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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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The banlieues of Paris are far from the headquarters of the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, where the historian and journalist Dominique Vidal sits at his desk beneath a towering stack of books and papers. Vidal is organized and compact in appearance, his curly salt-and-pepper hair cut short and his beard neatly trimmed. In addition to obscure works by Karl Marx and Emmanuel Levinas, the books on Vidal’s desk reveal a lifelong passion for the Middle East. Along a crowded bookshelf that takes up a wall of his office hangs a small pennant embroidered with the word “Palestine.”

Vidal speaks quickly and amiably, enumerating points from a mental outline like a university professor at a conference. “Firstly, what’s happening in France is a bit contrary to the general trend,” he says when I ask why the number of French olim has increased in the last decade. “But even if there is an augmentation of aliyot from France, relative to the 600,000 or 700,000 Jews in France, the number of Jews who leave is very, very small.” Vidal explains that North African Jews—who have only been in France since the collapse of colonialism—are the most likely to emigrate. “For them the second exodus isn’t a big deal,” Vidal says. “It’s a lot harder to get a family who has been in France for multiple generations to leave.”

Still, recent hostilities in France have put a spotlight on French Jews as a population in need of saving, and in 2004 then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made news by urging all French Jews to seek immediate refuge in Israel. But Vidal more or less dismisses the idea that Jews are leaving France because of anti-Semitism or interethnic aggressions. “It’s infinitely more nuanced than that,” he says, while admitting that since 2000 there has been a considerable rise in anti-Jewish acts in France. But if anti-Semitism has been on the rise, Vidal says the real problem is that France has become more racist in general. He points to a set of studies showing that when asked if they were ready to elect a Jewish president, 90 percent of French respondents said yes, while only 36 percent said they could imagine electing a Muslim. In another 2008 government study, 65 percent agreed that “certain behaviors justify racist reactions.”

Vidal, who has organized 50 community discussions in various Parisian suburbs, takes issue with the idea that Arabs are uniquely responsible for anti-Jewish acts. “For example,” he challenges, smiling with the enthusiasm of a teacher quizzing a student, “what percentage of young Arabs and blacks do you think are responsible for anti-Semitic acts?” He waits a few seconds as I try to reconcile the stereotypes and plausibilities of a culture I know mostly from afar. “Thirty percent,” he offers, finally growing impatient. “The other two-thirds are white-whites, as we say. Among those two-thirds there are a lot of members of the extreme right. And there aren’t a lot of Africans in the extreme right.”

For Vidal the aggression bubbling up in France is heated by a social and economic crisis that has left thousands out of work. In 2008, unemployment in the suburbs was 17 percent, more than double the national average, and according to Vidal up to 50 percent of the Arab population is unemployed. While he believes that mass anti-Semitism has waned in the general French populace, anti-Arab racism soldiers on. “Objectively, it’s much better to be Jewish than Arab,” he says.

But among French Jews, nearly any criticism of Israel is met by accusations of anti-Semitism that poison the discourse and cripple the fight against real anti-Semitism, Vidal says. “After all, Israel is young. We have to admit that this society makes mistakes,” he says, turning a common apology into a barb. The level of hostility his own critiques have inspired has appalled Vidal, whose views have occasionally won him the label of anti-Semite. “My father was at Auschwitz, and my mother was hidden,” he says with deliberate control, no longer smiling. “If it weren’t so serious, it would be grotesque.”

NEXT: “We come here for a better quality of life, we don’t come here for money.”

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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