French President Francois Hollande welcomes Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Elysee Palace..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
PARIS – “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview Sunday with US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg.
Interesting comment, that – from an official of Valls stature – that gives an appreciation of the tremendous contribution of the historic French Jewish community to the country. It is also one that places Israel in a sensitive position. For how can Israel call for the Jews of France to leave France, when their prime minister says that if they do, France ceases to be France? This isn’t the first time Israel has faced this dilemma. In 2003, after a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in France, then prime minister Ariel Sharon called on the Jews of France to leave immediately.
“If I have to advise our brothers in France, I’ll tell them one thing – move to Israel, as early as possible.
I say that to Jews all around the world, but there [in France] I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately,” he said.
France’s president at the time, Jacques Chirac, was insulted to the quick, and – in order to avoid a major diplomatic crisis with Paris – Sharon was forced to backtrack, eventually apologizing. One of the Israeli officials who ran interference at the time was Natan Sharansky
, who served then as Diaspora minister.
Today Sharansky is the chairman of the Jewish Agency, and his advice to Israel’s leaders is to chose their words wisely when encouraging aliya from France. As tempting as it may be, he says, do not yell, “The house is burning, run for your lives.” Rather than emphasize the negative in France, focus on the positive in Israel.
The French, he maintains, must figure out why it is the Jews are considering leaving the Republic in droves, and what that means for France and for Europe. And Israel must attract the Jews by focusing on what it has to offer, and not appearing as if they are forming a practical alliance with anti-Semites to encourage aliya.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that Netanyahu seems to understand as the prime minister. In his public comments about the terrorist attacks last week, he chose his words carefully, never once calling on French Jews to “flee immediately.”
Rather, he is saying Israel will welcome the Jews if they choose to make aliya. Before leaving for Paris on Sunday morning, Netanyahu said that his message to the Jews of France will be that “every Jew who wants to immigrate will be greeted with open arms.”
It’s a subtle difference, but an important one; one designed to send a clear message to French Jewry without slapping the French Republic in the face.