French Jews face uncertain future

French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

Dr. Leonard A. Cole of Ridgewood at the memorial to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Leonard Cole

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store – a kosher market – I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

Following the attacks, an anti-terror march in Paris drew more than a million participants. Led by Hollande and other world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many in the crowd held signs declaring Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie). A few signs said Je Suis Juif (I am a Jew). But despite the commendable show of unity and of respect for the attack victims, the threat of terrorism remains undiminished. Given the rise in anti-Semitism, the Jewish community seems especially vulnerable.

The Jewish population in France is about 500,000 and shrinking. The Muslim population is 5,000,000 and growing. These trends are sources of anxiety for many French Jews as they weigh their options.

Sandra Charabi, 29, is a survivor of the Hyper Cacher attack. As we stood in front of the grocery store, now closed, she recounted her harrowing experience there. Sandra, who has long, straight black hair and an open, friendly smile, had just gone into the store; she was trying to decide what to buy for Shabbat dinner when a gunman entered, shooting. Amid the chaos and yelling, she and four or five others ran downstairs to the basement. She locked herself in the toilet, where she remained for five hours, when finally the police ended the siege.

Sandra still is frightened. As a result of the attack, a life in France no longer seems possible. She and her boyfriend soon will immigrate to Israel.

They will not be alone. In 2014 some 7,000 French Jews made aliyah, more than double the previous year’s number. With assistance from the Jewish Agency, 15,000 are expected to make aliyah this year.

While Sandra’s decision was animated directly by the horror she experienced, other anti-Semitic events already had created a wave of anxiety in the French Jewish community. Helene Yaiche-Wolf is a volunteer with Keren Hayesod (the United Israel Appeal outside the United States). Her grandparents were killed in Auschwitz. She knew their story, of course, but she was brought up in France feeling safe and secure. Then last July, thousands of people demonstrated in Paris against Israel’s incursion into Gaza, which had been launched to stop Hamas’s rocket attacks. She could not believe what happened at the rally.

The crowd began to chant “Death to the Jews.” More than 70 years had passed since those words last echoed in the streets of Europe. She was so afraid that she could barely function, and she had to seek help from a psychologist.

At the Paris memorial to the 200,000 French Jews who were deported by the Nazis, our delegation met with half a dozen college students. Solal Galamidi, tall and lean, a senior at the University of Paris, said that until a year ago he had never questioned that he would live in France for the rest of his life. “Now I don’t know whether France will be a safe place for Jews,” he said. His fellow students nodded in agreement.

Ariel Goldman, personable and warm, is president of the Jewish Welfare Fund and past president of the Organized French Jewish Community, also known as CRIF. Although he is not afraid, he does worry about the potential triple threat to the Jewish community-from Islamist terrorists, but also from the extreme left and the extreme right. He believes the government now understands the threat more clearly. As evidence, he notes that since the Hyper Cacher attack his 13-year-old’s Jewish school is guarded not only by six police officers but also by a cohort of soldiers. In fact, all 720 Jewish institutions in France – schools, synagogues, community centers – are now guarded by the military. He wonders what will happen when the soldiers are removed.

Perhaps the most analytical among those we met was Judge Marguerite Zauberman, a representative of the Bank of France to the World Bank and a board member of several Jewish organizations. French Jews tend to hold either of two views, she said. The first is that history might well repeat itself. Adherents of this view recall the 1930s as a time when the pessimists went to New York and the optimists went to Auschwitz.

A second group stresses that conditions are different now than they were in the 1930s. In the earlier period, many intellectuals were anti-Semites. That is not the case today. Also, in the 1930s the French government was infiltrated with anti-Semites. Again, that is not true today. And unlike in pre-war France, the legal framework against anti-Semitism and racism in place today is robust. Finally, the existence of Israel eliminates the historical fear that Jews might have no place to go.

In the immediate future mass emigration-numbering in the tens of thousands-seems improbable. If the laws against discrimination were weakened or the government failed to prosecute anti-Semitic activity, the Jewish community would shrink more quickly. Continued violent actions would further fuel the process. But for now, the watchword for many is “vigilance.”

Even the most hopeful among the people we spoke with revealed some anxiety. But even among those most anxious there often remained a measure of hope.

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