Inside story'It was my dream school, but I won't go even if accepted'

‘Good Jews oppose Zionism’: French Jewish students say campus no longer a safe space

Post-October 7 anti-Israel agitation and the antisemitism it unleashed are pushing promising candidates away from French schools. Last week’s protests may be the tipping point

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Protesters hold posters of the Palestinian flag as they demonstrate near the entrance of the Institute of Political Studies, Sciences Po Paris, occupied by students, in Paris, France on April 26, 2024. (Julien De Rosa / AFP)
Protesters hold posters of the Palestinian flag as they demonstrate near the entrance of the Institute of Political Studies, Sciences Po Paris, occupied by students, in Paris, France on April 26, 2024. (Julien De Rosa / AFP)

A straight-A student in her final year of high school, Esther is within reach of her first life goal as an adult: Getting accepted into the law or geopolitics program of the ultra-prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po.

In recent months, however, Esther (who requested that her last name be withheld due to the sensitivity of the subject) has cooled off the goal that had guided her for years. She cites aggressive and protracted anti-Israel agitation on campus that she and many other critics (French-language link) say is spilling over to antisemitism without a firm response from authorities. Esther now considers Sciences Po unsuitable for a Jew who does not wish to hide their identity or support of Israel.

“It used to be my dream,” Esther tells The Times of Israel about studying at Sciences Po. “But now, honestly, I wouldn’t go even if I’m accepted.”

Esther’s disillusionment with Sciences Po is shared widely among the French-Jewish community. Like many American Jews who are horrified by the anti-Israel mobilization on US campuses, French Jews perceive this development — and the antisemitism they say characterizes it — as portending a shift in their ability to prosper in France.

The anti-Israel mobilization has been simmering for years at many French campuses, and Jewish student groups see it as linked to an increase in antisemitism. In a poll (French) from September, 91% of French Jewish students sampled said they had encountered an antisemitic incident during their studies.

But the problem exploded after October 7, when about 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 Israelis and abducted another 252. Israel’s ongoing incursion into Gaza to topple Hamas has prompted a global wave of protest, as well as a spike in antisemitic incidents in France and beyond.

Students wave Palestinian flags during a rally near the entrance of the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) building in Grenoble, France on April 30, 2024. (Jeff Pachoud / AFP)

In France, many fear this wave means that anti-Jewish attitudes have returned to universities that for decades after World War II had been the main vehicle for upward social mobility by Jews and others. Higher education has been key to the success of France’s Jewish community, where most members were born to Holocaust survivors or impoverished immigrants from North Africa.

At Sciences Po, anti-Israel activists began staging in March what they call “blockages,” occupying campus buildings, sometimes for days. That month, the protesters prevented one Jewish student leader from entering a Sciences Po campus building as other students were let through, prompting the UEJF Jewish student association to accuse the protesters of antisemitism.

The blockages — there have been dozens across French campuses — feature multiple calls for a “global intifada,” a term many interpret as a call to harm Jews, and chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which critics say is a call for ethnic cleansing.

In January, three Jewish students in Strasbourg were assaulted (French) for putting up posters raising awareness for the hostages in Gaza. Signs reading “no entry to Zionists” have become commonplace in French campuses, according to the UEJF.

This development is occurring against an explosion of antisemitic hate crimes, of which the Jewish community watchdog SPCJ recorded in 2023 a total of 1,676 cases (more than the tallies of the previous three years combined). Nearly 75% of all cases recorded last year happened after October 7.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal in an April 27 speech said that blockages would not be tolerated in France.

Protesters display mock blood on their hands as they take part in a demonstration in front of the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Paris) occupied by students in Paris, France on April 26, 2024. (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

Yet the handling of the blockages at Sciences Po, the flagship of French academia, and beyond left many feeling that the blockers had gotten a free pass.

Negotiations with supporters of terrorists

On April 30, students at Sciences Po agreed to end their weeklong blockage after obtaining from the university administration an amnesty on any disciplinary action and a promise to arrange a campus debate about the war in Gaza. Despite the compromise, dozens of protesters returned to Sciences Po on Friday, prompting police to evacuate them from the campus building they had occupied.

The compromise by Sciences Po’s administration, which had vowed (French) initially to be “uncompromising” in its actions against antisemitic intimidation and blockages, set it apart from some counterpart institutions in the United States, and especially Columbia University, where the administration called police to break up campus occupation actions, and arrest participants.

