French Jews making aliyah go from one conflict zone to another
In the Paris office of the Jewish Agency, Laurent Chimouni taps a stack of business cards against his desk and gazes at a giant photo of Tel Aviv on the wall behind me. The same crisply rendered aerial cityscape hangs in the waiting room amid a series of photos of salt-white beaches and hypnotic blue seas stretching out of frame. Outside Chimouni’s office, the grey Parisian sky pelts a thin mist of icy rain onto the streets below.
Chimouni, who made aliyah from France 20 years ago, grew up in Toulon, across the Mediterranean from Israel. Now he is on a two-year mission as an “aliyah delegate” for the Jewish Agency in Paris. Earlier in the week, I attended an information session he hosted for Jews thinking of making aliyah, passing through the Jewish Agency’s bunkerlike door security and joining a dozen or so prospective olim in a conference room lined with fake palms and little Israeli flags. As I entered, a representative from a private Israeli high school got up to advertise its French-style curriculum to a room full of middle-aged and elderly people. “Do any of you have high school-age children?” he asked eagerly. No hands went up.
Chimouni is small and stocky, with rich brown eyes and a Mediterranean complexion, and he speaks with the eagerness of a salesman. He assures me low attendance is normal for the winter months and insists that a surge in olim is inevitable in France. In the summer, the airports are filled with them, up to 200 on a flight, he says, and 80 percent young families. The decision to make aliyah is less urgent in France than in more hostile countries like those of the former Soviet Union (which together sent 6,818 Jews to Israel in 2009), but French Jews also face what Chimouni calls “push factors.” “Our position isn’t as good here as it used to be,” he says. “When they are afraid for their children, it’s no longer a matter of choice.”
France has an established Jewish population predating the French Revolution. In 1791 it was the first European country to grant its Jewish population citizenship. But at this point the majority of French Jews come from North Africa, where they had lived for centuries, arriving there with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and again after expulsion from Spain in 1492. Before World War II, the Jews represented a significant population in the colonies of North Africa—about 140,000 in Algeria; 105,000 in Tunisia; and 225,000 in Morocco. In North Africa today, only a tiny fraction remains. As the French colonial period collapsed in the 1950s and 1960s, these Sephardic Jews found themselves in increasingly uneasy territory, especially in Tunisia and Algeria. In Algeria, the French had granted Jews French citizenship in 1870, giving them a distinct advantage over their Muslim counterparts and further eroding relations between the two populations. Educated in French-Jewish schools in their North African homelands and fluent in French, many Jews saw France as an obvious destination.
While the vast majority of Moroccan Jews went directly to Israel, about half of departing Tunisian Jews and nearly all of the Algerian Jews moved to France. But they didn’t always find the secular republican paradise they had been promised. Algerian Jews in particular were disdained more for their presumed connection to the colonizers—derisively referred to as pieds noirs, or “black feet”—than for their religious affiliations. Now hitting retirement age, many of these Jews look to Israel.
“Israel is the ideal,” Rony Taieb tells me from his kosher butcher shop on the avenue de Flandre in Paris’s lively 19th arrondissement. “People have become disappointed in their other ideal—France.”
Now 39, Rony was born in Israel, and he says he has never gotten over the shock of leaving the sunshine. When he was 3, his family, originally from Tunisia, moved to Paris, and his father started the butcher shop Rony now runs with his two employees. As he stands in the doorway smoking a cigarette, Rony’s wife, Léa, calls to tell him a real-estate agent will be by to visit the shop later in the week. Rony and his family are already registered with the Jewish Agency, and he hopes to sell the shop by this summer so that he and Léa and their five children can move to Ashdod in time for the beginning of the school year.
Rony wears a white apron over a fleece vest and plaid shirt. He talks mostly in proverbs and idioms, and when he laughs his voice cracks into a rough smoker’s hack. He does not describe himself as religious—while he and his family have Shabbat dinner together every Friday, they don’t go to synagogue, and he vehemently refuses to send his children to religious schools—but he believes that the Messiah is on his way and predicts a huge migration of Jews from all around the world to Israel. An oil painting hanging on the wall of his shop shows an emotional Moses flying through the air, stone tablets in hand and long grey hair flowing in the wind.
Although he has no plans for work when he gets to Israel and his knowledge of Hebrew is rusty and outdated, Rony bears no sign of anxiety about the hardships he will face. “They say that life is less difficult when you’re in the sun,” he says, and I ask him if he plans to start up another butcher shop when he gets to Ashdod. “Not right away. I’m going to draw out in the garden under the sun. I like to draw.” When I ask if he is afraid for his 17-year-old son, Ruben, who will have to serve in the Israeli army, he tells me that he too served in the army, moving back to Israel as a young man just to finish his military service. “I owed it to my country,” he says.
Rony’s wife Léa shares his idealism—they both mention the same metaphor of a salmon returning to its source—but she speaks more of practical matters than prophecy. Sitting on her maroon-cushioned couch a few days later, she tells me that once she and Rony have sold the butcher shop, they will take a trip to Israel to find an apartment. When they finally move they will spend the first several months in Jewish Agency language schools, called ulpans, where students study Hebrew for five hours a day every day for five months. “It’s our job to integrate,” she says. “The olim from France are the least appreciated because we’re like spoiled children.”
Léa is short and pretty, with long dark brown hair. Rony and Léa’s apartment is small, with red-tinted walls and heavy wooden furniture from Morocco, where Léa’s family is from. As we talk I hear Sarah and Abigaël, her 4-year-old twin daughters, playing in their room down the hall. With curly brown hair and mischievous little grins, they look just like their father. When they bound into the living room they present us with crayon drawings, wearing part or all of entirely new outfits every time. “Israel needs us,” Léa says, explaining the feared demographic crisis posed by a growing Arab population. “In 20 years, there will be more Arabs than Israelis.”
When Rivka and Rachel, their two oldest daughters, get home from school, Léa heads into the kitchen and whips up a batch of crêpes. The girls quiz me on American pop culture, asking if I’ve heard of various teen celebrities and if I watch TV shows like Hannah Montana. Rachel, who is almost 12, tells me that her favorite Jonas brother is Nick, and 10-year-old Rivka is horrified. “Oh no, I like Kevin!” she says emphatically.
Rivka and Rachel are excited to go to Israel, where they will be with their grandfather, Léa’s father, and their Israeli cousins. They’re not worried about learning the language or making new friends, although Rivka says she will be sad to leave behind her French friends. They tell me that they have lots of non-Jewish friends at school and even some Arab friends. Rachel says she’s never been bothered by anyone because she’s Jewish. “I have,” Rivka chimes in, excited by the attention we give her. “Someone called me a ‘dirty Jew’ once. And not only that, he was my boyfriend!”
As I finish up my crêpe, Léa leads me into a side closet and pulls out a lime-green suitcase that she opens on the living room floor. She laughs as she unhinges the latches. “Not even my husband knows about this.” Inside she has packed various items for their future home in Israel—clothes and toys and cartoon wall decorations for the twins’ bedroom. “Israel is like a mother—no one will worry about us like our own country,” she says. “Here it’s like we’re staying with our mother-in-law. Even if she is very sweet, she will never care for us like our mother.”
In the elevator down to the courtyard outside their apartment, 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. That Rivka’s friends aren’t going to write her as much as she wants them to, and vice versa. That someday they are going to wonder what they are doing there and what it means to be a person, and that being in Israel is not going to add up to a sum so much greater than it would in France. But I have not yet been to Israel, and I have no idea what it is like there, and so I cannot help but wonder if perhaps it is the one purchase in the world that matches up to its sales pitch.