Future of France’s Jewish community

After deadly attacks, French Jews are conflicted whether to risk life in France or move to Israel.

French Jews Georges, Hilda, and Rafael carry Israeli flags at a rally for victims of the attacks [Adrien le Coarer]

Paris, France – As Parisians attempt to rebuild their lives in the wake of the recent attacks, the Jewish community remains shaken after four Jews were killed at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket.

Shortly after the events, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was swift to play upon fears of further aggression by telling French Jews that “Israel is their home,” extending an invitation to France’s Jews to make their aliyah, or immigration. However, after Netanyahu spoke at the Grande Synagogue de Paris, the crowd spontaneously burst into La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, a seemingly patriotic response to the call to leave France for Israel.

Now, French Jews face a difficult decision: Whether to immigrate to Israel, or remain in France.

“There has been a change in France. I feel persecuted because I am Jewish, said Rafael Levy, proudly brandishing the Israeli flag at the Republican March a week ago. Jews are being targeted. It wasnt a coincidence the attacker was in a kosher supermarket.

Other French Jews echoed Rafaels concerns. I dont feel safe in France, said Mélanie Cohen, a practising Jew. After last weeks attacks, I am still shocked that people can act in such a manner by killing innocent people in cold blood.

There will be 250,000 French Jews who will come in the next 15 years who are going to leave France.

by - Rabbi Dov Maimon, Jewish People Policy Institute, Jerusalem

Questioning safety

While anti-Semitic acts have increased in France over the past two decades, feelings of insecurity have gripped the community since the 2012 shooting at a Jewish primary school in Toulouse. The assaults on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher have only compounded such sentiments, and forced the Jewish community to question their safety in France.

We hoped the situation would improve in France after the incident in Toulouse [referring to the attacks in southern France in 2012], but it hasnt gotten any better, said Georges, who refused to give his last name in light of the recent events. There is a lack of security and I dont feel safe.

As Shabbat began on Friday evening, the streets surrounding the Grand Synagogue in Paris lay empty, with the exception of a few police officers protecting the imposing edifice. They are part of the French governments expanded Vigipirate programme, which includes the deployment of 122,000 extra law enforcement personnel to reinforce security efforts. The 717 Jewish institutions in France have been afforded special protection. The Ministry of the Interior did not respond to repeated attempts for comment about the programme.

Its true that we do feel more protected in France now than one month ago, explained Eva B, who preferred not to give her last name for security concerns. The soldiers are everywhere, like in Israel. I was also reassured by Manuel Valls speech [on security] because he used strong words. Now, we will wait to see the governments actions.

15,000 expected to leave

Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, forecast the arrival of 15,000 French immigrants to Israel this year, amid growing anti-Semitism in Europe. This announcement comes as France is now the first country of origin for olim, or immigrants, to Israel, surpassing even the United States. About 7,000 French Jews arrived in 2014, double the number from 2013. The Jewish Agency in France did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.

According to the CRIF, the umbrella organisation for Jewish institutions, France is home to about 550,000 Jews, the largest community in Europe. Their population size and openness to emigration has made them an ideal population for Israel’s efforts to increase immigration. As such, the Israeli government adopted the “French First” action plan in 2013, to encourage mass migration from France.

“There will be 250,000 French Jews who will come in the next 15 years who are going to leave France,” said Rabbi Dov Maimon, who wrote the French First plan and is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a policy think-tank based in Jerusalem. “We expect that if we bring home one million Jews from Europe, starting with France, and then other places, we hope it will bring peace to the Middle East.”

Although addressing their safety concerns, immigration poses a new set of challenges for French Jews. New arrivals often struggle to integrate into Israeli society due to linguistic issues, employment barriers, and cultural differences. Many French Jews who immigrate to Israel end up commuting to France for work and higher salaries, or return permanently, due to a lack of integration.

A video grab purporting to show the gunman who took part in the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris [EPA]

“While it’s understandable to want to go Israel, the reality is that not everyone can leave France so easily and simply. There are all sorts of consequences,” said Rabbi Michel Sefarty, president of the French Jewish-Muslim Friendship Association, a non-profit organisation advocating for dialogue between Jews and Muslims.

“I know many French citizens who have moved to Israel only to return to work in France during the week, while leaving their families behind.”

Community divided

The Jews have been wandering for 2,000 years, it is time to come home,” said Rabbi Maimon. “Like all countries who seek to establish their sovereignty, the Jews want to come home to Israel. It’s simply a natural feeling that the Jews would want to come home and to be the masters of their destiny.”

While the desire to return to Israel is strong for some, for most of France’s Jews, the decision to immigrate is complex. Some have been planning their aliyah for quite some time and the attacks have only hardened their resolve to leave.

To be honest, I am preparing my departure, confessed Georges. I have been considering and planning to go for awhile, but now it is definitive. I am moving to Israel.

The reasons to leave are diverse, but many cite the desire for a better quality of life for their families, which they feel Israel can provide.

I am concerned about my childrens future in France and how they would grow up here. These attacks comforted me in my decision that it was time to leave and I am very happy to have made this decision to leave, explained Leslie, who did not want to give her last name for privacy reasons.

She is leaving with her four children in July and has been preparing for the journey for over a year.

If you think you are going there for a vacation on Miami Beach, its not that at all, she said. But there is a high quality of life there we dont have in France and I really want to live that life. Its time for me to change.

‘Wait to see’

All of the interviewees agreed that preparation is the key to successfully migrating, and few would consider moving without careful consideration of their future in Israel. Both Mélanie and Eva expressed interest in going to Israel, but are also hesitant to leave France behind. 

“I am a French citizen, I love France and it’s not Islamic extremists who are going to expel us and make France their state,” said Mélanie. “I am proud to belong to this country and respect it.”

For Eva B, who already has two siblings in Israel with a third about to depart, her decision depends on what happens in France, as well as on the opportunities for her family in Israel.

We are afraid, but we are going to wait to see what happens, she said. We are conscious that if we leave, our life is going to change. I dont want that. I feel good where I am and I dont want to live in Israel for the time being.

Others, including community leaders such as Rabbi  Sefarty are determined to remain because of their sense of loyalty and love for France.

I am French. France welcomed me. If France suffers, I must share in its suffering, said Sefarty. I owe what I am to France and if France is attacked, it is my responsibility to defend it.

While preferring to remain in France, Sefarty also exhorts his fellow citizens to weigh their obligations to France before deciding to move to Israel.

Dont forget the land that you have prayed for, said Sefarty. French Jews, you are free to decide what is best for your families, but consider the debt we have to France who gave us our dignity, freedom, and rights as equal citizens.

“We were in France before the Gaulois [original tribe of France]. France has been a welcoming land for Jews. Think and reflect on this before you decide to leave.

Source: Al Jazeera