Jamie Kirchick remembers “an evening last September when I was strolling through the Marais’ windy and narrow streets”:
I came across the Notre Dame de Nazareth synagogue, a grand, 19th century building constructed in the Moorish revival style that serves the city’s Sephardic Jews, those who come from North Africa. The rabbi happened to be walking out of the synagogue with his wife. After dispensing with the facts of my Jewish background and American citizenship, I promptly asked, “What’s the situation?” Our shared patrimony obviated any need for further elaboration; as a European Jew addressing an American one, he knew exactly at what I was aiming. “There is no future for Jews in France,” he said. If the Rabbi is right, and I fear he is, than it means that there is no future for Jews in Europe. For France is home to the continent’s largest Jewish community, numbered at over half a million. But it is declining rapidly.
Josh Marshall also worries about the future of Jews in France:
When these events [last week] began to unfold I immediately thought of this article I saw [last] Monday. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (the same 70s and 80s era Soviet refusnik, Anatoly Sharansky) said that in 2014 some 50,000 French Jews asked the Jewish Agency (the primary agency organizing and facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel) for information about immigrating to Israel.
It’s important to note that Jewish immigration into and emigration out of Israel is a highly politicized and emotive issue within Israel – it goes to the essence of the Zionist project. So these numbers should be seen through that prism. But there’s something very real happening. To expand on those numbers, in 2012 about 2000 French Jews left for Israel. In 2013 it was a bit over 3000. 2014 apparently hit over 6000.
Joshua Keating points to a string of anti-semitic attacks in recent years that have motivated that exodus:
Tensions reached a high point during last summer’s war in Gaza, when demonstrations turned violent with pro-Palestinian youths attacking Jewish businesses in a neighborhood known for its large Jewish population. Several synagogues were also firebombed. Demonstrators at some rallies chanted slogans like “death to the Jews” and “slaughter the Jews.” These incidents followed an attack in May on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where a French former ISIS fighter killed four people.
These attacks have added to the growing unease of a community still reeling from the 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, which killed three children and a teacher, as well as the grisly torture and murder of a young Jewish man named Ilan Halimi in 2006. While these dramatic incidents have garnered the most international attention, smaller anti-Semitic crimes have become depressingly commonplace. On New Year’s Day of this year, for instance, a fire was started and a swastika drawn on the wall of a synagogue in a Paris suburb.
The Jewish Agency, which helps Jews make aliyah, was on the scene in Paris this week and seemed to be harnessing French Jews’ fear to advocate for more emigration:
In what now has become a strange coincidence, the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Immigration Absorption held an Aliyah Fair in central Paris on Sunday that was scheduled before any of the attacks took place. The fair was designed to inform French Jews and returning citizens above the age of 50 on how to start the process of relocating their lives to Israel. The fair had increased its security to make sure families felt safe as they came to the fair to weigh the option of immigrating to Israel.
Chemi Shalev is disheartened to see Israeli leaders, especially on the country’s right wing, pushing “emigration to Israel as a Zionist antidote for the anti-Semitism and atmosphere of fear”:
[T]his instinctive reaction – perhaps Pavlovian is a better word – should give reason for pause and discomfort, even among the most ardent of Zionists. Because whether French Jews answer these calls by emigrating to Israel or whether they simply take the advice in principle and go somewhere else, in some ways this campaign is no more than blatant capitulation to terror. It gives its instigators a prize they could never have dreamed of: a frenzied flight of Jews, at best, or the complete elimination of Jewish presence in France, at worst. … Such a surrender, as Netanyahu regularly lectures the West, can only invigorate the Jihadists and spur them to adopt similar tactics in other European countries.
Likewise, Brent Sasley argues that “the calls by many on the political right for French Jews to return ‘home‘ to Israel indicates a lack of interest in recognizing that the conditions that led to the emergence of Zionism have changed” – i.e., that 2015 is not 1933, and that the challenges Jews in Europe face today do not compare to the existential threats of the past:
At its emergence, Zionism was perceived by its leaders and adherents as a movement of no or little choice. Anti-Semitic persecution required a safe haven. At the same time, the belief that the Jews could never be a normal people so long as they lived among host societies and didn’t have their own state meant that national redemption was a necessary process, not an optional one. An effective conversation about Zionism can only begin if participants recognize that things have changed over time. While the events in France reinforce for some the notion that they haven’t, this is a misunderstanding of world, Jewish, and Israeli history.
Aliza Luft detects a different historical parallel, between the French Jews of the past and French Muslims today:
French protestors in the 1930s blamed Jews for their supposed capitalistic tendencies, for stealing jobs, for forcing French civilians out of the economy. Today, Muslims are stereotyped in France as stealing jobs and welfare, living off state benefits, and bringing down the country’s economy. French citizens who consider Muslims not really French see them as threatening to their material goods; as scapegoats for the country’s current economic woes.
(Photo: Children wave French flags from a window as French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve visits the Jewish school in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district of Paris on January 12, 2015. Mr. Cazeneuve visited the area to inspect the deployment of thousands of troops and police to bolster security at “sensitive” sites including Jewish schools. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)