Jerusalem – Thousands of mourners joined Israeli leaders and the families of the four Jewish victims of a Paris terror attack on a kosher supermarket for an emotional funeral procession on Tuesday, reflecting the deep sense of connection and concern in Israel over the safety of fellow Jews in Europe.
The ceremony, broadcast live on all Israeli TV channels, turned into a nationwide expression of mourning and solidarity.
Relatives of each victim spoke briefly and lit a torch in memory of their loved ones before stepping off the stage with a huge Israeli flag in the background to embrace Israel’s president and prime minister. The ceremony concluded with Israel’s national anthem.
The four victims – Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philipe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada – died on Friday during a tense hostage standoff at the market on the eastern edge of Paris. They were among 17 people killed in three days of attacks last week by terrorists claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State extremist groups.
The killings shocked France’s Jewish community of 500 000 – the largest in Europe – and deepened fears among European Jewish communities already shaken by rising anti-Semitism and threats from Muslim extremists.
The attack sparked calls from Israeli leaders for French Jews to immigrate to the Jewish state – calls that have received a mixed reception in France, where politicians and Jewish leaders insist that Jews are an integral part of the country and where a mass migration of the community would be perceived as a failure of the republic.
European Jews are deeply ambivalent about leaving. While maintaining close ties to Israel, their community leaders have urged people to stay in their homelands and not flee in the face of terror.
Still, instead of being buried in France, the victims’ bodies were flown to Israel, where they received a funeral with many of the trappings of an official ceremony.
“Yoav, Yohan, Phillipe, Francois-Michel – this is not how we wanted to welcome you to Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said, his voice quivering. “We wanted you alive, we wanted for you, life. At moments such as these, I stand before you, brokenhearted, shaken and in pain, and with me stands and cries an entire nation.”
Netanyahu defends Jewish rights
Rivlin, though, insisted that Jews should not return to their ancestral home out of distress or fear of violence. “The land of Israel is the land of choice. We want you to choose Israel, because of a love for Israel,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom critics at home accuse of having an overzealous and politically motivated response to the Paris killing, defended the rights of Jews to live safely everywhere.
“I believe that they know deep in their hearts that they have one country, the state of Israel, that is their historic homeland and will always welcome them with open arms,” he said. “Today, more than ever, Israel is the true home for all of us.”
Israeli critics, mostly in the media, have reported that Netanyahu travelled to Paris for a solidarity rally against the will of French President Francois Hollande, a claim denied by both governments.
Commentators have also criticised his behaviour in France, including his repeated calls for Jews to immigrate to Israel and video of him appearing to push his way into the front row of world leaders at the Paris solidarity march. French officials say Netanyahu stood where he was supposed to be.
Last year, France topped the immigration list to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit group that works closely with the government and acts as a link for Jews around the world. Nearly 7 000 new immigrants came in 2014, double the number from the previous year.
Overall, immigration was up 88% from Western Europe in 2014, with the arrival of 8 640 immigrants compared with some 4 600 in 2013, with surges also from Italy, Belgium and Britain, according to the Jewish Agency.
Experts say European Jews have not felt this threatened since World War II, when some 6 million Jews were murdered in the Nazi Holocaust. Researchers at Tel Aviv University monitoring anti-Semitism have reported a chilling increase in attacks in Europe over the past decade, including deadly shootings in Toulouse, France, in 2012 and Brussels last year. In recent years, France has had the highest number of incidents of any single country.
France takes pride in its inclusiveness and the Jews’ 2 000-year history in the country. It was the first country in Europe to grant Jews full civil rights, in the immediate wake of the 1789 French Revolution. It has had two Jewish prime ministers, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy has Jewish ancestry.
Representing the French government at the Jerusalem ceremony, Environment and Energy Minister Segolene Royal emphasised the connection.
“All four were killed because they were Jews,” she said. “Today our thoughts are for you, your pain is our pain. Your pain is the pain of the whole of France that cries over your children with you.”