Is There a Future for French Jewry?

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January 9, 2015 1:03 pm
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Does French Jewry have a future?

As you can see, one of two unfolding hostage situations in Paris is at a kosher supermarket where gunman have already killed two people and appear to be holding five hostages, including women and children. On a Friday afternoon, such a venue would be filled with mothers and children. (As I wrote this piece, the hostage standoff ended; there are still conflicting reports about how many of the hostages survived.) This comes after a series of attacks on French Jews over recent years and a series of crowd actions and riots last year during the latest Gaza War which were more ambiguous but still contributed to a climate of generalized menace. A leader of French Jewry predicted late last year that the number of French Jews emigrating to Israel (making ‘aliya’) would reach 6500 in 2014, double the number in 2013. The estimates of the total population of Jews in France range between just under 500,000 and 600,000. So while these numbers are small, they are substantial for a single year. And they appear to be growing, rapidly.

When these events began to unfold I immediately thought of this article I saw on Monday. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (the same 70s and 80s era Soviet refusnik, Anatoly Sharansky) said that in 2014 some 50,000 French Jews asked the Jewish Agency (the primary agency organizing and facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel) for information about immigrating to Israel.

It’s important to note that Jewish immigration into and emigration out of Israel is a highly politicized and emotive issue within Israel – it goes to the essence of the Zionist project. So these numbers should be seen through that prism. But there’s something very real happening. To expand on those numbers, in 2012 about 2000 French Jews left for Israel. In 2013 it was a bit over 3000. 2014 apparently hit over 6000.

The history of French Jewry is complicated and mixed. Jews has been highly integrated into French society. Off the top of my head I can think of two Jewish Prime Ministers of France during the 20th century. Former President Sarkozy had Jewish ancestry. Indeed, the very idea of Jewish emancipation began in France, growing out the Revolution. The vast majority of the world’s Jews live in Israel and the United States. But after Israel and the US, the third largest Jewish population is in France.

Herzl and a delegation of the Zionist Congress on their way to Palestine. 1898.

And yet, anti-Semitism is a deep and abiding strain in French culture. It’s often been said that if someone had asked you in 1900 which European country would arrange the mass slaughter of millions of European Jews you would have picked France, not Germany. Indeed, though the early Zionist movement was a primarily East European movement, French anti-Semitism galvanized into an organized and coherent political force and created its most iconic and influential activist, Theodor Herzl. A deeply assimilated Austro-Hungarian Jew working as a journalist in Paris, Herzl was convinced by the popular anti-Semitism aroused by the Dreyfus Affair that Jewish assimilation and emancipation was an illusion.

The other point that Sharansky at least claims is that as many as 70% of French Jews who leave France go to Israel – when obviously there are other emigration options available. And if personal security is your top priority, Israel certainly has its shortcomings.

How many Jews will remain in France in 2025 or 2035?

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