French aliya: Romance vs reality

In the face of these threats, French Jews are following the classic response patterns.

A woman holds a sign reading "I am Charlie" during a tribute for the victims of the Paris shootings, in Ottawa. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman holds a sign reading "I am Charlie" during a tribute for the victims of the Paris shootings, in Ottawa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The most consistent feature of Jewish history is that there has never been an instance of a large group of Jews voluntarily emigrating from their country of birth – least of all to make aliya to their biblical homeland.
This aversion to emigration, especially to aliya, emerged at the very birth of the Jewish people – the Exodus from Egypt. Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus describes how, under the impact of the tenth and most devastating plague, Pharaoh crumbled and agreed to all of Moses’ demands. But he did not merely grant permission for the Hebrew slaves to leave – he and his countrymen threw them out, forcibly and immediately.
“And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste,” is how the King James version translates the Hebrew phrase “vatechezak Mitzrayim” – rather politely, to my mind.
But the Egyptians were obviously well aware that unless they were “urgent,” many of the Hebrews would not leave of their own volition. The Almighty Himself confirmed that by admitting that He deliberately took the Israelites on the long route to Eretz Yisrael, because the short route would have enabled them to turn tail when faced with Philistine hostility. Indeed, even on the long route, as soon as the going got tough, the “let’s return to Egypt” faction immediately raised its head.
The Bible also records the extent to which nostalgia for the fleshpots of Egypt was rampant among those who actually left. But the oral tradition, preserved in midrashim, maintains that only a small fraction – a fifth, perhaps less – actually crossed the Red Sea. The majority remained behind, intermarried or otherwise submerged in Egyptian culture.
That proved to be the paradigm for all time. Jews don’t exit exile willingly, and the concept of the “wandering Jew” is an invention of the people who ensured that Jews wandered, by forcibly ejecting them from wherever they put down roots.
This immutable historic reality has been the primary defining characteristic of the Zionist enterprise, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel.
Every wave of aliya over the last 140- odd years was triggered by an upsurge in anti-Semitism in the countries whence the olim came. No large group ever came unprodded.
Reluctantly accepting this reality, the leaders of the nascent state recognized that the world was effectively divided into two kinds of countries. These were labeled “medinot metsuka,” lands of distress, where Jews were persecuted and prevented from leaving, and “medinot revacha,” lands of relief or – significantly, as it turned out – welfare, where Jews were free to get on and get ahead, or to leave if they wanted to. But since they were allowed to leave, they didn’t want to.
This distinction remains in force and finds its contemporary expression in the behavior and attitudes of Jews in Ukraine, on the one hand, and France on the other.
It explains why, when measured correctly, i.e. as a percentage of the Jewish community, so many Ukrainian Jews made aliya last year, while so few French Jews did.
The latter lack the overpowering impetus to leave – they have not been thrown out and do not (yet) perceive themselves to be in imminent peril.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky homed in on the key datum regarding French aliya in 2014, by noting that it was the first time ever that more than one percent of the Jewish population of a medinat revacha made aliya in a single year. In other words, something novel is taking place in France.
The Agency itself is pretending that this relative surge was a response to its programs and personnel. The latter certainly deserve recognition and credit for their efforts, but the truth remains – as ever – that large numbers of Jews are never pulled, only pushed. In France, as this writer predicted six years ago, the push factors are steadily intensifying.
Belatedly, and only in response to bloody murder, has the magnitude of the threat facing French Jewry caught the attention of the Israeli public, sparking an outpouring of media blather. Unfortunately, most of this “analysis” has been sentimental twaddle. Even as hard-headed and clear-eyed an observer as Amotz Asael (The Jerusalem Post, January 16) has succumbed to romantic notions about French olim powering a surge in Israeli trade with France and a renaissance of the Golden Age of Israel-French relations in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hallevai (I wish) – but fuggedaboutit.
In the first place, French Jews are loth to leave, and they know why. France is indeed a medinat revacha, and the French welfare state has thoroughly corrupted two generations of French youth, including Jews, who have been brought up to expect much from the state, but are surprised when asked to contribute. These are not accusations, rather the objective assessments of Israelis who deal with French Jewry, both in France and in Israel.
True, the educated elite of young French Jews is fleeing France – along with young French gentiles – because they all know that the French economy has been gutted by decades of statist/socialist economics and will be unable to deliver on its extravagant promises to its citizens. The best and brightest, whose money and/or skills ensure they will be welcomed wherever they go, are jumping off the down escalator that is relentlessly moving France from medinat revacha status to that of medinat metsuka.
Israel is right to compete for this group and should succeed in attracting a significant chunk. But these people do not comprise the impending wave of aliya from France. The socio-economic decline is being hastened and intensified by severe social tensions, including between native French and immigrants, haves versus have-nots and older people with jobs versus unemployed youngsters who see no prospects. All of these overlap – and together they generate the kind of classic anti-Semitism which always sprouts from a prolonged socio-economic crisis in Europe.
In the face of these threats, French Jews are following the classic response patterns.
Many believe that they can best avoid trouble by cutting their links with Jews and Judaism and submerging into the French mainstream. Those with means transfer assets and even buy homes abroad, in Israel or elsewhere, ready to move themselves, too, if necessary.
But there remains a large section of French Jewry who are none of the above.
They are not young and well-educated.
They are not rich. And they can’t or won’t assimilate. They are old, poor, sick or some combination thereof and, as such, cannot afford to emigrate – and will not be accepted anywhere if they try.
Anywhere, that is, except Israel. As France slides relentlessly into medinat metsuka status, the Jewish state will have to find the will and the way to extract them – with or without the co-operation of the liberal French establishment, which will prove unable to protect them.
Getting them out and looking after them here will be expensive – a straightforward losing proposition, in economic terms. This is not what the neo-liberal elite of 21st century Israel wants to hear – let alone the growing post-Zionist fringe.
But as pogroms, mayhem and murder become more frequent and widespread, the Zionist entity and its people will be called upon to display the fraternité that their French co-religionists will not find in the country of their birth. When – literally – push comes to shove, Israel will be there for