French Jews making aliyah go from one conflict zone to another
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.