A difficult decision for France’s Jews

Jews consider their past and future in France.

French-Israelis celebrate Bastille Day on July 14, 2014 at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Courtesy)
French-Israelis celebrate Bastille Day on July 14, 2014 at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first group of French Jews to make aliya in 2015 arrived just three days after bloody attacks by Islamists ravaged Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Paris kosher supermarket – leaving 17 people dead, six of them Jews.
Immediately following the attacks, around 1,000 French Jews attended a Jewish Agency aliya fair that had been planned in advance of the tragic events. Indeed, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky described those who came to the fair as “full of fear,” worried their “future could be even worse than today.”
On the French political end, reactions from both the prime minister and president have been strongly supportive of the Jewish community. Speaking at the Paris Shoah Memorial last week, President François Hollande declared that for French people of Jewish faith, France is their country and home. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose wife is Jewish, famously remarked that “France without Jews is not France.”
But while the world media took note when the Jewish community broke out in the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” at Paris’s historic Grand Synagogue during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the country, it was not the only anthem etched in the hearts of those singing.
“Our mentality and culture belong to France, but our hearts are in Israel,” explains Freddie Aouizerat, on a visit to Israel following the attacks. A man in his early 60s whose family originally hails from Algeria, he is visibly shaken by the recent shootings.
“I don’t see a future for my family in France, but to make that final move to Israel is a difficult decision,” says Aouizerat, who works in IT.
“One foot is in Israel, but the other foot is still in France,” adds Aouizerat, who has a sister living in Israel. “I feel torn between my heart and mind, between my heritage and my culture.”
He points to anti-Semitic attacks on Jews as occurring almost weekly in France, ranging from verbal to violent. “Most of the time, these attacks are not reported by the media – only the most brutal. One of the most horrifying incidents was the rape of the 19-year-old Jewish girl in Creteil [a Paris suburb] in December.”
A month earlier, a 70-year-old Jewish man was badly beaten during another break-in in the same suburb.
Yet other French Jews see an improvement in the government’s increasing security measures over the last few weeks. “I think the government is doing its best to protect us ever since the attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket,” says 25-year-old Paris resident Sarah Webers, in an interview with the Magazine. “While the future is uncertain, we have seen an improvement in security in sensitive Jewish areas.”
“The government is taking measures to make sure that synagogues, as well as Jewish businesses and schools, are protected,” noted Hollande in a France24 news report. The French president said that racist and anti-Semitic comments would become criminally aggravating acts under the French penal code; the newly proposed laws would also enable France to block anti-Semitic and racist websites, and may come into effect as early as this month.
But Webers, a university student completing an MA in communications, remains critical of the French government.
“It’s still hard for us to fully trust the government. I think our leaders have been lazy and lax about security; we have never truly felt that France invested in safety measures.
The government policies of accepting jihadists and radical ideologists have put us all in danger.
“The last attacks are a huge wake-up-call for the country.
I think we will get used to seeing the soldiers and hopefully feeling more safe.”
As for other French Jewish young professionals and university students around her age, she sees a diverse range of opinions regarding what the next move should be. “Some Jews my age feel very French and very integrated, and they just don’t see themselves in Israel.
Aliya is not the most obvious answer for them,” says Webers, who spent four years in Israel, serving in the IDF and studying at a university.
“I have Jewish friends who believe and trust in the French government and its ability to defend its citizens.” She continues that others feel that the government doesn’t do enough, and they see Israel as a strong country that will defend them, they are just waiting for an opportune time to emmigrate.
“Those who are able to make aliya are generally financially more well-off,” explains Webers, who would like to make aliya once she has accumulated enough job experience in her profession to work in Israel, as well as to raise a family there. “Those who don’t make aliya, it’s because of money, family obligations and other issues.”
A much smaller number, she says, are considering moves to other countries, namely Canada.
As for Netanyahu’s visit to France and his participation in the historic solidarity rally, Webers finds it “comforting.”
“French Jews love Bibi. He is powerful, charismatic and willing to defend his point of view, in our eyes,” she comments.
“He represents Israel with pride and strength.”
“Subconsciously, we all think of Israel when we don’t feel safe in France.
“It was good to see Bibi in front of the line with the other world leaders during the rally, even if it looked like chutzpah to the French. It was even more encouraging to hear Bibi say that, if needed, Israel will offer us a safe place in the world. It showed us that we have a door open to a new reality.”
Paris native Jonathan-Simon Sellem, 31, stepped into that new reality nine years ago when he made aliya during the Second Lebanon War, working as a war correspondent. The former French newscaster is now the editor-in-chief of the Israeli-French media outlet JSSNews, and last year was elected conseiller consulaire of France’s Consulate-General in Tel Aviv, representing the interests of French Jews here.
“The situation in France is a disaster,” Sellem maintains. “When Jews are asked to take their mezuzot off their doorposts because neighbors in their apartment building are scared of attacks, the situation is at an all-time low.”
He also points to the September 2014 decision by the municipality of the Paris suburb of Valenton to name a street after Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian terrorist imprisoned for murder by an Israeli court and regarded as a leader of the first and second intifadas. The naming ceremony was attended by the mayor and Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa.
“I don’t see any messiah coming to save the situation in France,” he says.
Sellem believes the solution for the French Jewish community is to make aliya. “Israel is not just a refuge from anti-Semitism, it is our homeland and we have an amazing country here. I’m fulfilling the dreams of my ancestors from 2,000 years ago, to live as a Jews in our own land.”
On his mother’s side, Sellem’s family has been living in France for 10 generations.
“My parents never imagined that they would make aliya – my mother actually cried when I told her I was moving to Israel,” he says. “But my parents came three years ago to be with the grandchildren, and today they are very happy.”
Some 7,000 Jews made aliya from France in 2014, according to Jewish Agency figures. Chairman Sharansky has predicted that up to 15,000 Jews will do so this year.
The wave of attacks on the French Jewish community over the last decade, including the March 2012 murder of a Jewish schoolteacher and three children at a Toulouse Jewish school by an Islamic radical, is not by any means a new phenomenon. The 1980s also included a spate of attacks, with a bomb exploding outside a Paris synagogue, killing four people; and a 1982 attack on a restaurant in the symbolic heart of the city’s Jewish community, which left six dead.
Over the centuries, France’s Jewish history has always been fraught with violence and anti-Semitism. The Jewish presence in the country is thought to date back to the Roman period, when the Roman conquest of Jerusalem brought boats of Jewish captives. Jews were frequently expelled and reintegrated by the French monarchy throughout the Middle Ages, until after the French Revolution – when France became the first European country to emancipate its Jewish population in 1791. Following the Holocaust, in which 77,000 French Jews perished, France became a haven for postwar refugees.
Today, the Jewish community numbers around half a million, making it the third-largest in the world and the largest in Europe.
Sellem is currently working on launching a massive job fair for French immigrants in Israel, to be held some time next month. “My goal is to make aliya as easy as possible for French Jews starting a new life here.”
“The move is not easy,” he acknowledges.
“But living your Jewish identity and leaving the fear behind is worth it.”