The French are coming

One percent of the Jewish community has migrated to Israel this year alone and, with many more expected to follow, some are calling for Jews to stay and fight for their place.

French President Francois Hollande chats with Roger Cukierman. (photo credit: MICHEL EULER / REUTERS)
French President Francois Hollande chats with Roger Cukierman.
(photo credit: MICHEL EULER / REUTERS)
This year, France is the single largest source of aliya to Israel, with the number of immigrants doubling to an expected 6,500, from 3,288 in 2013, when the single largest source of newcomers was a combination of Russia, Belarus and the Baltic states with 4,637.
This figure in just one year represents about one percent of France’s estimated 500,000- 600,000 Jews, the world’s third-largest Jewish community after Israel and the US.
The situation is accepted, albeit with mixed feelings, by the same French Jewish leaders who a decade ago accused then prime minister Ariel Sharon of “pouring oil on the fire” when he called on French Jews to leave en masse for Israel, saying France was the scene of “the wildest anti-Semitism.”
“French Ashkenazi Jews used to refer to our position in this country with the Yiddish expression ‘As happy as God in France,’” says Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), French Jewry’s powerful umbrella body.
“We used to quote French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who recalled how his father came to France to flee Czarist persecution at the time of the late 19th century anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair. France was split into two camps and Levinas quoted his father as saying, ‘A country where half the population fights to defend a little Jewish captain is a country well worth going to.’ Well, I’m afraid that it’s clear that the good times are over,” Cukierman tells The Jerusalem Report.
Today, Cukierman says, French Jews are increasingly fearful for their safety after terror attacks against a Jewish school in Toulouse, in southwest France, which killed four Jews, including three children, in March 2012, and an attack this May against the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the capital of adjoining Belgium, which also killed four Jews, including a Frenchwoman. The gunmen, trained by Islamist terror groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Syria, were each time French-born offspring of Muslim Arab immigrant families who came from North Africa to settle in France.
“We know that right now, there are 1,000 French Muslim citizens fighting in jihadist ranks in Syria and Iraq. Some of them will come back and many Jews ask, not if there will be a new terrorist act, but when it will happen,” Cukierman says.
He also recalls there were well-attended and sometimes violent anti-Israeli demonstrations in the streets of major French cities during last summer’s Gaza conflict, when “some participants did not shout ‘Death to Israel’ but ‘Mort aux Juifs’ [Death to the Jews].”
The overwhelming majority of demonstrators, sometimes numbering as many as 25,000, came from France’s, mostly Arab, Muslim immigrant population, the largest Muslim grouping in Europe.
“The usual estimation of the number of Muslims in France is that they number about six million, or approximately 10 percent of France’s population. But I don’t believe that. I travel widely in France and I see them in great numbers in the major cities. I believe that the real figure of Muslims in France is between 15 and 20 percent of the population. If only 10 percent of these nine to 12 million Muslims are antagonistic toward Jews, that’s an awful lot of hostility. And the phenomenon is the same in Belgium and the Netherlands, not to mention Germany and Britain where there are non-Arab Muslims also hostile to Jews,” he says.
OFFICIAL STATISTICS compiled jointly by the police and the French Jewish community show there were 527 anti-Jewish acts (violence, threats, vandalism, etc.) in the first seven months of 2014 compared to 276 in the same period in 2013 – a 91 percent increase.
Among these were 158 acts of violence, compared to 70 in the same six-month period a year before, a 126 percent rise. Jewish leaders say about 95 percent of anti-Jewish violence is committed by French Muslim Arabs, usually aged 15 to 28.
“Jews have been present in France for 2,000 years. The great Talmudic scholar Rashi was a winegrower in Champagne, in the Middle Ages. We have been full French citizens since 1791 and our contribution to France has been considerable in culture, in science and in many other fields with many Nobel Prizes, including this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, which went to Patrick Modiano who is of Jewish origin. French Jewry gave this country five prime ministers of Jewish origin,” says Cukierman.
“We survived the Dreyfus Affair, we survived Vichy, we survived bombings and terror attacks, and still there are Jews in France.
There will continue to be a substantial Jewish presence in France, but the flow of Jews leaving France for Israel – and for other countries – is a demonstration of the cancer, which France is confronted by as a result of racism and anti-Semitism.
