Jewish World: On the Move

Tens of thousands of French Jews have moved homes in the past 15 years due to hostility by local Arabs, but also because of the amazing upward mobility of once-penniless Sephardi Jews.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech at the Nazareth synagogue in Paris ahead of Rosh Hashanah in September (photo credit: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech at the Nazareth synagogue in Paris ahead of Rosh Hashanah in September
(photo credit: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)
Entire communities of French Jews have emptied out of multi-racial neighborhoods in the past 15 years, with many people leaving the country, including to Israel, where immigrants from France are now the single largest group arriving in the Jewish state.
Even more, however, have switched residences within France itself, with brandnew communities springing up in affluent areas like Paris’s elegant 17th arrondissement (district), which now boasts no fewer than 29 kosher restaurants, delis and bakeries.
“The big population change is especially true in the Seine-St. Denis department adjacent to northern Paris. A huge number of Jews moved out because of the insecurity felt after multiple incidents of harassment, pressure or outright physical attacks,” says Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance against Anti- Semitism, a leading Jewish community watchdog group.
Sammy Ghozlan, a retired French police superintendant, who is now president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, speaks to the press after visiting a Jewish teenager beaten by a gang in 2008 (photo credit: THOMAS COEX / AFP)
“Everywhere in the region, especially during the second intifada in Israel [2001- 2005], there were cases of synagogues being firebombed, rabbis attacked in the street and Jewish school buses burned in their garages. Incidents continue and, in many of these places, an atmosphere has been created by the local municipal authorities who are Communist and who loudly proclaim their solidarity with the Palestinian cause,” says Ghozlan, a retired French police superintendent who is also president of the Council of Jewish Communities of Seine-St. Denis.
Ghozlan tells The Jerusalem Report, “Seine-St. Denis has the largest per-capita number of Muslims in France [an estimated 40 percent of 1.6 million inhabitants].
There are some mosques there that can accommodate as many as 8,000 worshippers at a time. As a result of the tensions of living in such surroundings, Jewish communities in suburbs like La Courneuve, Aubervilliers, Stains, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Trappes, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Blanc-Mesnil and St. Denis are dying out.
“In St. Denis, there used to be 500 Jewish families. Nowadays, they have difficulty in even raising a minyan for Yom Kippur services,” Ghozlan says.
It was in a run-down area of the center of St. Denis that French police, on November 18, raided an apartment in which Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected Islamist mastermind of the massacre of 130 people in Paris days earlier, was tracked down and killed with two accomplices.
“In 10 years there won’t be a single Jew left in the department,” says Ghozlan, who now splits his time between France and Israel.
The November 13 shooting attacks in the Paris region, which targeted a rock music concert, the area near a sports stadium and several popular cafés and restaurants, did not take place in neighborhoods with notable Jewish minorities or institutions.
This is possibly because synagogues and Jewish schools are protected by assault rifle-toting French soldiers and would not have made for such a “soft” target as the places of leisure and entertainment that were raked unopposed with automatic weapons fire.
More than 70 percent of France’s estimated half-a-million Jews are Sephardi, who arrived between 1956-1962 as their ancestral homelands of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia gained independence from France.
Often penniless upon arrival, many settled in the relatively low-income northern and eastern suburbs of Paris, where they created large Jewish communities with dozens of synagogues and community centers.
However, they were joined and quickly outnumbered in those areas by Muslim Arabs fleeing economic hardship in the same countries the Jews had left. There are now an estimated six million Muslims in France, about 10 percent of the country’s population of 66 million.
Whereas the initial Arab immigrants generally shunned politics and avoided trouble, many of their children have no such qualms because their birth on French soil means they have automatic French citizenship and cannot be expelled.
Already at odds with French society at large because they feel discriminated against, the second- and third-generation children of Muslim Arab immigrants took up the Palestinian cause with a vengeance when the second intifada erupted in Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2000- 2001. They have since often made life miserable for many of the Jews living around them.
As a result, many French Jews fled to Israel where they are now the single-largest source of aliya to the country. 2014 was the first year in which France topped the list of countries of origin for immigrants to Israel, with nearly 7,000 arrivals, double the 3,400 who came in 2013.
