Vive la France?

Against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and France in particular, French Jews are coming to Israel in record numbers to make new lives for themselves, undeterred even by the rocket fire from Gaza.

A French and Israeli flag are seen during a 2001 demonstration in Paris. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A French and Israeli flag are seen during a 2001 demonstration in Paris.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On a hot and humid July morning in Tel Aviv, city streets and cafes were emptier than usual, and it wasn’t because of the sweltering heat. Daily rocket alerts were keeping many people indoors, as close to a bomb shelter as possible. But not 75-year-old Mireille Weinsztok. She was outside, enjoying the sun and fresh air and playing host to a fellow French immigrant who had come down from a kibbutz in the north to visit her. The two were also looking forward to attending Tel Aviv’s Bastille Day celebrations.
On July 13, the night before, the Jewish community in Paris was shaken when a mob of anti-Israel protesters besieged a synagogue, trapping 200 congregants inside and sending three of them to the hospital.
Anti-Semitism has always been the backdrop of Weinsztok’s life. She was born in Paris in 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War II. And while she cautions, “You can’t compare what’s happening now in France to the Holocaust,” what she means is that the anti-Semitism in France is even stronger now than it was when she was a child.
But for Weinsztok, who immigrated less than a year ago, the worrying rise in anti-Semitism in Europe was not going to dampen her celebrating the bright side of her home country’s history.
UNLIKE DURING the Holocaust, today’s French Jews have a place they know they can turn to, where the doors will always be open for them. As a result, French immigration to Israel has never been higher, according to Prof.
Robert Solomon Wistrich, the preeminent expert in anti-Semitism and head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Never has there been such a large wave as in the last year,” notes Wistrich.
According to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, 3,000 French Jews have already immigrated to Israel in the first seven months of 2014, approximately the same as the total for all of 2013. The ministry expects the total for 2014 to top 5,000.
In comparison, the first six months of 2013 saw 812 French Jews immigrating to Israel, and fewer than 1,917 French Jews made aliya in all of 2012.
The ministry owes this dramatic rise to a special plan developed by the ministry and the Jewish Agency to both encourage French Jews to make aliya and to ease their transition and integration into Israeli society. The plan includes, according to the ministry, “efforts to strengthen Jewish identity among French Jewish youth, expand Israel experience programs, remove bureaucratic barriers to employment in Israel, and boost the number of Jewish Agency representatives in France.”
But few French olim who are asked will tell you that they made aliya because they were encouraged by an Israeli bureaucrat.
“The level of their personal security has been massively eroding, and that’s why we’re seeing the rapid rise in aliya of French Jews,” says Wistrich.
WEINSZTOK MADE aliya in December 2013, leaving France while the situation was bad but before it got worse. A month later, an anti-government protest in Paris turned into an anti-Semitic riot, with thousands marching through the streets shouting, “Jews, get out of France.”
The only reason Weinsztok survived the Holocaust, she says, is because “there were always small miracles.” In 1942, three-year-old Weinsztok was on a train to Rome, fleeing France and the incoming SS with her parents and brother.
The family had been living in Nice, which at the time was under Mussolini’s control. When they heard that Hitler was going to conquer Nice, they asked Italian soldiers if they could escape to Italy for protection.
Just before their train left the station, a German soldier was checking passengers’ identity papers. He was about to get to her family, when the train left.
Their papers were stamped with the red capital letters “JUIF,” French for Jewish.
Just a couple of days later, Hitler took control of Nice, and sent all of Nice’s Jews to concentration camps.
While en route to Rome, where unbeknownst to the family Nazis were waiting to take Jewish passengers to Auschwitz, Weinsztok’s pregnant mother went into labor. Her father pulled the alarm to stop the train, and the family disembarked at a station in the Italian town of Fossano. Nuns who were at the station brought the family to a monastery, where Weinsztok’s mother gave birth to her little brother, who was named Enrico Ricardo. “You have a beautiful bambino,” Weinsztok recalls the nuns telling her father. “They called him baby Jesus.”
The nuns then brought the family to a well-known, wealthy family who owned a lot of land in Fossano. For the next four years, Weinsztok lived in that family’s home with her mother, father and two brothers.
“Italian Gestapo were known as the blackshirts, and every time the rich family saw the blackshirts, they hid us in the basement,” recalls Weinsztok.
After the war, Weinsztok and her family returned to France, where she lived until she moved to Tel Aviv just eight months ago. While she acknowledges that anti-Semitism is now rampant in Paris, she says that other than during the Holocaust, she didn’t feel that hatred on a personal level.
SAMANTHA RUBINSZTEJN, on the other hand, has. The 29-year-old moved from Paris to Tel Aviv last year. Despite being in the middle of a war, and spending more time in bomb shelters than she would like, she feels much safer here than in Paris.
