In France, the writing is on the wall

Jan 14, 2015 | Ahron Shapiro

In France

The increasingly fraught situation facing the half-million Jews remaining in France – exemplified by the January 9 terror attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris that killed four Jews – did not come about overnight, but has rather been building over time.

The fatal terror attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and a Jewish museum in neighbouring Belgium last May were the most notorious examples of antisemitic violence, but Jews in the region have been subject to many other incidents of violence and intimidation in recent months and years, from both Islamist extremists and France’s far-right fringe. 

Over the past year, not only Israeli and the international Jewish press, but also major international news organisations reported on the situation. Some of these stories ran just days before this month’s supermarket attack.

AIJAC has been monitoring the situation from Australia and filed many updates, articles and blog posts on the subject, most recently during the upswing in antisemitic attacks during last year’s Gaza war (see here, here, here, and here.)

Over 7,000 French Jews moved to Israel last year, more than double the number in 2013 and an all-time high.

At Tablet Magazine, Stephanie Butnick posted a timeline of the year’s milestones for the community, including a variety of violent antisemitic attacks and other incidents.

It was a deteriorating situation that the world media could not ignore. In September, for example, the US public broadcaster PBS ran a well-constructed news segment, “A new anti-Semitism? Why thousands of Jewish citizens are leaving France”.

Interestingly, the mayor of Scarcelles remarked on-camera during the program that “if Jews leave it’s a sign of the republic’s failure”. This was nearly the same expression, right down to the wording, that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls chose in his interview with the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg on January 10:

“If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

While it’s greatly appreciated, even heart-warming, to hear that French officials understand the gravity of the situation and don’t want Jews to leave France, the question that remains unanswered is how they expect to reverse disturbing trends in French society that would be necessary to end the flight.

Valls further noted, quite correctly:

“The Jews of France are profoundly attached to France but they need reassurance that they are welcome here, that they are secure here.”


These are, of course, two different things, and two concepts that tend to be at odds with each other. Yes, with enough manpower and resources – like the 5,000 French security service personnel promised to protect the Jewish community this week – it is conceivable that the Jewish community centres, synagogues, shops and schools could be kept secure on a communal level.

Once they leave the protection of these fortified areas, however, French Jews would find themselves once more at risk of violence, the same risk that has forced them, increasingly over the past decade and more, to adopt a policy of hiding all signs of their Jewish identity while out in the open.

(For just one of many news resources on this subject, see the JTA’s story “French Jews hide their Jewishness” from February, 2008, bearing in mind that the situation for French Jews has greatly deteriorated since that time.)

Regardless of how much security is provided to the Jewish community, the very fact that it is necessary may spur emigration from those who don’t want to live under such conditions.

In a blog post on January 11, former Bush Administration senior foreign policy official Elliott Abrams explained this well.

In [Paris and] too many European capitals today, one risks not only insult but physical attack by wearing visible signs of being a Jew, such as a head covering. As we learned from the very successful “broken windows” approach to policing in the United States, once such a cycle begins it is very hard to break…
French Jews and other European Jews may well decide that when they can live, work, and practice their religion only under the highest levels of protection, surrounded by special police brigades, it is time to leave. The brave journalists of Charlie Hebdo, after all, took risks with their lives-but not with the lives of their children.

Under the circumstances, is Valls’ admirable goal that Jews be reassured that they are truly welcome in France a realistic one in the short term?

Judging by the emigration rates that have gone from a trickle, to a stream, to a flood over the past couple of years, many French Jews don’t believe so. As the UK Jewish Chronicle‘s editor Stephen Pollard wrote for the Telegraph:

The least surprising thing about today’s turn of events in Paris is that Jews are the target. Because when it comes to home grown anti-Semitism, France leads the world.
A survey last year from the European Jewish Congress and Tel Aviv University found that France had more violent anti-semitic incidents in 2013 than any other country in the world. Jews were the target of 40 per cent of all racist crimes in France in 2013 – even though they comprise less than 1 per cent of the population. Attacks on Jews have risen sevenfold since the 1990s.
No wonder Jewish emigration from France is accelerating.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited France. During and after the visit – in which he took part in a rally in solidarity with the journalists and cartoonists of massacre-stricken Charlie Hebdo and the principle of free speech, visited the site of the supermarket killings and spoke at Paris’ Great Synagogue – the Israeli prime minister came under criticism for reportedly inviting himself to the rally and urging French Jews to move to Israel.