“We are not the only ones to think that the anti-Zionism expressed here by a minority of the Muslim population is simply anti- Semitism, since Prime Minister Manuel Valls also often says the same thing. These anti-Semitic acts are taking place despite the fact that the Jewish community has never had national leaders as friendly to us as are Valls (who plays up the fact that his wife is Jewish) and President François Hollande.
“We don’t criticize aliya but we don’t encourage it. It would be unfair to France if we did. It’s all a personal decision. We will remain as a minority in this country, but we are very worried by the growth of other, much larger, minorities, which are hostile to us,” Cukierman says.
“When I was young, practically every single Jewish child went to state-run schools.
Nowadays there are huge areas of the north Paris suburbs, for example, (where blue-collar Jews live cheek-by-jowl with far more numerous Muslim populations), where there is not a single Jewish child left in state schools because of the physical dangers which they run there,” Cukierman says.
A third of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools, another third attend private Catholic schools where they are excused from catechism, while the last third does attend state schools, but in well-to-do areas where there are virtually no Arab residents.
There are more than 150 Jewish day schools in France today compared to only about half a dozen in 1967. Because of emigration, attendance in Jewish schools dropped as much as 10 percent this year.
“It is a huge loss for France to have part of its Jews leaving the country. Prime Minister Valls has said it repeatedly, ‘France without Jews is not France,” Cukierman adds.
Ariel Kandel, head of strategy for France at the Jerusalem headquarters of the Jewish Agency, the body that oversees immigration to Israel, says the potential for immigration from France is enormous.
“We expected 6,000 olim from France this year and we already reached that figure in late October. We should be around 6,500 at the end of December,” he says, noting that “aliya from France far surpasses that from the US, which was 2,854 in 2013. “There are 10 times more Jews in the US than in France, yet aliya from France is proportionately 20 times higher and we expect at least the same number from France in 2015,” he tells The Report.
“During the last school year, we organized multiple public meetings in many places to inform people about aliya. In the Paris area alone, some 10,000 people attended. Since many of them were family heads, we estimate that we were in effective contact with about 25,000 people,” says Kandel, who headed Jewish Agency operations in France from 2010 until September.
“But the truth is that, instead of six, seven or eight thousand olim a year, we could have 40,000 people annually, if we were not competing with the French social welfare system, which is one of the most generous in the world and which Israel cannot and does not want to match.
“For people with average or below average salaries, the French welfare system can provide up to 40 percent of their revenue. People who earn, for example, 2,000 euros a month in France will be able to find jobs in Israel, but, if they have three or four children they will not have the extra 1,200 euros provided by the state for children and housing,” says Kandel.
Those not influenced by such considerations, he says, are Jews aged below 30 who see Israel as the “Start-up Nation” with better economic opportunities than France, which, although it has one of the highest standards of living in the world, is now confronted by economic stagnation and widespread youth unemployment. “Many young French people are leaving the country now, not only Jews.
Israel is one economic option. I would have laughed two or three years ago if told that the Tel Aviv area was more economically promising than France for young people, but that’s the case,” Kandel contends.
Many Jewish youths, who are not part of the hard core of the French Jewish community, did not study in Jewish schools, and were not regular synagogue goers or members of youth movements, are among the new immigrants, he says.
However, the majority of immigrants do come from that third of the community, numbering about 100,000 to 150,000, who make up its hard core and who are often religiously traditional without being ultra-Orthodox.
These people send their children to Jewish day schools, listen to or read Jewish media and make up a large part of the estimated quarter-million French Jews who visit Israel each year.
AMONG THE new immigrants is Sarah Holcman, 32, who teaches English in two of Jerusalem’s best secondary schools, one state and the other religious. Holcman, who is modern Orthodox, made aliya three years ago.
“I left France because I felt it was no longer a place for me. I did not feel free as a Jew in France. Like Jewish boys who cannot openly wear skullcaps on the street, I feared being trapped on the Paris Metro where Arab hoodlums might notice the Star of David around my neck. I wanted to live my Jewish identity freely, to be able to respect our holidays and religion without having always to ‘find ways’ around things. I always felt better when visiting Israel and I believe that all Jews should live here,” she tells The Report.
“I now feel fully integrated and am made to feel so by my teacher colleagues. I am happy because I speak fluent Hebrew and have a job I like. It is true that I teach in two great schools attended mostly by privileged children who I get along with very well.
“Here, I could never have the experience I had during my first year of teaching in France.
