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Monday, January 05, 2004

How big will the French Aliyah be?

by Michel Gurfinkiel

JPost: Call it the French Jewish paradox. Posh kosher restaurants are literally burgeoning in Paris's West End, the fashionable 8th, 16th and 17th districts. Yet the main topics of discussion among patrons are the rise of anti-Semites and whether Jews should leave the country or not. As one of them confided to me: "We just need more Jewish places to talk about all that. Why not restaurants? After all, we still are French - for the time being."

Six months ago, one third of the Jewish population was reported to be considering emigration. One month ago, another poll said almost half (46 percent) were ready to go. This should not come as a surprise. Most French Jews today are refugees and survivors - or the children of refugees and survivors.

The Ashkenazi element is haunted by Holocaust memories. The Sephardi element was uprooted from the former French North Africa or the Levant in the period 1950-1980. Both groups know - by personal experience or from their parents' oral history - that things can deteriorate very quickly. And that it is wiser to leave while you can leave.

Life used to be easy for French Jews until very recently. The mere fact that so many Jews had gathered in one single country helped a lot. In 1939, there were about 350,000 Jews in France. By 1945, one third of them had perished (a comparatively low rate by Holocaust standards).

Postwar late arrivals from Eastern Europe and the refugee influx from Islamic countries brought about a new, younger community of about 700,000 souls - or close to one million, if one is to include the outer fringe of very assimilated Jews. A critical mass was thus reached, allowing for Jewish books, kosher food, Jewish education, Orthodox revival, Reform or Conservative congregations, youth activities, Zionism. French Jews were poised for a Golden Age.

The fall, over the past three years, has been all the more breathtaking. The major reason for it is quite simple: The Jewish critical mass effect has clashed with a parallel critical mass effect - the rapid rise of a huge immigrant Islamic community, 10 or 12 times as strong as the Jewish community in number (estimates range from six to eight million).

In a perfect, ideal world, both groups could live together and integrate together into the larger French society. In the real world, Jews tended to sympathize for a while with the Muslims as fellow immigrants, and Muslims tended to reject Jews as Jews and Zionists. OCTOBER 2000 was the turning point.

Muslim youths in France launched their own intifada to emulate their Palestinian brethren. French society at large was infected. Traditional anti-Semitism was reawakened by Muslim anti-Semitism.

The facts are well-known. More than 20 synagogues and schools have been set on fire. Jewish children and Jewish teachers are routinely harassed at school. Rabbis are beaten or spat at in the street. An Islamic preacher who singled out liberal Jewish intellectuals - supporters of the Geneva Accord, actually - as dangerous "Jewish nationalists" has turned into a media icon. One or two recent murders in Paris may even be ascribed to anti-Semitism. And above all, the nation's elite has been strangely reluctant to admit there is something wrong going on. It took a year for the press to report seriously on this phenomenon. It took much more time for the government to respond.

For any Jewish person with common sense and insight, the writing is on the wall. Some of the French Jews who think about leaving France are opting for the United States or Canada. Most, however, are considering aliya.

The Jewish Renaissance that took place in the second half of the 20th century is bearing results. The more Jewish you feel, the closer you feel to Israel as a Jewish country. One third of Jewish high-school graduates, religious or secular, apply to Israeli universities or other higher education institutions. Many are drawing their parents behind them. Haredim are moving to Israel in large numbers. They may still express theoretical reservations about the secular ways of the state, but for all practical purposes they behave like Zionists, and even nationalist Zionists at that.

Emotional proximity with Israel has also been enhanced over the years by geographical proximity: most French Jews have visited the country, and not just once.

How big will French aliya be? People are seeking advice from the Jewish Agency in Paris by the thousands (I know, my office is almost next door). Some apply for immigration. Others go as tourists but are staying for extended periods and will eventually Israelize. A third group is engaging in commuting: Either transferring home and family to Israel and keeping a job in France, or doing the opposite, starting a business in Israel while keeping a home and a family in France. Economic realities are forcing people into awkward compromises.

From an Israeli angle, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is not to be missed. It should be handled with care.