A TOTAL of 36,800 French Jews made aliya between January 2001 and December 31, 2014. The Jewish Agency, which is in charge of their immigration, says a further 6,250 arrived between January 1 and the end of September this year. These figures must be offset, however, by unofficial estimates that as many as 30 percent of the immigrants return to France within five years, usually because of difficulty fitting into the Israeli economy.
About 4,000 French Jews head annually to other destinations like Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec.
About 20,000 of Montreal’s 93,000 Jews are Sephardi of North African origin who came from France. London is another destination, having recently attracted thousands of highly qualified young French Jews who are employed in the financial sector. The British capital and its dynamic economy is a magnet for young French people of all origins with between 300,000 and 400,000 French expatriates now living there.
Jewish community activist Albert Myara estimates that in “problem” areas, about 60,000 of the greater Paris area’s approximately 350,000 Jews have changed homes in the past 10-15 years, either to get away from hostile Arab neighbors, or simply because they have become richer and can afford more upscale homes.
The exceptional economic and professional success of many French Sephardi Jews and their parallel rise in French society has meant that some of Paris’s most elegant and expensive neighborhoods now have new and still-growing Jewish communities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the chic 17th arrondissement of Paris, part of which is near the Avenue des Champs Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. “When I opened my dental practice in the area in 1983, there were hardly any other Jews around. Today we believe there are at least 40,000 Jews in the 17th arrondissement, or close to 30 percent of the district’s entire population,” says Murielle Schor, deputy mayor of the district and vice-president of the Paris Consistoire Israélite, which administers synagogues in the Paris area.
The Consistoire handbook lists no fewer than 29 kosher restaurants, delis and bakeries in the 17th arrondissement. A major newsstand on the elegant, tree-lined Avenue de Wagram prominently displays such Jewish publications as Israel Magazine, L’Arche and Actualités Juives.
A walk along the Rue Jouffroy d’Abbans takes one past such Jewish delicatessens as Berbèche and Charles Traiteur, all kosher and specializing in North African delicacies, as well as the Beit Hasofer bookshop, which sells religious books and advertises that it also checks mezuzot.
“When Jews leave synagogue here on Shabbat, they keep their kippot on their heads because they have no fear that anyone will bother them,” says Jewish community activist Francine Zana, referring to the French rabbinate’s advice to Jews a decade ago, at the height of the second intifada, not to wear Jewish headdress in public.
“I CAME to this neighborhood in the mid- 1980s because there were already problems in the tough 20th arrondissement of eastern Paris where I then lived. Arab and African youth gangs brawled in the area and created problems there for Jews. The area was rotting away. Since I earned a decent living in the law firm where I worked, I chose to move here because the 17th is a beautiful area,” Zana tells The Report.
“There were very few Jews then. Our synagogue, created by my husband when he came here directly from Tunisia, only had about 40 members. Today, we have 10 times as many and more are joining all the time coming from other areas of Paris and its suburbs. Offhand, I would say we have 250 people of Tunisian origin, 80 of Moroccan origin, 50 of Algerian origin and 20 Ashkenazim,” she adds.
“It’s an expensive area and many members of our synagogue are lawyers, doctors, computer engineers and business people, all of whom have worked very hard to reach their current positions,” she says. A relatively large number of Jews from such neighborhoods also own holiday homes in Israel where many have close relatives.
French Sephardi Jews are strong supporters of the Jewish state and identify enthusiastically with Israeli right-wing political parties. Deputy Mayor Schor relates that “the rise of the Jewish Sephardi community, which settled in metropolitan France in the 1960s, has been meteoric.” On plaques identifying medical and dental offices in her neighborhood, every other name is Jewish, she says. On some plaques every single name is Jewish, such as one reading, “Doctors Sion, Sebban and Weinrich.”
“When there is a report on French national television about pharmacies, the names of the pharmacists are inevitably Dahan, Benchitrit, Benhamou ‒ or Rosenberg. It’s striking,” says Schor.
Two recent French winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics, Claude Cohen- Tannoudji (1996) born in Algiers, and Serge Haroche (2014) born in Casablanca, are Sephardi Jews residing in France. One of France’s best known living philosophers is Algeria-born Bernard-Henri Lévy,and Sephardi Jewish names abound in the film industry and in universities.
Schor says relations with local churches are excellent. Some non-Jewish neighbors do, however, complain to the arrondissement’s town hall about cars that double and triple park in the street near Jewish food shops before Shabbat. The most regular complaints are about noisy weddings and bar mitzvas in some of the area’s dozen synagogues when doors and windows are left open.