It was in a very rough area and half my pupils were Arab teenagers. I managed to keep pretty tight discipline in class, but I didn’t know what to do when Yom Kippur came up, so I asked an experienced colleague what I should tell my class about my forthcoming absence.
She said I should tell my pupils I had a doctor’s appointment, anything but letting them know I was Jewish. ‘If they find out, you’ll never be able to control your class again,’ she said, adding, ‘and don’t tell your colleagues mostly far-left leaning and in their minds ‘religious Jew equals West Bank settlers who oppress Palestinians.’” In contrast to Holcman, who is Ashkenazi, the vast majority of French olim hail from Sephardi families of Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan origin, who fled to France in the early 1960s when independence emptied those North African countries of their Jewish minorities. Many have done very well in France. Ashkenazi Jews, who were either longtime French residents or arrived from Eastern and Central Europe from the 1880s onwards, now only make up around 20 percent of French Jewry.
The “dechristianization” of France, where only about five percent of the majority Catholic population are regular church goers (compared to 50 percent in 1945), has resulted in massive intermarriage between Christians and Jews. No official figures exist, but it is widely accepted that at least 50 percent of young French Jews marry non-Jews.
ALTHOUGH SOME children of mixed couples do remain Jewish, most children of such unions simply opt to have no religion, which is particularly easy and accepted in overwhelmingly secular France. Ashkenazim seem particularly affected by the drop-out phenomenon, and fewer and fewer of them are found in community activities, save those which exist to recall the Shoah. CRIF President Cukierman laughs and agrees when asked if he is not the “last of the Mohicans” as an Ashkenazi to lead French Jewry.
The Jewish Agency’s Kandel says one factor that facilitates the integration of French Jews into Israel is that many prospective immigrants have close family ties in Israel, where many North African Jews settled while others went to France half a century ago.
French immigrants seek to reside mostly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but Netanya on the Mediterranean coast north of Tel Aviv, still draws many French people, together with new destinations near Tel Aviv, such as Ra’anana, which has a fast-growing French population.
Many immigrants from France say that one of their prime motivations in coming is to ensure that their children are raised in Israel.
Claude came to Israel in 1988. His daughter is now a biologist, while two of his sons are engineers and the third is a rabbi. Claude is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of French Jewish immigrants who settled with their families in Israel, but who commute back to their jobs in France, a phenomenon known as “Boeing Aliya.”
“For the first seven years I was in Israel, I would fly the four hours to Paris every Sunday and return every Thursday,” says Claude, who owns and runs a Paris company that employs 100 people and manufactures electro- mechanical components.
“Because I only went for short periods and was always back for Shabbat, my family did well in Israel. But many others spend half the month in France and this has led to no end of family problems, with children being raised without paternal supervision. The children would learn Hebrew quickly but the mothers less so, and they found themselves isolated and losing control of their children. Without their fathers’ presence, there was no end to cases of delinquency among the children, and also to divorce and leaving Israel,” he relates to The Report.
Thousands of other French Jews have purchased apartments in Israel, and reside partly in France and partly in Israel without changing nationality. Jacques, a former senior executive for a multinational group, says, “I am French, Jewish, Ashkenazi, secular and very attached to Israel – in that order. My wife and I love Israel and visit two or three times a year for several weeks each time. Our Tel Aviv apartment, which is near the beach, is also used by other members of the family who come for their holidays.
“But there are French people who stay for months at a time. You find them on the Tel Aviv beachfront between Frishman and Gordon streets, a vast expanse of golden sand we dub ‘La plage des Français’ [the French Beach] where French is the main language spoken, especially during the French school holidays,” he says.
Such real estate purchases are also common in Jerusalem, Netanya and Ashdod, all areas where French is spoken both by recent olim and by people like Jacques, who are sometimes resented by Israelis for inevitably pushing property prices upwards.
The fashionable Ben Yehuda Street, near where Jacques’s flat is situated, is dotted with real estate agencies where ads, headed by the French words “A Vendre” [For Sale], are prominent in the window. Ladies’ hairdressers plaster the words “Ici on parle Français” [We speak French here] in their windows, while café terraces are full of French speakers.
The delicatessen Ma poule [My Hen] supplies takeaway kosher Shabbat meals.
