PLUS CA CHANGE, PLUS C'EST LE MEME CHOSE - February 16, 2015

In the aftermath of the massacre of 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and then the Islamist terrorist attack at a kosher supermarket in the elegant suburb of Saint-Mande, hard against Paris's eastern fringe, two days later, when four Jews were murdered and 16 hostages were held prisoner by Amedy Coulibaly, all of France was galvanized to take to the streets in a day ofsolidarity

More than 4 million people marched in cities around the country in a magnificent showing of  unity, carrying signs in French that read: "We are all Charlie Hebdo. We are all police. We are all Jews. We are all free."

In the same spirit of solidarity, both with the people of France and with the 550,000 French Jews, a small mission from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), went to Paris on a fact-finding mission and to strengthen the resilience of a shaken community at a time of crisis. Caryl Kligfeld and I spent a whirlwind 3 days in the City of Light, meeting with the religious, educational, secular and philanthropic leaders of the Jewish community, and speaking with officials of the French government and the Israeli ambassador to France.

It is not overstating the case to say that 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, not just in France.  The amount of anti-Semitic attacks have doubled in France, in the United Kingdom, in Italy, in Belgium and in Sweden from 2013 to 2014. Three hundred gravestones in Alsace, France were desecrated with swastikas this weekend. And yesterday we learned of a terrible double attack in Copenhagen, in which two people were killed, including a guard at a bat mitzvah at the central synagogue, and 5 people were injured.  

There is nothing random about the torture-murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse where 4 people died, including 3 young children, the terrorist attack at a Jewish museum in Brussels, or the vicious attack on a Jewish couple in their home in the suburb of Creteil, where the woman was raped, the man beaten, and items stolen, because the three perpetrators assumed that since the victims were Jewish, they were, therefore, rich.

An ancient hatred has been reborn. Plus ca change; plus c'est le meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. French citizens with whom we spoke discussed the explosion of anti-Semitism on the European continent, fed by the large number of Moslems who have immigrated, many of whom who have not been assimilated into the countries where they have relocated, and some of whom who have been radicalized in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. They were profoundly concerned by the growing strength of the right-wing parties such as Marine LePen's National Front in France, and they felt the vitriol expressed on the streets and in riots during the past summer's Operation Protective Edge to be deeply traumatizing.

On January 27th, French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, spoke powerfully in a keynote address at the United Nations at a session devoted solely to the question of anti-Semitism. He described a "delirium of anti-Semitism" which exhibits itself in a denial of the Shoah, and demonization of Israel as an illegitimate state.

High school students and their families with whom we met for an afternoon in Sarcelles, where the Jewish Sephardi  population of 15,000 live largely in public housing,  are still disturbed by the shouts of "Kill the Jews" they heard in the streets.  Blockaded in their synagogues, with young men rioting, they feared for their lives.

These families left Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco after the 6 Days War in 1967 or following the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  They already left their homes once, concerned with existential threats. They are Zionists and most have family in Israel. Now they wonder if they are safe in France; Now they contemplate if they should make aliya and start anew in a country where they don't speak the language and where the social benefit basket is not nearly as good as in France. There is high anxiety and talk of a mass exodus, even while these families pridefully acknowledge that they are French and love France.

With a single mindedness or purpose, the French government has responded with strong attestations of support. Words matter, and silence can matter even more-as was chillingly evident in the 1930's. 

Just a few days after the march in Paris, the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls denounced anti-Semitism in blistering language in the French National Assembly. In an emotional appeal, Valls asked: "History has taught us that the awakening of anti-Semitism is the symptom of a crisis for democracy and a crisis for the Republic...How can we accept that in France, where the Jews were emancipated two centuries ago, but which also was where they were martyred 70 years ago, that cries of "Death to the Jews" can be heard on the streets. With his voice rising, Valls continued: "How can we accept that French people can be murdered for being Jews?"

President Francois Hollande deplored the bloody assaults of "homegrown French jihadists" and assured French Jewry: "France is your country. Your place is here. This is your home. If terrorism encourages you to move away from France, from French culture, from the French language, then terrorism will have achieved its purpose." As Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "France without its Jews, will no longer be France."

But French Jewry has been making the decision to move to Israel in the last few years and in increasing numbers. Last year, 7000 Jews made aliya; this year the prediction is 15,000 or more will depart. At job fairs and information meetings run by JAFI, there are very high numbers of people expressing interest and more and more young people are going on MASA, year long programs for study or service for young adults.  JAFI says 70%  of people who go on MASA will make aliya, often as a vanguard ahead of their families. Others have expressed interest in leaving for French Canada, Australia or the United States. Almost 300,000 French Jews visited Israel last year. Some of those who were there during the summer and saw the rockets from Gaza are concerned about ongoing battle with the Palestinians.

Attesting to their desire to have France's Jewry remain, in speech after speech, in public fora as well as in private conversation, the government made some immediate changes to protect the safety and security of Jewish schools, synagogues and places of meeting. More than 10,000 camouflage-clad soldiers with machine guns were out on the streets. There were places we went that looked as if there had been a military coup, with so many troops visible.  One young couple with whom we met indicated that the presence of the soldiers was comforting but also reminded them of their vulnerability and increased their disquiet.

Not all the Jewish community members we spoke with expressed their readiness to leave. The Ashkenazim were palpably more at ease in French society. Those who are wealthier or better established in professions spoke candidly about not intending to leave France. Some families have opted, however, for hedging their bets and often wives and children make aliya to the Mediterranean cost from Ashdod to Netanya and their husbands fly over every weekend. Now French patisseries, cafes, cheeses and bread are readily available and French is heard much more on the streets on the coast and in Jerusalem.

But I want to make clear that aliya to Israel is a "choice" that French Jews may  make. It is not, thank God, an urgency.  JAFI is gearing up for an increase in inquiry and in immigration but it is not, at the moment, anticipating fund-raising campaigns.

I left France more concerned than when I arrived.  I have lived in France for three years; I was a Francophile. My children speak French - two of them have French baccalaureate - and I know the Jewish communities of Rouen and Nice well. Even in the early 1980's, after the bombing of the liberal synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris, there were police cars in front of the synagogues we went to every shabbat and high holidays. My sons never wore kipot on the streets nor did any of the children go to school on Shabbat as most French children do. Everyone knew we were either Seventh Day Adventists or Jewish and we never personally experienced anti-Semitism. Rouen, once the site of a yeshiva presided over by one of Rashi's grandsons, had only one synagogue and its Ashkenazi population had been decimated by the Shoah.  Nice, also, had but one Ashkenazi shul but it had 13 different butchers, one from every North African community that the Jews left, and as many Sephardi synagogues.   France has always had a history of anti-Semitism but in post-Holocaust, post-Vichy France, there was a real detente.

The French Republic will shortly remove the soldiers wearing their flak jackets on the streets and they will institute new education policies in the public schools for teaching diversity training and courses on the Holocaust. It is late in recognizing the dangers of racism. Its vaunted "liberte, egalite, fraternite" is more slogan than reality. The French Republic will need to do some soul-searching as to how to become more inclusive of its Muslim population and more protective of its Jewish population.

France is the first country to bestow equal rights to the Jews. The French President, Prime Minister and the Mayor of Paris have been steadfast in their support and see the presence as integral to the French future.  I am hopeful that the future is bright.  Vive la France!  And L'chaim! to the Jewish people.

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