including ones about the clout of the Jewish lobby in the United States and another about French President Francois Hollande’s Jewish roots (he has none).
In 2012, a teacher from a suburb of Lyon said she was forced to resign after her bosses learned that she had suffered anti-Semitic abuse by students. Days later, two teenagers were arrested near Marseilles on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher who had reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.
The atmosphere is pushing many French Jewish parents to leave for Israel, which is seeing record levels of immigration from France. Since 2012, 20,000 Jews have made the move. Their absence is already being felt in Jewish schools and beyond, said Kalifat, because “the people who are leaving are exactly the people who are involved in the Jewish community.”
Some of those who left were responsible for developing France’s Jewish education system long before anti-Semitism became a daily reality for French Jews, said Kalifat. More than 30 years ago he enrolled his own two children in a Jewish school “not because of anti-Semitism, which was not a problem back then, but simply to give them a more Jewish education,” he said.
Jewish immigrants from North Africa to France had a major role in the growth of Jewish schools from a handful in the 1950s and ’60s to the formation of Jewish education networks with dozens of institutions, said Kalifat — himself an Algeria-born Jew and the first North African Sephardi to be elected CRIF president.
Arriving in a country where a quarter of the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Jewish newcomers from former colonies of France were more traditional and religious than many French-born Jews.
“They developed all sectors of Jewish life, but Jewish schools more than anything,” Kalifat said.
The effort has paid off in several ways. Last year, Jewish schools topped two French media rankings of the country’s approximately 4,300 high schools. One was a Chabad institution; the other was part of the more liberal Alliance network.
Some French Jews, including Yeshaya Dalsace, a Conservative rabbi from Paris, say the rise of Orthodox religious schools and other institutions is part of a trend toward insularity that comes at the expense of openness at a time when Jews should be more engaged in French society than ever.
But to Tayar, the growth of Jewish schools amid anti-Semitism is a much-needed silver lining.
“That parents like me effectively can’t send their children to public schools is tragic,” he said. “The only positive aspect I can see here is that anti-Semitic hatred drives us to make the financial sacrifice that will raise a generation that has much more Jewish culture and knowledge than our own.”