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