A new leader for France's embattled and worried Jewish community

For the first time, a Sephardi Jew from North Africa has been elected to head Europe’s largest Jewish population.

Françis Kalifat (photo credit: JOEL SAGET / AFP)
Françis Kalifat
(photo credit: JOEL SAGET / AFP)
FIFTY-FOUR YEARS ago, Françis Kalifat, a Jewish boy born and raised in the sprawling western Algerian port city of Oran, fled his home, as the Muslim North African territory gained its independence from France in an apocalyptic finale to 132 years of French rule.
“I was 10 years old, and my mother and I hurriedly left for France a few days before independence," Kalifat recalls to The Jerusalem Report. "My father was a policeman, and he had to remain there for several months during which he saw horrors such as bodies hung from butchers’ hooks. Atrocities were committed on all sides.”
Some 800 French men, women and children, and an unknown number of Algerians, were murdered or disappeared in Oran on July 5, 1962, the day Algeria became independent, as rival Algerian nationalist factions – the ultra-rightist OAS Secret Army Organization made up of French settlers, including some Jews, and the departing French army – all fought each other inside the city. Similar violence swept the entire country.
The Kalifat family was among one million French nationals, including 100,000 Jews, who fled Algeria for metropolitan France during the blood-soaked weeks of the summer of 1962.
During that same period, tens of thousands of co-religionists also came to France, fleeing Tunisia and Morocco.
The Sephardim completely revitalized French Jewry, then almost exclusively Ashkenazi and still reeling from World War II, when some 76,000 – about a quarter of their number – were murdered in the Holocaust.
On June 1, Kalifat, now an energetic 64 years old, became the first president of the powerful Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) to hail from that part of the community which arrived, often destitute, from North Africa a half-century ago. He shares his outlook for the community and organization, in an interview with The Report.
Today, Sephardi Jews of North African origin make up three-quarters of French Jewry and the overwhelming majority of community activists, as older, established Ashkenazi Jews increasingly melt into France’s largely secular society.
“My election is not a symbol of any Ashkenazi-Sephardi split," he says. "It’s just the result of a sociological evolution. We Sephardim were enthusiastically greeted and helped to integrate into France by the-then Ashkenazi-led community. Today, differences are meaningless because of the vast number of weddings between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in France.
“I am of Sephardi culture, but my many years here in Jewish and Zionist organizations have resulted in my being extremely aware of the Shoah [which for the most part did not affect the Jews of North Africa] and for the need to keep the memory of its victims alive.”
Kalifat, elected to a three-year term, replaces 79-year-old Roger Cukierman, who was born in France to Polish immigrant parents. Contrary to some previous hard-fought CRIF elections, Kalifat – who owns a chain of upmarket shoe shops – was the only candidate in this contest, possibly because he was already CRIF vice-president and treasurer under Cukierman, and could clearly adapt rapidly to the post.
Still, the challenges facing him are daunting.
“The French Jewish community is currently going through one of the most difficult periods it has encountered since the end of World War II,” says Kalifa. He cities as an example the several murderous attacks against French Jews in the past few years, including the January 2015 killing of four shoppers in a kosher supermarket by an Islamist gunman in Paris, on the same day staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered.
Young hotheads in France’s six million- strong Muslim community, Europe’s largest, are blamed for hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents a year, including an average of two physical attacks on Jews each week. The violence began in 2001 with the start of the second Palestinian Intifada in the West Bank with whose residents the French Arabs identify.
Police and Jewish community statistics show there were more than 800 anti-Semitic incidents in France last year, accounting for more than half of all racially motivated occurrences, even though Jews make up less than one percent of France’s total population.
As a result, all Jewish schools and synagogues are now guarded under tight security by the French army, which has detailed about 7,000 soldiers – close to 10% of its combat troops – to guard Jewish premises.
Aliya, or immigration to Israel, has shot up, with about 8,000 French Jews moving there in 2015, making France the single- largest source of immigration to the Jewish state. Figures available so far for this year, however, indicate the number of departures has dropped by about a third compared with 2015.
Kalifat says the reason is the November 13 terrorist attacks, when Islamist gunmen simultaneously attacked a Paris concert hall and several outdoor cafés in the city center killing 129 people and wounding 350.
Ironically, that bloodbath has made more Jews inclined to stay, he says.
“Until November 13, the Islamists had targeted the French state through its police and soldiers, or by murdering journalists who symbolized a free society," he says. "Jews had been attacked for being Jews, and our community felt isolated and in danger, especially in neighborhoods where there were large populations of North African Arab origin.”
“The reflex for some Jews was to seek safety in Israel. But since last November, Jews realize that it is all of French society that is under attack, so Jews no longer feel so isolated even though they do still feel endangered, but like all the French.”
Kalifat says there will be no change to CRIF’s stand-offish attitude toward the right-wing National Front (NF) party, which has put out feelers to “the Jewish street.” The NF’s leader Marine Le Pen presents herself as “the best shield” for Jews in the face of local Arabs. Le Pen is the daughter of the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who repeatedly offended Jews and was thrown out of the party.
Next year France will vote for a new president to replace the highly unpopular François Hollande, and Le Pen is widely predicted to be one of two finalists in the contest. Reports from the field indicate a relatively large number of low-income Jews who reside in areas with large Arab populations are drawn to her hostile platform toward Arab immigration and Muslim causes.
“I’m not saying that the National Front under Marine Le Pen is an anti-Semitic party, but its values – the rejection of others and of xenophobia – are totally opposed to Jewish values,” says Kalifat.
“[But] we will not give in to the FN’s attempts to woo the Jews and ingratiate themselves with our community, because these attempts are based only on electoral motives. We will do everything in our power to explain to our co-religionists the dangers of the National Front.
“The National Front may have changed its shape when getting rid of the elder Le Pen, but behind the façade, the party has changed little and it is still the expression of the classical French extreme Right, a place that still appeals to people nostalgic for the wartime collaborationist Vichy regime and to former members of ultra-rightist and anti-Semitic strong-arm groups,” he says.
Kalifat has no qualms in acknowledging that, in his own youth, he was a highly active member of the militant rightist Jewish group Betar, which is best known in France for its own strong-arm tactics.
“But you can’t compare Betar to any French ultra-rightist street-fighting group," he says. "We existed solely to protect Jews against ultra-rightists and Palestinian militants, especially in universities.”
As for CRIF’s ties with Israel, Kalifat says: “We do not back any specific Israeli political faction or party. We leave that to the Israeli people through their ballots at election time. Our responsibility toward Israel is to show our solidarity with the people of Israel and to act in favor of the continued existence and security of the Jewish state. We don’t play Israeli politics.”