At Sciences Po, “the administration lay down before the anti-Israel crowd and its antisemitism,” said historian Marc Knobel, who is a graduate of Sciences Po and who researches modern-day antisemitism.

Students demonstrate outside the Sciences Po university in Paris, France on April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Schaeffer)

Jean Bassères, the caretaker director of Sciences Po, defended (French) the compromise in an interview published in Le Monde. An intervention by law enforcement “would be a difficult operation and not result in an end to the blockages,” he said.

The Paris region authority punished Sciences Po for the compromise. On Tuesday, the  Île-de-France government suspended its annual funding of about $1 million for Sciences Po “until calm and security have been restored at the school,” region president Valerie Pecresse wrote on X. Sciences Po is heavily subsidized — taxpayers provide 37% of its annual budget of about $214 million — but most of the funding comes from the central government, which has not suspended it.

The message that came out of the blockages, Knobel said, was: “You can disrupt studies, harass Jewish students and intimidate faculty into concessions — and get away with it.”

‘Good Jews oppose Zionism’

At Sciences Po and other French universities, some Jewish students feel unsafe.

Lea Hanoune, a leader of the Union of French Jewish Students in France and a student at the Sorbonne University, said: “Many Jewish students like me feel unsafe when we hear slogans about intifada.” She added: “We have to be the ‘good Jews’ and oppose Zionism. If we’re ‘bad Jews’ who support Israel, we will be intimidated — or worse.”

Lea Hanoune, a Jewish student at Sorbonne University, speaks on C Ce Soir about the antisemitism problem in France on April 30, 2024. (Video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Sophie B., who also asked her last name be withheld from this article, recalled avoiding a certain bathroom on the campus of her Université Paris Cité because it had been defaced with the words “Free Palestine” in large letters and slogans accusing Israel of murdering children on the walls. The graffiti was removed following Sophie’s complaint, but it made her feel uneasy.

“I try not to show my identity. I’m a secular Jew, so for me it’s normal,” she told The Times of Israel. At her university, she added, “I have never seen anyone wear a kippa or any religious Jewish sign.” The response to her initiatives in November to go with other Jews and hang up posters of the hostages were lukewarm. “People said they’re too scared,” she said.

Political maneuvering

Knobel, the historian, is among the many French Jews who view the campus blockages and riots as an orchestrated push by one of France’s main political forces, the far-left LFI party of Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“What we’re seeing isn’t a grassroots explosion of sentiment, although it’s sometimes framed this way,” Knobel said. “At Sciences Po and other campuses, we see the fingerprint of LFI’s incessant weaponization, by its top members and campus activists, of the Palestinian issue to strengthen its base with young voters.”

French Founder of La France Insoumise (LFI) party Jean-Luc Melenchon (C) gestures as he speaks at an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian protest in front of the United Nations Offices in Geneva on February 3, 2024. (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Melenchon, a former communist who won 19% of the vote in the previous presidential elections and whom the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities has accused of stoking antisemitism, has called (French) Israel’s actions in Gaza “genocide.”

His party has placed Rima Hassan, a French-Palestinian activist who is under a police investigation for justifying the October 7 onslaught, on its ticket for the European Parliament elections next month. She visited the Sciences Po blockage and danced and sang with the protesters.

Melenchon, who in a 2017 speech had said about French Jews that “France is the opposite of aggressive communities that lecture to the rest of country,” has dismissed claims that he is encouraging antisemitism as an attempt to besmirch him.

Rima Hassan attends a gathering in front of the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Paris) as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel students occupy a building in Paris, France on April 26, 2024. (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

Melenchon and LFI have been vocal supporters of the blockages, advertising them on social media and announcing each new blockage approvingly. “After Columbia, Sciences Po and hundreds of faculties worldwide, the Sorbonne joins the vast movement of student solidarity with the Palestinian people,” LFI wrote on X recently, in a post that Melenchon shared (French) on his own X account.

In her heavily Jewish and affluent suburb of Paris, Esther is weighing options along with her two brothers.

Her older brother is preparing to study at the École Polytechnique, where he hopes to get on an exchange program with MIT or Harvard. But now, studying on an American campus seems much less desirable to him than it did before October 7, says Esther.

“London, New York, Montreal: It’s the same, so I’m not sure how to choose. None of us do,” said Esther.

Studying in Israel would solve the antisemitism issue, she said, but she doesn’t see herself living in Israel.

“We’re kind of lost. We’re asking ourselves where to go, where will we encounter problems,” she says. “Now safety is suddenly a major criterion. It’s kind of crazy.”

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