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New Wave

French Jews making aliyah go from one conflict zone to another

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La Chute (The Fall), Paris, 2006 (Denis Darzacq/Agence VU)
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In a conference room at the Ramada Renaissance hotel on the western edge of Jerusalem, a group of 60 French Jews are about to become Israelis. They sit in softly cushioned metal-framed chairs set in two rows across the red-and-gold hotel carpeting. At the front of the room, delegates from the Jewish Agency stand before a dark blue table arranged with ID cards and a stack of heart-shaped pink chocolate boxes. A thin, dark-haired woman in a grey minidress holds a microphone and calls out the names of these new Israelis, serious-looking Orthodox families, retired couples on their way to the Francophone beach communities of Netanya and Ashdod, and twentysomethings headed for Tel Aviv. As they take their bounty, the new citizens pose for photos and thank their delegates, kissing them once on each cheek. Everyone stands for “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem. As she sings along, Nora De Pas, a girl I met yesterday, puts an arm around my shoulder, linking me to a chain of people who were strangers a week ago.

The Jewish Agency, eager to attract as many Jewish immigrants to Israel as possible, recently began organizing a monthly, all-expense-paid “Aliyah Tapis Rouge,” or “Aliyah on a Red Carpet”—group immigrations from France to Israel. As a non-practicing American Jew living temporarily in France from a family with no particular Zionist passion, I had never really considered going to Israel, and I wondered what the big deal was. Why would anyone want to leave a peaceful welfare state for a country in constant conflict? I never truly came to understand why these French Jews were abandoning everything they had ever known for a place they’d only loved on vacation, but a part of the agency pitch worked its way into that portion of my heart that yearns always to belong (and hates winter). But mostly it was February and it was cold, and I just wanted to get the hell out of Paris, where I had been staying in the apartment of an old friend who lives in Vincennes, a short walk from the last stop on the métro’s No. 1 line, traversing east-west across the city. Just a little farther out, the city is ringed by the sprawling Parisian banlieues—the depressingly indistinct postwar apartment structures, built in the 1950s and 1960s at the collapse of the French colonial empire, that served to accommodate the vast influx of working-class immigrants from the former colonies.

Last year the Jewish Agency counted 1,909 French olim, or people making aliyah, making up slightly more than 10 percent of the total number of immigrants for the year. The agency expects a similar number in 2010. French Jews have a history of making aliyah in times of conflict, whether out of solidarity with Israel or fear of the repercussions in France. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, the number of French olim spiked to 5,000, gradually leveling off to a relatively steady 1,000 a year before climbing back to 2,000 during the real-estate boom of the mid-1990s. Tensions between Jews and Muslims in France mounted to what many considered intolerable levels after the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. Having lived for centuries in the same French-colonized countries of North Africa, these Jews and Arabs became enemies in the poor suburbs of Paris, their identities muddled by a mix of lingering colonial resentments and solidarities with an Arab-Jewish conflict several countries away. The number of French Jews who emigrated to Israel peaked at 3,000 in 2005.

At the airport in Paris, I saw that the Jewish Agency had literalized the VIP: As I waited among a disorganized cluster of homebound Israelis, we looked on in envy at the 60 French olim who walked by on an actual red carpet. On the plane I awoke at 5:00 a.m. to the sound of a woman speaking above me as she waited to use the bathroom. Noticing the thick winter scarf draped across my eyes, she leaned over to the woman behind me, her voice tinged with alarm, and said (in French): “That’s not a burqa, is it?”

***

For many French Jews, the banlieues have come to signify hostility and danger. Although they don’t always say it, the Jews associate the suburbs with Muslims, and they associate Muslims with anti-Semitism. While France does not gather ethnicity statistics, official estimates indicate that the country is home to Europe’s largest population of both Jews and Muslims, at approximately 600,000 and 6 million, respectively. In places like Sarcelles and Créteil, where large populations of Jews and Muslims both live, Jews have been shaken by recent incidents like the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi in 2006. Halimi, who was Jewish and worked as a cell-phone salesman in Paris, was lured to Bagneux, a suburb south of Paris, by a group of young African immigrants calling themselves the Barbarians. Initially demanding a ransom of 450,000 euros (about $540,000), the Barbarians held Halimi for three weeks, brutally torturing him. He was found naked and handcuffed in the woods near Bagneux, beaten and burned, and he died on his way to the hospital.