“Why have I not made aliya? The only conditions under which I would consider making aliya would be if (far-rightist leader) Marine Le Pen came to power in France, or if the alliance of Islamists, Greens and ultra-leftists, who have sometimes paraded in the streets of Paris against Israel with occasional chants of ‘Death to the Jews’ became too strong. I would only leave France in the absolute worst of circumstances and with a very heavy heart,” he says.
In Paris, another view was expressed by David, a prominent Jewish lawyer who came to Israel as a teenage volunteer during the 1967 war and has visited the country a dozen times since.
“I like Israel and support it in various ways,” he tells The Report, “but I could not live there.
It’s not my language or my culture. The Israeli mentality is too far from mine. I’ve had business dealings with Israeli counterparts and they are not easy people to deal with.
“For the time being, I know that less fortunate Jews in the rough working-class Paris suburbs have a very difficult time because of the Arabs in, or near, their neighborhoods.
But the problem does not exist in bourgeois neighborhoods like mine where there are no Arabs, save a few rich Lebanese exiles,” he says.
The Jewish Agency’s Kandel agrees that settling in Israel is not easy, especially for French people who are often used to being coddled by the state. The number of dissatisfied French immigrants who return to France is a figure not officially available, but it has been estimated at between 10 to 30 percent within the first five years of arrival.
One problem the Knesset is trying to ease is that of recognition of professional qualifications since many would-be immigrants do not want to resume long studies in Israel to prepare for equivalency exams. “A doctor who is a general practitioner, for example, will be able to practice right away, but others will have to pass new examinations,” says Kandel.
What the French would-be immigrants do not lack is Zionist feeling, however, he says.
“French Jews have always been strong Zionists.”
THE QUESTION of dual loyalties has always been an issue in France, as with many Jewish communities around the world, but hardly bothers many in the hardcore of the community who, while still in France, routinely refer to “our army,” “our country,” “our government” and “our Jerusalem” when speaking about Israel to Jewish radio stations.
One person who winces at such references is Haim Korsia, France’s new chief rabbi, who took office this summer. Aged 51, he looks a decade younger and is a rare Jewish religious figure known to the French general public.
Contrary to many French rabbis who in recent decades turned “inwards” (self-ghettoization, say critics) and sometimes tended to align themselves with Shas, Israel’s Sephardi Orthodox political party, Korsia is a media personality. Until recently, he appeared with an equally media-savvy Catholic priest and a more subdued Muslim figure in a highbrow TV chat show where they exchanged views on topics ranging from philosophy to modern literature, as well as religion.
Korsia, born in France to Sephardi Algerian Jewish parents, is also chief Jewish chaplain to the French armed forces. He has to tread a delicate line between those of his parishioners, whom he blesses when they leave for Israel and the 99 percent of French Jews who, while largely supporters of Israel, do remain in France – for the time being, anyway.
“Those who react the way they do [identifying themselves as Israelis while still French] are in fact saying ‘if I am rejected here, I know where to go.’ That the French Jewish community is asking itself the question of whether or not there is a future for Jews in France is extremely painful,” he tells The Report.
“Aliya is not a problem. Since Abraham in the Bible, it has been written, ‘Go for yourself,’ make the choice of leaving, don’t let others make it for you,” the chief rabbi says. But he also recalls that in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, politician and Jewish community leader Théodore Reinach told the Jews of France, “You should love France even if she sometimes conducts herself as a cruel stepmother, because you are her children, and she is your mother.”
“Judaism and France have convergent vocations.
When I read the words of the French national motto, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, it reminds me of the Biblical words: ‘Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.’ Israel is a great Western country and a great democracy. Like France, it is a country where one must give the best of oneself, where one must fight. It is not that different from France,” Korsia says.
Philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, one of Israel’s best known and most active backers in France, says outright that French Jews should not leave. “The Jews of France are not as isolated or as weak as they believe. But especially this country is theirs. This Republic was created by them (with others) and they have to hang on here and fight,” he wrote in the magazine La règle du jeu.
Another well-known Jewish intellectual, author and sculptor Marek Halter, wrote in an op-ed piece in the newspaper Le Monde: “You want to leave this country. You want to surrender in the face of those who hate us and want us to leave? Are you going to hand over this house which is ours to the jihadists and to the National Front? I once asked Nathan Levinson, chief rabbi of Frankfurt, who was himself of German origin, and who had returned after World War II to his native land in American army uniform, why he remained in Germany. He replied, ‘To deprive Hitler of what would be his ultimate and main victory; a Germany without Jews.’”