French Jews

French Jewish leader Roger Cukierman has moderated his tone during the past 12 months — but his message appears largely unaltered.

Jews in France are living "in a time of malaise," Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, told more than 800 guests at the group’s annual dinner Saturday.

Cukierman’s speech, given in the presence of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and dozens of leaders from across France’s political spectrum, detailed in alarming terms what has become the norm at such events in recent years — a catalog of violence against Jewish individuals and community institutions.

"A simple meeting on the street, traveling on public transport or just a glance" often can lead to insults and physical violence for French Jews, Cukierman said.

His use of the term "malaise" is what has characterized the state of the largest Jewish community in Europe. Even if reported acts of anti-Semitism have dropped in 2003, the feelings of uncertainty clearly are going to take a long time to disappear.

Shopping on a Sunday morning in a heavily Jewish area of Paris’s 11th District, Monique Belaiche said she feels insecure.

"I walk down the street and I get aggressive looks from groups of North African youth," said Belaiche, an Orthodox Jewish woman in her early 30s.

The neighborhood around Boulevard Voltaire, a broad thoroughfare with many Jewish food shops, has generally been free of anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, Belaiche said that she "does not see a future for the Jews of France."

Like many of her friends, she said, "I am constantly thinking about emigrating to Israel."

Nearly 5,000 French Jews already have made that choice over the past two years. Immigration to other countries — particularly to French-speaking parts of Canada — also continues to rise.

Other shoppers, however, are less sure.

"I feel I have a future in France," Michael Abergel said as he stood outside a kosher butcher on the boulevard.

For Abergel, the issue was whether the government would be able to "deal with the integration of French Muslims."

"There is anarchy in the suburbs — and that’s a problem for France, not just for Jews," he said.

The geographical nature of the problem was exemplified by a discussion between Philippe Schemba, who lives in the 11th District, and his friend Serge Seknega, from the Paris suburb of Le Blanc Mesnil.

While Schemba talked in broader political terms about anti-Semitism, Seknega preferred to dwell on his daily experiences.

"I feel the incivility, the gestures as I walk down the street," Seknega said.

As both men pointed out, the government is beginning to tackle the problem.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has "started to do something," Schemba said, referring to new get-tough policies that have resulted in heavy sentences for anti-Semitic offenders in recent weeks.

In November, the government also set up a top-level Cabinet committee to tackle anti-Semitism.

That decision followed an arson attack at a Jewish school near Paris that was swiftly condemned by both Sarkozy and French President Jacques Chirac.

Reaction to the arson typified a sense of panic that has seen France blasted by Israel and international Jewish groups for what they claim has been a reticence to tackle anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, many French Jewish groups say the government has turned the corner.

Addressing the CRIF dinner, Cukierman praised the prime minister "for the battle you have led against anti-Semitism."

But while the government is pushing for tougher legislation to fight anti-Semitism, the battle will be a difficult one, Cukierman said.

"The old anti-Semitism of the far right has not disappeared," he noted, but it is no longer alone — Jews and Israel now are singled out as well by the far left and anti-globalization activists, Cukierman said.

"Jews are no longer attacked by racists because of their race, but as racists by those who claim to be anti-racists," he said.

Cukierman’s linking of extremists from left and right provoked a walkout at last year’s CRIF dinner by Green Party leader Gilles Lemaire. The rift between the Jewish community and many Green leaders has yet to heal: Lemaire and others on the party’s radical wing shunned this year’s event.

Nevertheless, the links built with the center-right government were clearly on show at the dinner, with no fewer than 17 government ministers attending.

The government and major Jewish organizations see a sharp drop in anti-Semitic incidents in 2003 — down from 195 anti-Semitic acts and 737 threats in 2002 to 125 acts and 463 threats last year. But both sides agree that more needs to be done.

Indeed, on the night of the CRIF dinner, violently anti-Semitic slogans were shouted at French Israeli singer Shirel during a major charity event in central France attended by Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president.

And as one of the Jewish shoppers on Boulevard Voltaire pointed out, anti-Semitism isn’t going to go away as long as "the Middle East conflict is imported to France" through the large numbers of Muslim immigrants.

"The malaise has deepened with the conflict," Schemba said. "The media feeds on it and the Jews end up being the scapegoats."