Not everyone agrees such criticism was warranted.

Gal Beckerman, Opinion Editor for the Forward and frequent critic of Netanyahu, blogged that Netanyahu should have been invited and not had to invite himself, for two reasons.

Let’s first look at the reasons [French President Francois] Hollande reportedly gave. The French president, according to Haaretz (with information that has now been confirmed by the prime minister’s office), wanted the march to focus on demonstrating solidarity with France, and hoped to avoid anything that might distract from that message, “like Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Bibi apparently embodied that distraction… The Israeli prime minister can no longer represent anything in Europe other than conflict – as opposed to being just another head of state, he stands for discord, his presence a provocation… that’s a problem.

Beckerman added:

By refusing the presence of the prime minister of the Jewish state, Hollande wants to pretend that defending freedom doesn’t have anything to do with the freedom of Jews not to be killed for being Jews. This is wrong.

Meanwhile, the actual text of Netanyahu’s speech at the Great Synagogue in Paris shows that he was actually quite balanced in his remarks – impressing upon the need for Jews to live in safety in France while at the same time letting the community know that if they decide not to say, they would be welcomed in Israel.

Jews of France, I would like to say to you what I say to our Jewish brothers and sisters from all countries: You have the full right to live in safety and tranquillity as citizens with equal rights wherever you wish, including here in France. But Jews of our time have been blessed with another right, a right that did not exist for previous generations of Jews: The right to join their Jewish brothers and sisters in our historic homeland, the Land of Israel; the right to live in our free country, the one and only Jewish state, the State of Israel; the right to stand tall and proud at the walls of Zion, our eternal capital of Jerusalem.
Any Jew who wishes to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed with open arms and warm and accepting hearts.

Netanyahu’s words were not out of place from a Zionist perspective, given that one of Israel’s objectives is to provide a safe haven for endangered Jews around the world. At the same time, from a humanitarian viewpoint, it was the sort of supportive message any distressed community in such a situation would have appreciated to hear – that they need not feel trapped in their predicament.

Indeed, Israeli President Reuben Rivlin essentially echoed the Prime Minister’s words in his eulogy to the victims at their funeral in Jerusalem on January 13.

Looking at the big picture – in an interview published in part by the Jerusalem Post coincidentally on January 5, before the attack, and at length on January 10 – Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky saw the French emigration, not as an phenomenon unique to that country, but really part of a bigger problem for Jews spreading all around Europe that is rooted in postmodern Western European views on self-identity.

Sharansky’s musings deserve closer scrutiny, though this excerpt gets to the crux of his point.

[According to Sharansky], the European goal is a new world without borders, and along comes Israel and all of a sudden the Jews – in the mind of the liberal Europeans – are leaving the progressive world and going east to build a national state, trampling on the rights of the Palestinians to boot.
Israel, in this analysis, is nothing less than a thorn in the side of Europe – which believes it has moved beyond all those quaint notions of national identity and the nation-state.
Thus, Sharansky said, the Jews in France are faced with a choice: They can either be part of liberal France, which “hates Israel”; be part of conservative France, which doesn’t believe the Jews are part of their culture; or become part of Islamic Europe, which is clearly impossible.
Or they can leave… which they are doing.

What’s encouraging is that it appears that French Prime Minister Valls is among those who are not falling into this trap, as his grasp of the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, showed in his interview in the Atlantic.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote:


In discussing the attacks on French synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses this summer, during the Gaza war, he said, “It is legitimate to criticize the politics of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself. But this is not what we are talking about in France. This is radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”


The current wave of emigration poses the eventual risk of eroding the communal structures of Jewish life in France, which history has shown leads to a tipping point from which French Jewry as we know it (as the third largest diaspora Jewish community in the world) will cease to exist. The present momentum is undeniable, but the outcome is not preordained.

The continuation of French Jewry as a major force in the diaspora will depend on France’s ability to both secure the safety of Jews and reassure the community that Jews are welcome in France. If the words of French officials are to have meaning, their good intentions must translate into practical measures and not merely words or symbolic gestures.

Ahron Shapiro




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