“We know very well it was just because he was Jewish,” Précylia Azau tells me over coffee one Sunday morning at the McCafé cart on the third floor of the Créteil Soleil Regional Commercial Center. Précylia has just moved back to France from Israel. She is thin and petite, her dark features and brown eyes reflecting her Sephardic heritage. She has a large smile that shows a wide gap between her two front teeth, and when she speaks French it is with an accent I assume to be Israeli. “When I find myself all alone in the street I get scared,” she says. “I feel safer in Israel than in France in spite of the bombs.”

Précylia epitomizes the unique ties linking French Jews to Israel. Twelve years ago, Précylia’s parents—both born and raised in France to Algerian parents—decided to move to Israel. Now 24, she has come back to live in her grandmother’s Créteil apartment as she recovers from a breakup with her boyfriend of seven years. Although she misses everything about Israel and says her visit is only temporary, she has begun working at a Jewish preschool and mentions the possibility of enrolling in college here. Through her smile I see a deep melancholy resting in the droop of her dark eyes.

Précylia respects the strict dress code of the Chabad Lubavitch movement she joined in Israel but still manages to look fashionable in a thin wool v-neck sweater and knee-length denim skirt. If I saw her on the street, I wouldn’t have any idea she was Jewish. Even so, she is certain people recognize her as an Israeli, and she says she’s more afraid taking the subway in Paris than she was volunteering as a nurse in Gaza during the war in 2009.

Although her precautions strike me as extreme, at first Précylia’s comments about French society reveal the permeating sense of tension I have always felt but can never quite put my finger on. “People here are cold,” she says. “They’re not lively. They’re dreary.” I ask her if she thinks people in France are anti-Semitic. “Arabs are, that’s for sure,” she says, and I stop nodding along. “I hate Arabs, because I’ve lost people I know because of them.” As she says this, I notice for the first time that she is still very young, even though we are nearly the same age.

When we leave the mall around noon, Précylia and I walk to her grandmother’s tiny kosher bakery a half-mile away. Précylia walks behind the counter and hands me a paper bag with two chocolate croissants. Heading back toward the metro I pass through the mall parking garage, which is garish and ugly, with beams and archways painted in bright pastel purples and oranges. Looking at Créteil spread out before me, I can’t discern any particular order to the streets below. The buildings look plopped down at random. Some have podlike protruding balconies fashioned in that jaunty 1960s mod way that surely must have seemed then to be a harbinger of some utopic future. If I lived here I would spend my entire life dreaming of somewhere else.

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Karen Tucker says:

At least Jews have one place in the world where they’re truly welcomed – and so many nations and people want to take away that last refuge. Thank you for a poignant and superbly written article.

Gur says:

I don’t know whether it’s Dominique Vidal’s error or Liebenthal’s, but the piece quotes Vidal as saying that 30 percent of young Arabs and blacks are responsible for anti-Semitic acts, when from what Vidal says next it looks like what he means is that young Arabs and blacks are responsible for 30 percent of anti-Semitic acts.

Then there’s this odd bit. Liebenthal writes: “…what I long to tell Léa and her children is that it is going to be hard, so hard they can’t even imagine. That no matter how much they want to integrate, they are going to miss things they never even knew they liked about France—daytime talk shows, political cynicism, the ability to make jokes.”

Re. French daytime talk shows: you can get French stations on Israeli cable TV. Re. political cynicism: there certainly isn’t a shortage of _that_ in Israel. (Is there particular value to their being able to continue to be cynical about _French_ politics from a distance? I mean: I doubt French olim lose even their ability to do _that,_ but there has to be more that can be said for France than that when people leave it, they miss the ability to be cynical about its politics.) Re. the ability to make jokes … no, I don’t think I’ll touch that one.

The sketch of Précylia Azau, whom we meet early on in the article, is intriguing, and part of what kept me going as I read was the hope of finding out more about whether she volunteered as a nurse in Gaza in 2009 before or after joining the Chabad Lubavitch movement. It’s slightly more plausible that she wasn’t both a Chabad movement member and a volunteer nurse in Gaza _concurrently,_ though even without concurrence having both those things in her biography would make her something of an outlier. To be fair: no explicit claim is made in the piece that she is representative of French olim as a whole. It’s good, at least, that that’s not done.

