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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)

An hour and a half after landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv I am nursing a paper cup of instant cappuccino in a windowless room of some distant unknown airport terminal. Maryse and Gérard—a retired couple from Paris—sit with me at a small round table in an open dining area, sipping the free coffee and orange juice. As Maryse snacks halfheartedly on miniature glazed cinnamon rolls, Gérard slips into an empty room along the back wall to chant his morning prayers. At the airport in Paris last night, Gérard was wearing a black duckbilled cap, which he took off on the airplane to reveal the blue-and-purple crocheted yarmulke he wears now. I never see him put the cap back on.

Across the room fellow passengers drowse amidst their belongings along a phalanx of plush faux-leather orange armchairs. Banners hanging from the walls display the words “Welcome Home” in multiple languages, and from a ceiling-mounted TV an infomercial from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption plays on an infinite loop, promising to help at “every step of the way.” As their names are called out, Maryse and Gérard disappear into adjoining numbered offices where they fill out the paperwork that will effect a silent transformation they have been planning for more than 40 years. When they board a charter bus tomorrow afternoon for their new apartment in Ashdod, they will be Israelis.

Maryse has been waiting for this moment since she was a young woman in Paris in the 1960s. With aspirations to join a kibbutz, she began attending a Jewish community group, where she met Gérard. In 1970 they were married. They were both born in North Africa, she in Tunisia, he in Algeria. Looking after Gérard as he walks off for his third or fourth refill of coffee Maryse smiles a wry grin. “Mr. Coffee,” she says, and begins to chuckle, her crystal blue eyes flashing mischievously. I notice that the two of them are wearing matching denim jackets. A gold-colored cane rests lightly against Maryse’s dark pants, occasionally sliding to the floor. She looks more exhausted than relieved.

As we pile onto a shuttle bus, Nora and some of the other young people in the group—known by everyone as “the kids”—pluck kumquats from a tree outside the terminal. Fluffy clouds hang high overhead and the air is warm and moist. The bus takes us to baggage claim, where everyone’s luggage sits in a pile by the carousel. A girl named Priscilla wheels a loaded cart out of the airport, holding her sedated cat in a travel carrier by her side. Her hair is pulled neatly back into a French braid, and she looks a bit like Audrey Hepburn. Because members of her family concealed their identities during World War II, Priscilla cannot prove she’s Jewish, and she has spent the last three years converting to Judaism in order to make aliyah. As she wheels a cart through the terminal’s automatic doors, she turns to Nora. “There you go, we’re Israelis,” she says, and they both laugh.

But that’s not quite true yet. Leaving the airport, we board a bus that takes us over rolling green hills to the Jerusalem Ramada. I am so tired I can hardly take in any of what I’m seeing. At the hotel, we sample plates of fruit and Israeli salads from a buffet table in the dining room. After breakfast, I help Maryse and Gérard carry their luggage up to their room before heading to a conference room where they will sign yet more papers.

From a seat at the back of the room, I watch a man named Michael sit down at a table across from a harried group of anonymous Jewish Agency delegates. His dark hair is slicked back under a black velvet yarmulke, and he wears jeans and a tight grey thermal shirt. When he is done he hurries back down the aisle, stopping briefly to tap me on the shoulder. “It’s very moving to sign that you are really Jewish,” he says with a smile and rushes out of the conference room.

As the ceremony ends, everyone goes up to their rooms to nap. I step outside, basking in the smell of unknown flowers. I wonder if Michael feels any different now, lying up in his hotel room. If Israel will fill the spiritual hole around which Maryse and Gérard have organized their entire lives. If Précylia will ever move back here. There is a palpable freshness to the air, and I start to feel lightheaded. Having nowhere else to go, I walk into the Old City.

As I return from my walk I spot Michael again in the hotel lobby. He’s standing alone near the elevator bank, waiting for a bus to arrive for a scheduled tour of Old Jerusalem. Whenever I see Michael, he is alone. When his wife and children moved to Israel a year ago, he stayed behind in Paris, working construction jobs to save up money for the trip. “Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of moving here,” he says. “When I was 13, I came and volunteered for three months in Jericho.”

Michael speaks of Israel with all the enthusiasm of a convert, dismissing the concerns other olim have raised about the lack of the social and financial support systems they’re used to in France. “We come here for a better quality of life, we don’t come here for money,” he says. “We’ve become too materialistic in France. We’ve become a welfare country.”

Michael was raised in the suburbs of Paris in what he calls a poor family, and he says he knows a lot of Jews who are leaving France because of the worsening situation there. “That wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago,” he says. “My best friends were Arabs. We loved each other like brothers.” When he runs into them now, his childhood friends are still friendly, but their children bristle. “The problem is that the Israeli conflict has been exported to France,” he says. French Jews and Arabs have come to see each other as Palestinians and Israelis, and heightened tensions in Israel lead to spikes of violence in France. Although he makes a point of acknowledging his appreciation for France’s rich culture and history, when I ask him if there is a solution to the situation there, he says there is only one: “To leave.”

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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