The Answer Isn’t…

Aliyah is the oat bran of the Jewish people. We know it’s good for us. We know we should be having more of it. But truth is, we just find it hard to swallow. And we certainly don’t like it shoved down our throats.

While in Israel last week, I heard several Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on down, proclaim that increased Jewish immigration to Israel is crucial to the country’s long-term well-being. And each time I heard an Israeli or American Jewish leader say that, I thought: “Uh-oh.”

If Israel’s well-being depends on tens of thousands of us Diaspora Jews packing up and moving there, the country is in worse trouble than I thought. The numbers of Jews who immigrate to Israel from Western nations — never a very large figure — has greatly declined of late and shows no signs of reviving.

“Where are they going to come from?” an Israeli official — who preferred not to be identified — asked me. “The ones who had to come here came; the ones who wanted to come here came. There just aren’t that many Jews left to rescue. And even the ones who are in trouble don’t want to come here.”

Aliyah from Western countries has never been huge. Israel’s numbers have swelled more as a result of what analysts call the “push” immigration — Jews who have been pushed out of the homelands — rather than from “pull” — Jews who feel drawn to Israel not out of need, but desire.

About 9,200 immigrants arrived in Israel in the first half of 2003, and most of these were pushed there. Over half — 5,100 immigrants — came from the former Soviet Union, 500 arrived from Argentina and 1,500 from Ethiopia. That means approximately 2,100 arrived from the rest of the Jewish world: France, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and the United States.

These numbers represent a drop of 39 percent, as compared to the same period the previous year. Although many Orthodox Jews and yeshiva students still immigrate to Israel, aliyah from North America is half of what it was in 1984, prior to the outbreak of the first intifada or Palestinian uprising.

The aliyah equation is even more lopsided, especially when balanced against emigration from Israel. Many Jews from the former Soviet Union have actually chosen to return there. Israelis who have any native rights in European countries are seeking passports for themselves and their children.

Last week, an article in Ha’aretz revealed that about 700,000 Israelis actually live outside the country. An earlier survey found that a significant proportion of Israeli youth saw little future for themselves in Israel. A friend of mine, who immigrated to Israel more than 20 years ago from the United States and raised his children there, said he suspects all of his kids will immigrate to America.

Behind the call for a magic carpet of aliyah lay an odd mixture of hope and despair. Aliyah is — excuse the expression — the Hail Mary strategy of an Israeli government that sees no other way out of a looming demographic disaster.

Sharon’s government has advanced no serious long-term strategy for dealing with the fact that within several years, the Palestinian population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will outnumber the Jewish population. For years, Israelis on the center and the left have pointed out that when this happens, Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish State or being a democratic one.

One solution is for Israel to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and return to (roughly) its pre-1967 borders. Another is bringing in more Jews. As ludicrous as it seems given the numbers, that’s the only solution advanced by Sharon in a speech last week to some 5,000 North American Jewish supporters of Israel.

The fact that Sharon’s call for aliyah received a sustained ovation perplexed me. After the speech, I asked various audience members if they planned to take up the prime minister’s call and move to Israel. Of course they thought I was joking.

“Remember the old saying,” a journalist friend reminded me. “An American Zionist is someone who gives his own money to send someone else’s kid to Israel.”

The situation in Israel is grave. The economy is depressed, security is tight and most Israelis I met were gloomy about their country in the short-term, at least. Anti-Semitism abroad may yet create a wave of “push” aliyah to Israel, but it’s not something you want to depend upon.

“It would be preferable if the Israeli society were to flourish thanks to its own power of attraction and not because of the existential weakness of Diaspora Jewry,” said professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Aliyah is identity politics carried to the extreme. The small percentage of Jews who are actually pulled to live in Israel represents a much larger percentage of Jews who choose not to live in Israel, but who feel close and supportive of it nonetheless. I suspect the decline in one number reflects a decline in the other. As Israel’s own existential situation worsens, both these numbers are bound to deteriorate.

On the way home from Israel late last week, I noticed a counter set up at Ben-Gurion International Airport. A charming American-born woman stood behind an array of informational pamphlets on aliyah. Don’t just visit the dream, the booth advertised, come live it.

I couldn’t help notice that in the three hours I spent in the busy terminal, not a single person visited the woman at her booth. The duty-free counter, needless to say, was packed.