“In certain parts of Paris, you can be attacked just for looking Jewish,” says Rubinsztejn, who experienced subtle forms of discrimination at the computer programming firm she worked for in Paris. “My manager would say things like, ‘Oh, I think you’re going to like these clients.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘Because they have Jewish names.’” “When I left that job to move t o Israel, he told me that I wasn’t that great anyway, and that I only got my two biggest contracts because of my last name.”
When Rubinsztejn was 16, she says, kids from her high school used graffiti to cover the school’s walls with swastikas, and wrote “Death to the Jews.”
When her father complained, and asked the school’s leadership to give a talk to the kids about anti-Semitism, his request was ignored. It was then that Rubinsztejn stopped wearing her Star of David necklace.
“I was scared to walk home from school,” she says.
Over the years, it has only grown worse.
“Anti-Semitism is just part of everyday life now,” says Rubinsztejn. “It’s nothing new, it’s just become more acceptable.”
Rubinsztejn, like many French Jews, points to the anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for making the people of France “feel like they can be openly anti-Semitic.”
Dieudonné is perhaps best known for popularizing the quenelle, an inverted Nazi salute that has gone viral, displayed by several prominent athletes, and which French officials have made efforts to ban.
On one occasion, Rubinsztejn saw a police officer making that salute.
“When you see a French officer doing that hand gesture, who can you trust to protect you?” asks Rubinsztejn. “We have no future in France. Look what happened in Toulouse,” she adds, referring to the 2012 attack on a Jewish school in which a rabbi, his two young sons and a seven-year-old girl were murdered.
The perpetrator, Mohammed Merah, was a French citizen of Algerian descent who admitted to anti-Semitic motivations and said he targeted the Jewish school because “the Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”
Merah was killed by police in a shootout that occurred days after his attack on the school. Today he is treated as a hero in the suburbs of Paris where many of France’s six million Muslims live.
Indeed, many French Jews link the rise in French anti-Semitism to the rise in France’s Muslim population. Following the pro-Palestinian rally that morphed into the violent July 13 synagogue attack, the French government banned such protests.
Despite the ban, at least two more pro-Palestinian rallies took place, both of them turning violent.
On July 20, a protest in the largely Jewish Parisian suburb Sarcelles began as a non-violent demonstration against Israel’s Gaza operation, but descended into chaos when rioters – some of them masked – lit firecrackers and smoke bombs, and smashed, burned and looted Jewish-owned shops and businesses, including a kosher grocery store and a pharmacy.
“What happened a few days ago was unprecedented,” says Wistrich. “We’re talking about laying siege to synagogues.
We’re talking about something that could have developed into a pogrom if it hadn’t been for a Jewish defense force that happened to be there.
Even in the Shoah, we didn’t see things like that happen in France. During the Shoah, to the best of my knowledge, on French soil there were no assaults on synagogues, no attacks or burnings of synagogues. There were a few very isolated cases, but nothing to this extent.”
Many French Jews are calling this recent wave of attacks on the Jewish community the beginning of a Paris intifada, or worse, the beginning of a French Kristallnacht.
Yet unlike the years leading up to and during the Holocaust, acts of anti-Semitism are strongly condemned – not sanctioned – by the French government.
ON THE day of the attacks on Jewish businesses in Sarcelles, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke at an event commemorating the anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv, the mass arrest of French Jews in July 1942, in which more than 12,000 were removed from their homes in Paris and sent to death camps. As he marked that dark episode in French history, Valls warned of a new kind of anti-Semitism, which he said was spreading “on the Internet, on networks, in working-class areas, among young people who are often aimless, who have no awareness of history, who hide their hatred of the Jews behind the facade of anti-Zionism and behind hatred of the Israeli state.”
Today, France has the largest Jewish and Muslim population of any country in the European Union. If current trends in Jewish emigration continue, however, France could also become the European country with the smallest Jewish population.
“I do think this is absolutely going to bring about the end of the Jewish population in France,” says Wistrich. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, it’s going to take 30 to 40 years, but we’re certainly seeing the beginning of it.”
Many media reports, not only in France, but in the United States and Israel, link this spike in anti-Semitism to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Wistrich staunchly refutes this theory.
“We really are speaking about an anti- Jewish hatred that is very visceral and primary,” he says. “All of the interpretations which attempt to sort of reduce it, or call it an offshoot of the conflict in the Middle East – particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict – or to treat it as if it’s some sort of side effect or collateral damage of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, I think this is completely wrong. It’s so wrong that its hard to know where to begin to disentangle it. And yet this is a very wide misconception, both in France and Israel and beyond.”
“If it were an inter-community conflict between the Jewish and Arab populations of France,” Wistrich continues, “Jews would be assaulting Arabs, and mosques, or in some cases maybe murdering Arabs in France. There hasn’t even been a single case of this despite huge, massive provocation.”