Howard says:

This is an excellent article. I think the title could be changed to
“French Jews making aliyah ‘have gone’ from one conflict zone to another”. After the founding of the State of Israel there was a huge wave of anti-Semitism in the Middle East that motivated some Jewish people to move to France. However since then there has been a large wave of Muslims
mvoing to France as well. So the Jews moved from one conflict zone to another. Now they are moving to Israel where Jewish people can protect themselves with out having to be dependant on someone else to do that.
Swedish Jews are leaving for Israel for similar reasons. Muslims are attacking them on the streets. After the flotilla afair things will get even worse in Europe. Just think how many Muslim Turks are in Germany?
Please send Ms. Liebenthal out on another story! Great article, thanks.

David says:

I am a french Jew living in Paris. I liked her article as a whole but I didn’t like the title. Indeed it seems to imply that French Jews live in a conflict zone, which is not true at all of course.

I am not saying there are no problems in France but according to me most (not all) problems are a consequence of the fact that Jews are wealthier than other ethnic groups (especially Arabs). There is also antisemitism but I don’t think it is higher here than (even) in the US.

Also lot of French Jews who emigrate to Israel are attracted by the sun/beach and maybe by the adventure (we don’t know how many come back, but we know it is a decent number). Her article is honest on this topic but the title is not.

I don’t think implying that French Jews live in a conflict zone reflects the reality. To me American Jews tend to make a too big deal about antisemitism in France (and tend to think Jews in France live like Jews used to live in Germany in the thirties).

Howard says:

Flotilla deaths reportedly causing anti-Semitic uptick in France
June 9, 2010
PARIS (JTA) – Several anti-Semitic acts have been reported in France since Israel’s interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla.
Between May 31 and June 8, 18 anti-Semitic acts including violence against individuals, the defacing of Jewish institutions, and throwing Molotov cocktails at and threats to bomb a synagogue were reported to the Jewish Community Protection Service, according to a report issued by the group. The group works in cooperation with France’s Interior Ministry.
In some instances, such as in the southern town of Grenoble, where a Jewish school was attacked with stones and its doors rammed, the incidents took place immediately following protest marches against Israel’s early-morning raid of a Gaza-bound flotilla on May 31.
One crowd of 700 anti-Israel protesters in Strasbourg “wanted to head toward the synagogue, with cries of ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Israel Assassins,’ ” according to the report.
The police prevented the mob from reaching the synagogue in the city, which closely borders Germany.
In another case, a man demanded to know which passengers on a Paris suburban subway were Jewish, and one Jewish male victim was punched twice in the temple, according to the report.
The assailant had said, “I don’t like Jews, and I’m going to hit you,” adding later, “did you see what your cousins did in Gaza?”
The number of anti-Semitic acts in France spiked during the Gaza war at the end of December 2008 and into January 2009.

Rabbi Silas says:

I to one day wish to make aliyah. I am thankful for those that get to make this wonderful pilgrimage. To unite with fellow citizens is a wonderful ex

Roza M says:

Nicely written, but mostly reflective of American naiveté.

AbeBird says:

Israel will always be the last resort for Jews in every place in the universe and in any time…. It’s time to turn her to be the first resort for Jews. It’s better that Jews will choose to make Aliya out of positive conditions and reasons, which exist overwhelmingly if one checks that issue seriously.

Howard says:

New immigrants from France arrived on flights during the day on July 28th. From there they were taken to the Ramada hotel in Jerusalem where they checked into their rooms and had a rest until the evening program began . Some took a nap or went for a walk. Some swam in the pool or had a coffee in the lounge. At 19:30 after their evening meal in the hotel restaurant they assembled in the huge function room to listen to welcoming remarks by Israeli officials, the chief rabbi of Israel, the chief rabbi of Paris and leaders of the Jewish community of France. A French boys choir sang and danced to the delight of the group. And then the Israeli identity cards were given out and in just those few hours hours Israel’s population grew larger by 550 people.

The next morning after a delicious Israeli breakfast which included mountains of fresh salads, baked Israeli eggs, fresh rolls and good coffee the Olim went again to the function room which now was set up with tables and booths manned by representatives of banks, cell phone companies insurance companies, real estate companies and programs for new immigrants. The children were in a play room having fun while their parents concentrated on these important details. The Israeli representatives were French speakers making it easier to understand how things work in Israel.

They came to build Israel. They will defend and stand with Israel. They are not afraid and came with much joy and determination and with few regrests.

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New Wave

French Jews making aliyah go from one conflict zone to another