“Neighbors are also furious when wedding guests loudly emerge from reception halls at 2 a.m. in what used to be an especially quiet bourgeois neighborhood,” she says. “It’s not anti-Semitism but some of the non-Jewish neighbors believe the noise levels are just too much,” says Schor who hails from the French Ashkenazi community, which is traditionally far more lowkey than its energetic and outgoing Sephardi co-religionists.
The 17th arrondissement now has the single largest concentration of Jews in France, but there are other areas that also recently gained sizeable Jewish minorities, such as the equally well-to-do adjacent 16th arrondissement with around 25,000 Jews, or the super elegant suburb of Neuilly and the townships of Boulogne and Levallois, all in western Paris or nearby.
The area’s Jewish character should be even further accentuated in 2017 with the opening of the “European Center for Judaism,” a $10.7 million structure that will combine a community center and synagogue over an area of 5,000 square meters on busy Rue de Courcelles in the 17th arrondissement.
The French state has contributed $2.9 million to the project, and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve jointly presided over a Jewish community-organized dinner with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo in June to raise further private funds for the project.
AN INCREASED Jewish presence is also notable in the middle-class southern Paris suburbs of Saint-Mandé, Saint-Maure, Vincennes and Charenton where tens of thousands of Jews have regrouped in recent years, as well as in the nearby 12th arrondissement of Paris, where an Islamist gunman attacked a kosher supermarket in January, killing four Jews. In Saint-Mandé, a leafy suburb near the Bois de Vincennes forest, community leaders estimate that about 40 percent of the population of 22,000 is Jewish.
A French soldier secures the entrance to a Jewish school in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher terrorist attacks last January (photo credit: REUTERS)
But it is not only anti-Semitic incidents that are driving the move, in some cases people are moving from neighborhoods where the Muslim Arab and black African populations have grown sharply.
One such area is Kremlin-Bicêtre, a busy suburb adjacent to southern Paris where Albert Myara is community president. He is also coordinator of Jewish community councils for the greater Paris area. “In the past few years, there has been a sudden surge in Muslim immigrants, thousands of them, especially in the low-income council flats where much of the population is now Arab or African. Many of the shops on the main avenue were once Jewish-owned but this is no longer the case and Jews find the neighborhood has changed around them,” Myara tells The Report.
The main Avenue de Fontainebleau leading to nearby Paris proper is now dotted with Arab cafés and restaurants and one shop advertises traditional Muslim women’s garb including burka-like dresses.
Many passersby converse in Arabic, marking them as new immigrants.
“The Jews just don’t feel at home or very safe here any longer. Our community is losing members. About 50 families have moved to other neighborhoods and a dozen others have moved to Israel. Attendance at High Holydays was down by 10 to 15 percent this year,” he says.
The changing demographics of the French Jewish community have strongly affected the once thriving Jewish private- school system, says Michel Elbaz, head of the social action department of the Fond Social Juif Unifié, the umbrella body for French Jewish welfare groups.
“With all these demographic changes, some Jewish schools close down or cancel some classes, as they lose pupils who are moving elsewhere with their families.
Some families who remain have also withdrawn their children from Jewish schools because these are now very visibly guarded by the French Army and some parents fear they may thus become targets for Islamist attackers,” Elbaz tells The Report.
There are roughly 100,000 Jews of school age in France. A third attend Jewish day schools, a third attend secular public schools, generally in well-to-do areas where they will not be targeted by Arab teens, and the rest are at private schools run by the Roman Catholic church, often in areas where there are no Jewish schools but where public schools have many Muslims.
Jews are not required to attend catechism in Catholic schools, which are also attended by some children of a budding Arab middle class that wants to make sure its children graduate and stay out of trouble.
Many young Muslims attending state public schools do not graduate or drop out, and are subsequently jobless. Official statistics show that close to three-quarters of French prison inmates are of Muslim origin.
Elbaz says that while much of the Jewish community has prospered, about 10 percent are too poor to move out of the potentially dangerous areas where they reside. The Jewish community has helped hundreds to move to safer areas in coordination with French government social services, he says.
The bottom line, according to Elbaz is that “many young French Jews do not see their future in France but elsewhere, particularly England, Canada and Israel.
But, in the latter case, it is not certain that they will remain there unless they already have deeply held Zionist or religious convictions.”