Nowhere in the developed world has there been an increase in aliyah as marked as in France. The Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption estimate that more than 5,000 French Jews — 1% of the community — will immigrate to Israel in 2014, compared with 3,289 in 2013 and 1,917 in 2012. Last year, more Jews immigrated to Israel from France than from the United States.
The factors pushing Jews out of France are known. Anti-Semitism, manifest in both hate speech and violent action, has generated growing fear, even among those who haven’t experienced it firsthand. While the recent assaults on two synagogues in Paris with worshippers barricaded inside is extreme and distinct from the general problem of French anti-Semitism, they show how severe the situation on the ground can be.
Aline Le Bail-Kremer, a press officer for the French civil rights group SOS Racisme, lives near Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue on rue de la Roquette, where one of the attacks took place and observed it from her window.
“The scene was very violent, with terrifying and anti-Semitic slogans” she told the Forward via an email. The protesters, she said, came with “baseball bats, chairs, tables stolen from the bars [which they] used as projectiles.”
Inside, members of the Jewish community were gathered to commemorate the lives of three teens recently found murdered in Israel, apparently by terrorists. Outside, synagogue security forces, and later police, defended the house of worship during an altercation that lasted for an hour and 40 minutes, said Le Bail-Kremer.
“It was clearly an anti-Semitic attack,” she said.
Anti-Semitism, however, is not the only push factor, even if it is the most shocking. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of nationalism, xenophobia and the reactionary Catholic right, with the National Front winning the European elections in May. And an economic malaise is impacting young people in particular: The unemployment rate in France for those younger than 25 runs as high as 24.8%.
But these factors alone cannot explain aliyah. After all, it would be easy for French Jews to immigrate to Montreal, with whose residents they share a common tongue, or to nearby London, with its synagogues, cultural centers and free state-run Jewish day schools. The specific choice to go to Israel is indicative of how deeply embedded the Zionist feeling is today in the French Jewish community.
Historically, the Zionization of French Jewry has much to do with the wave of North African Jews immigrating from the Maghreb after French decolonization. During the 1950s and ’60s, around 235,000 Maghrebi Jews, some of whom had French citizenship, came to settle at the heart of the Francophone world. Their arrival did not just change the outward appearance of French Jewry, which until then had been a mostly Ashkenazi community including refugees from Eastern Europe — it altered French Jewish identity itself.
The Jews of North Africa, the Israeli historian Michel Abitbol writes, had “strong links to the former colonial regime and deep sympathies for the State of Israel.” In tandem with Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and a breakdown in Franco-Israeli relations, this demographic upheaval engendered a new, stronger form of French Jewish identity — a shift in emphasis from being Jewish Frenchmen to being French Jews — centred on Holocaust remembrance and on solidarity with Israel. “The contribution of North African Jews to French Jewish identity cannot be underestimated,” Abitbol states.
Gérard Cohen is making aliyah to Jerusalem in late July with his wife, Nathalie Cohen, and three of his four children. When his parents’ generation came from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, he told me, they thought France “would offer a better life to their children.” Indeed it did, but he now asks, “If we stayed here another 25 years, would my children have a better life than I had? And I’m not sure, and the more I asked myself, the more I wasn’t sure.
“Now we are sure that it’s time to go home, because the best place to be a Jew is Israel; this is something that appears obvious, but it wasn’t for a long time for us,” Cohen said.
Cohen said that the atmosphere in France has changed, that when he was a student, “no one cared that you were a Jew, no one cared that you were an Arab, no one cared where you came from.” Now, from insults on the school playground to the perceived demonization of Israel in the French media to the green activist Pierre Minnaert coming out the day after the assault on the two synagogues and saying, “When synagogues behave as embassies, it’s no wonder they suffer the same attacks as an embassy,” Cohen said he feels that “being a Jew in Paris in 2014 is a little bit risky…. You can feel it every day.” Cohen alluded to a recent statistic showing that 74% of French Jews are considering making aliyah.
More immediately, there has been a conscious attempt over the past decade by the Jewish Agency for Israel and community institutions in France to build up the connection between French Jews and Israel. More than 8,600 French Jewish high school students have used the Bac Bleu Blanc program, which takes high school students on educational experiences to Israel, over the past 11 years. In 2013, almost 1,000 young French Jews took part in Masa, a program that brings them to Israel for between five and 12 months to study, intern or volunteer. Seventy percent of French students coming through Masa end up making aliyah.
“That more and more people are deciding to go to Israel is no doubt related to the long-standing policy of ours and the Jewish community in France to connect every young Jew to Israel with different programmes and experiences,” Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, told me while he was in Paris for an event for new olim in early July. “So when people decide that now is the time to leave, they already have the State of Israel in their minds.”
Cohen said that his eldest daughter, who is 19, made aliyah three years ago and is currently studying law in Jerusalem, while his second daughter, 16, indicated her wish to follow her sister after she completes her final exams. Both of them participated in Bac Bleu Blanc. His other two children receive a Zionist education at the local Jewish day school. The parents of Cohen’s wife already live in Israel, as familial connections are also an important motivating factor for aliyah.
For Edouard Harari, 22, studying in Israel for a year as part of his degree in Jewish history was an important element of the process of discovering his Zionist identity. “I think it was something that was very progressive, that every year I learned more about Jewish history and Israel, I felt closer and closer to it, and when I spent my year abroad there, I really felt at home,” he said. “So after I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to go.”
Harari is making aliyah so he can serve in the Israel Defense Forces while he is still eligible for military service. “It’s something all Israelis do, and that’s very important to society. I would feel kind of illegitimate if I made aliyah and didn’t serve in the army,” he said. “Even though I’m very attached to my French identity, I’m also strongly connected to Israel, and I feel like I’m in the right place and this is the right time to make this huge move.”
Indeed, despite everything, the French Jewish community is strongly patriotic and idealistic. Congregations say a prayer for the Republic each Sabbath, at the end of the Saturday morning service: “May France live in happiness and prosperity. May unity and harmony make her strong and great. May she enjoy lasting peace and preserve her spirit of nobility among the nations.” Harari told me, “If it meant losing my French citizenship, maybe I wouldn’t [make aliyah], because it’s something I’m very attached to.”
When I asked Cohen if making aliyah was also tinged with sadness for what he’s leaving behind, he described himself as “un enfant de l’Republique, a child of the Republic.” His mother raised him and his two brothers by herself from when he was 3 years old, and Cohen attended a public school in Paris as opposed to a Jewish day school. He believes that the French Republic “helped us a lot.”
“My father is Israel and my mother is France. I’m not happy when I hear people who do not appreciate all the good things the French Republic and all of the French people have given us,” he said. But he went on to say that “the situation has changed. It’s time for me to go where I belong; it’s time to go home. My land, my home, is Israel.”
Contact Liam Hoare at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story includes new material since it was first posted on the morning July 16