As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I grew up with stories about my father’s life in an openly anti-Semitic society. It was not uncommon for him to walk in town in the morning and see Jewish storefronts that had been vandalized overnight. He was careful selecting which route he would take from point A to point B; certain neighborhoods were guaranteed to provide an attack by anti-Semites – young and old. Outside of the Jewish neighborhood he usually wore a hat covering his kippah.
But that was in Poland in the 1930s. Not 2016 in a modern, western European country.
A few weeks ago I returned from the first ever meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors in Paris. It was a sobering visit of tremendous highs and other moments of tremendous concern. It was a visit during which I repeatedly asked myself whether it was really 2016.
While I am not an expert in France or French Jewry, my short trip – largely in dialogue with French intellectuals, Jewish politicians, Jewish community leadership, Jewish families and their children – was full of reaffirmation of some frightening realities.
France has a population of roughly 66 million; less than 1 percent, about 480,000, are Jewish. The Jews are residing in a county of growing political polarity and the rise of anti-Semitic politicians on the far left and the far right. The country’s Muslim population may exceed 6 million. While largely living in harmony with their Jewish neighbors, the Muslim community has large concentrations of radical Muslims who have created serious unrest within the Jewish community, in particular, and the general French society, in general.
Several noted terrorist attacks have occurred in France: at a synagogue and Jewish camp in Toulouse; several stabbings of rabbis as they were entering their synagogues; at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine; at the Bataclan, soccer stadium, and Hyper Cacher kosher market, to name just a few. Anti-Israel rallies have frequently turned violent and targeted Jewish institutions and businesses. While less than 1 percent of the France’s population is Jewish, over 52 percent of reported hate crimes in France are against Jews.
So acute is the situation that the French Army (not local police) provides security at every synagogue on Shabbat and at most Jewish day schools. When I went to synagogue on Shabbat I was struck, not by the fact that there was security, but that it was soldiers in full riot/combat gear with automatic weapons. For my short walk from the synagogue to a home for Shabbat dinner, I was assigned a private security guard to shadow me. When I left, the guard was still there outside and provided escort back to the hotel.
At my host family for Shabbat, I was struck by the lack of confidence in a Jewish future in France. Their 22-year-old daughter is getting married in November and will be making aliyah with her new husband. (Since I could not speak French and she was anxious to practice her Hebrew, that was our language of choice.) Her three younger brothers all spoke about their plans to leave France, either immediately after high school or after they graduated college.
A few days later, in Paris, we visited a large Jewish day school. The principal told us that 40 school families (not students but families) a year leave France, most for Israel. And that was just at one school. At another school, we met with recent high school graduates. Almost none imagined themselves living in France in five or 10 years; most were making aliyah to Israel now.
In the past couple of years, the number of Jews leaving France for Israel has increased dramatically, this past year nearly 10,000 (up 400 percent over four years). That is nearly 1.8 percent of the French Jewish population a year – equivalent to 100,000 plus U.S. Jews leaving this country each year.
The Jewish Agency for Israel – one of the largest beneficiaries of our Federation annual campaign – has an impressive operation in France. It facilitates the aliyah to Israel, works with the French Jewish community to supplement security for French Jewish institutions, works with French Jewish day schools on Hebrew language curriculum, and promotes Israel trips for youth (up 350 percent in two years).
The level and openness of anti-Semitism in France made me wonder whether this was 2016. But I understood it was not 1936. In 2016 there is an Israel. In 2016 there is the Jewish Agency for Israel able to mobilize resources for security and aliyah for a Jewish population in France with growing insecurity about their safety. In 2016 there is a network of Jewish community Federations enabling ongoing and emergency support of Jews when they are in need, where they are in need.