While Wistrich explains that “the driving force of this kind of violent anti- Jewish hatred is coming first and foremost from the pro-Palestinian and the Islamist forces,” he points out that many of the violent rallies have also included white, left-wing anti-Israel activists.
AS THESE protests swept through Paris, and Operation Protective Edge entered its ninth day, Israel welcomed more than 400 French olim in one night, most of them from Paris, and many of them moving to the most rocket-battered areas of Israel.
A beaming 56-year-old Anaelle Nelly Sbero arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport with her son and daughter and plans to live in Ashdod, where she already owns a house that until now was a vacation home. Since the current Gaza operation began, over 1,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza, many of them directed at Ashdod. Sbero was unperturbed.
“It’s scarier to be in France,” she said, standing with her two children as they waited for their aliya papers to be processed.
“It’s very scary to be a Jew in France now.”
In France, many Jews feel powerless against incitement and attacks, whereas in Israel they have the IDF.
“We aren’t afraid at all,” said Mendel Cohen, 30, who arrived with his wife and three children between the ages of two and eight. “We have the army and the Iron Dome [anti-missile system].”
Many of the French olim arriving that night were religious Jews, who held a steadfast belief not only in Israel’s army, but in God.
Meir Mouyal, 34, left Paris to live in Jerusalem with his wife and four young children, citing rising anti-Semitism as the biggest factor in their decision to leave France. Yes, he was worried about bringing his children into a war-torn country, but said he was much more fearful of raising them in France.
“There are problems here, but here we’re home,” said Mouyal. “If your son falls at home it’s one thing. If he falls outside the house it’s another. Here I have the security of Hashem [God].
There I did too, but here it’s stronger.”
Rubinsztejn echoed that sentiment, saying, “If something happened to me here, the army would respond. If something happened to me in France, no one would care. They’d say, ‘Oh, it’s just a Jew complaining.’ Yes, hearing a siren is scary, but being on the subway in France and having someone curse at you because you’re a Jew, and no one around you does anything, that is much scarier.”
NEVERTHELESS, INTEGRATING into a completely different society certainly comes with challenges for French Jews who make the exodus to Israel.
The most obvious struggle is tackling the language, a hurdle the Absorption Ministry assists new olim with by offering five free months of ulpan, an intensive Hebrew course.
After those first five months, which new olim have a year to take advantage of, they can still take heavily subsidized Hebrew classes.
Weinsztok, who lived in Italy during the Holocaust and had to re-learn French when she returned to Paris after the war, is now in her seventh month of ulpan. She is retired, and has the benefit of plenty of free time, but many younger olim who have the burden of work on their minds have a harder time fitting in a Hebrew course that meets five days a week for five hours a day. Some who opt into ulpan choose the full-time program, but end up missing classes in order to work, or cut their five months short, or choose a less intensive class that meets twice a week at night.
Rubinsztejn now faces the dual challenge of finding a job that pays well and meets her skills and experience, while also giving her the chance to master Hebrew.
Despite enrolling in an ulpan, she has had trouble grasping the language, and has had to sacrifice her study time to find work. Yet, without a high level of Hebrew, it proved nearly impossible to find a decent position at an Israeli company. So her first job was at a French law firm in Tel Aviv, helping with a paycheck but further keeping her from improving her Hebrew.
This double-pronged difficulty of finding a good job and learning the language is even harder for French olim than for their Anglo counterparts, says Michael Bensadoun, executive director of Gvahim, an organization that assists in the professional integration of new immigrants.
“Not having English or Hebrew as a mother tongue is a big challenge,” he said. “For the French it’s harder for them to good jobs in Israeli companies.”
Rubinsztejn left her marketing job at the French law firm after a few months, and found a telecommunications job in Ashdod that allowed her to work in both French and Hebrew. It was tough, she said, and very simple emails often took her 15 minutes to write, but she made tremendous progress.
Yet with a bachelor’s degree in counterterrorism and a masters in nuclear non-proliferation, working at a telecom company is far from Rubinsztejn’s dream career.
“The ideal job will take time,” she says. “My priority right now is to integrate into Israeli society.”
DESPITE THE struggles that come with transitioning into an entirely new life, French olim are overwhelmingly satisfied – as is the government, which works around the clock to encourage aliya.
“The waves of anti-Semitism prove the importance of the State of Israel,” said Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver upon welcoming the massive group of new olim from France at Ben-Gurion Airport. Of more than 400 French Jews who had pledged to make aliya months before, she said, none had backed out, despite the current crisis between Israel and Gaza.
Before Weinsztok was born, her father had lived for a few years in what was then British Mandate Palestine. He moved there in 1921, but was forced to return to France because of a sickness that required medical attention. At that time the British did not permit re-entry to Jews, so he remained in France, narrowly escaping the destiny that awaited thousands of French Jews.
“Having a Jewish state is very, very important,” said Weinsztok, sitting at an outdoor café in Tel Aviv. “It can save your life.”