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For embattled French Jews, mixed feelings about call to move to Israel

The crowd outside the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher in Paris as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays his respects to the victims of last week's terrorist attacks, Jan. 12, 2015. (Aurelian Meunier/Getty Images)
The crowd outside the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher in Paris as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays his respects to the victims of last week’s terrorist attacks, Jan. 12, 2015. (Aurelian Meunier/Getty Images)

(JTA) – French Jews are feeling embattled. Arsonists have targeted their synagogues, terrorists have attacked their schools and shops, and with only a few exceptions, French society has not united behind them to stop the assaults and harassment.

The solution, according to Israel’s prime minister, is simple: Move to Israel.

“To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray; the State of Israel is your home,” Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday in Jerusalem, the day after an attack on a Paris kosher supermarket that killed four Jewish men.

“This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms,” he said.

But for French Jews, the answer isn’t so simple.

“The Israeli government must stop this Pavlovian response every time there is an attack against Jews in Europe,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the director of the European Jewish Association, told the Israeli news website NRG.

“I regret that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government dispenses the same statements about the importance of aliyah rather than take all measures … at its disposal in order to increase the safety of Jewish life in Europe. Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are,” the rabbi said.

The crux of the dispute – one that is hardly limited to Netanyahu and Margolin – are divergent views about the viability of Diaspora Jewish life.

On one side are the many Israelis who believe Diaspora Jewry has no future due to anti-Semitism (see: France) or assimilation (see: America), and often believe that Jewish life in the Diaspora is somehow less authentic or legitimate than Jewish life in Israel.

On the other side are many Diaspora Jews who see themselves as part and parcel of their home countries and consider their communities vibrant expressions of Jewish life. In their view, Israeli calls for aliyah in response to the challenges they face are offensive and counterproductive. Instead, they believe, Israel ought to be thinking about how it can help Diaspora Jewish communities thrive.

Netanyahu is hardly the first prime minister to ruffle feathers in the Diaspora this way. In July 2004, then-premier Ariel Sharon irked French Jews with a similar call.

“If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: Move to Israel as early as possible,” Sharon told a gathering of North American Jewish federation leaders. “I say that to Jews all around the world, but there I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”

In response, French President Jacques Chirac told Sharon he was not welcome in France. Like many non-Jewish government leaders, Chirac bristled at the implication that Jews should leave en masse.

In the United States, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua ignited a firestorm in 2006 when he told the audience at a centennial celebration of the American Jewish Committee that American Jews are only “partial Jews” because they live in the Diaspora.

“Judaism cannot exist outside Israel,” he said, according to an account in Israel’s daily Haaretz. “Those who do not live in Israel and do not participate in the daily decisions that are made there … do not have a Jewish identity of any significance.”

Yehoshua hit upon a similar note in a February 2013 speech to a group of several hundred American Jews on volunteer and study programs in Israel when he said, “I’m happy to see so many Americans here. I hope you all become Israelis and don’t return to America.”

Needless to say, they didn’t all move to Israel.

French Jews are in a much different situation than American Jews, however, in that they face the threat of physical violence. Add France’s serious economic problems and many French Jews agree with the view that the prognosis for their community is bleak.

“We do not have a future here,” Joyce Halimi, who attended a vigil for victims of the Hyper Cacher supermarket attack on Saturday night, told JTA. “The government talks, but it’s only words.”

In 2014, nearly 7,000 French immigrants arrived in Israel out of a French Jewish population of 500,000. That’s the equivalent, proportionately, of 84,000 American Jews moving to Israel. The actual number of Americans who immigrated to Israel in 2014 was 3,470.

Additionally, the highly symbolic decision by all four families of the Hyper Cacher attack victims to bury their loved ones in Israel reinforces the message that French Jews have a dim view of their future in France.
Of course, not all of those who are emigrating are moving to Israel. Montreal, Miami, London and New York all have seen significant numbers of French Jewish newcomers over the last decade or so.

St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London now holds a French-language Sabbath service. Montreal’s primary Jewish social services and resettlement organization, Agence Ometz, has seen a significant increase in newcomers from France over the last year, JTA reported in November. In 2013, the Italian daily La Stampa wrote a feature about the surge of French Jews in New York.

Unlike with Israel, however, there is no precise data about the number of French Jews moving to the United States, Britain or Canada.

But the migration westward is a reminder that Israel is not the only alternative for French Jews seeking to leave the country.