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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)

At dinner at the Jerusalem Ramada, I sit with “the kids” at a long rectangular table in a corner of the dining hall. Across from me, Daniel-from-Barcelona—who traveled with our group because there is no Jewish Agency branch in Spain—peers longingly at a table of South Americans who have just arrived this afternoon. Daniel-from-Barcelona is the real-life version of the European from my teenage foreign-exchange fantasies. Eva, who sits next to me, asks Daniel what kind of girl he likes, then points to me. I blush. Looking at Eva, Daniel-from-Barcelona says it’s too bad I’m going back to America. Eva asks when I’m going to make aliyah. They both stare deep into my eyes. I laugh and get up for another dinner roll.

After dinner, Nora and I walk up the spiral staircase to the hotel lobby and make our way to a lounge on the second floor across from the Internet room. The nightly Muslim call to prayer sounds as we sit down next to the bay windows over the Ramada parking lot. Nora wears billowing bohemian pants that inhale and collapse as she sits down. Her eyes are huge, communicating a bulging intelligence that bubbles up in a fidgety kind of energy. She speaks English faster than I can write.

The first time Nora came to Israel, she was 13 and hated it. “I expected a lot,” she says, imagining Israel as the paradise of diaspora hype. Instead she found the people cold and unwelcoming and couldn’t wait to leave. But when she returned for Passover three years ago, she discovered a different Israel among the young people on her kibbutz. “This new generation around our age is really different. They were born in this state, their parents were born in this state. They don’t have this fear of uncertainty. They are not scared.”

As we talk, Nora looks down at her phone distractedly, awaiting a call from a friend about a possible apartment opportunity. At 24, she moved to Israel without a job or a place to live, but listening to the command in her voice, it seems clear that she will land on her feet. She wants to use her degree in theater to import French drama to Israel’s francophone community. Her goals are lofty, but she’s clear-headed about her prospects. “I know it’s going to be complicated,” she says.

Nora wasn’t raised in a religious family and doesn’t share the idealism of many of her fellow olim. Before coming to Israel, she debated moving to England but was discouraged by the economic situation there. She recognizes that Israel isn’t perfect and thinks it’s important to offer a critical perspective. I wonder if this isn’t just the guarded optimism of a younger generation, another kind of idealism.

Nora pauses to take a call from her uncle, who lives in Israel and plans to attend the ceremony tomorrow afternoon. “I don’t like Paris,” she says after she hangs up. “I prefer this war to the other one, because no one reacts there, no one.” More than any particular form of racism or anti-Semitism, she says French society has grown cold to its own brutality. She’s seen people collapse on the metro and intervened when no one else would. She’s watched transit authority officers turn their eyes from dangerous subway fights. After witnessing a violent attack in a Paris park, she and her friends called out to a police officer down the street. The officer told them they were out of her district and put in a call for help before continuing on her patrol. “It’s the law of the streets—they’ve given up there.”


After the Jewish Agency delegates have distributed the new Israeli IDs, everyone hangs around to hug and take photos. Eventually, they migrate to an adjoining room, where the hotel staff has heaped their luggage into a pile. Back in the lobby, people mill about, waiting for buses to arrive and distribute them across the country. The first to go are the kids, all but one of whom are headed for Tel Aviv. They depart as a lively group, already planning a party as they load their suitcases into a large white van. I return to the lobby to sit with Maryse and Gérard.

When they leave, I’ll take a city bus back into Jerusalem. I’ll let street vendors lure me into overpriced jewelry shops with the promise of free coffee and mint tea. I’ll visit three of the holiest sites in the world—the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—all in one day. I’ll make strange new friends in dingy youth hostel kitchens. My backpack will be searched more times than I can count. I’ll see the separation fence and listen to the life stories of Arab bakers who no longer bother to hope for peace. And I’ll finally walk the beaches of Tel Aviv, as crisp and salty-white as in those photos.

Watching the last of the buses disappear, I know I should be excited by all of this. But I am standing alone in an empty hotel parking lot, and my mind fills with questions I can’t answer. What exactly are these people running away from and what do they hope to find here? A part of me thinks they are crazy for trying this. A part of me thinks they are just plain wrong. Because I know that somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of French olim ultimately return to France, I am sure that at least one of these families will move back. The thought of such upheaval makes me queasy. And yet I feel a fondness for them I could not have anticipated. I envy their hope. I want them to succeed.

As I re-lace my tennis shoes and tighten the straps on my backpack, I watch the clouds pull apart, freeing up broad patches of blue. Mostly I’m thinking that I can’t wait to get back to America, to the place where I grew up and where all of my family lives. A place that I love and hate simultaneously and feel perfectly at ease saying so. It is the only place I have ever called home, which is to say that it is not so much a country as a feeling of comfort and belonging. I feel lucky to have such a place, and I have no idea what I would do without it.


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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

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