French Jews, Escaping to Israel Is Not the Answer

Jewish and Muslim demonstrators advocate peace at a rally in Paris / Getty Images

Is it the spike in anti-Semitic acts or rather their growing banality that drives Jews in Paris, Lyon and Marseille to seriously consider emigration?

Maybe both. Caught between the rise of far-right movements like the Front National and the tide of anti-Semitism preached by Islamists, French Jews today look like they are once again stuck in an age-old historical trap.

After WWII and the massive trauma of the Holocaust, my country — France — tried to build a society free of anti-Semitism. Over the years, various pieces of legislation have prohibited Holocaust denial and racist acts in general. Several associations (SOS Racisme, MRAP and LICRA) have worked hard to erase differences between French citizens. Now, for the French Republic, you are neither Black, nor Asian, nor or Caucasian. You’re not Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. You are French. I grew up with this wonderful principle along with the Republican motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” But our society is not equal to these principles and, sadly, it has taken only four decades for anti-Semitism to return to my country.

The result? My family is a good example. My Tunisia-born grandparents came to France in the late 1950s and had two sons; my father then had three. One of them now lives in New York with no plans of coming back to Paris, the other one studies in Spain and Sweden, and the last one is writing down these lines. Within months, I silently bore witness as a large part of my entourage made aliyah — including some of my friends and all of my girlfriend’s family. It was quite a strange feeling. I wouldn’t say that I felt abandoned, but I was definitely disappointed by all those people choosing to live a different life abroad.

A few years ago, I was nominated chief editor of l’Arche, a cornerstone for French Jews. Back in its heyday, the magazine was full of outstanding articles from top French thinkers. It was a place where French Jews had the opportunity to think seriously about their own concerns. Then l’Arche began to focus more and more on Israel. It slowly lost its socialist identity.

When I took over the magazine, I decided to go back to basics. I assembled a team of popular established thinkers and promising new writers to tell our readers how interesting it was to be a Jew in France — as opposed to always looking towards Israel.

This editorial direction failed. Our readers absolutely could not accept the change. They were — and unfortunately still are — full of biased information coming from blogs and unprofessionalwebsites. But more than being badly informed, French Jews are afraid. Ilan Halimi’s case in 2006 and the victims of Mohamed Merah in 2012 still weigh heavily on people’s minds. Nowadays, a growing number of French Jews believe that their future won’t take place in their native country.

I won’t lie to you: In today’s France, there are reasons for despair. But there are also reasons for hope.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is one of them. He has always protected Jews from anti-Semitism. This summer, when Gaza was a major concern for part of the Muslim community, his government banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations when there was a risk of them devolving into anti-Semitic outbursts. More broadly, even though the incidence of anti-Semitic attacks is very high, at least French politicians from both sides now understand the need to protect the Jewish community. Better late than never.

There are positive things happening within the community, too. Our thinkers are still in a position to play the role of whistleblower. Jewish intellectuals are focusing on social justice, as they are at the forefront of the fight for human rights and democracy. In France, a diversity of opinions can still be expressed in politics and in the media. Jewish thought is even experiencing a rejuvenation of sorts, thanks to a new generation of intellectuals who are taking the lead. Bernard-Henri Levy, André Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut are now joined by a bunch of young thinkers who are adding a 2.0 perspective to the work of their elders.

One more thing: Haim Korsia, who was nominated as the new Great Rabbi a few months ago, is a young and progressive public personality. He’s very good at PR. Korsia’s nomination is crucial, as he keeps insisting that there is a future for Jews in France, even if the number of aliyah candidates is on the rise. In his speeches, the rabbi often says that French Jews have lived through harder times than the current spike of anti-Semitism. Is escaping really the solution? Does aliyah really solve each and every problem for French Jews (safety, jobs, education)? Do all the Jews who run to Israel really believe that it is easier to be part of a constantly-at-war country, a never-appeased land, a state under the constant threat of terrorist attacks and the possible rise of a new Intifada?

France may suffer from some deep social problems, an inability to integrate its recent immigrants and a desperately outdated political organization. But it remains one of the most peaceful and most beautiful countries in the world. As long as that does not change, there will always be a future for Jews in France.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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French Jews, Escaping to Israel Is Not the Answer

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