The Jews of la-la-France
January 30, 2017
The article was originally posted on Times of Israel magazine .
In the entire sweep of Jewish history, no large group of Jews ever left anywhere voluntarily. The ‘wandering Jew’ was always propelled by compulsion, not by some innate ‘wanderlust’.
This was the case even in Egypt, where — see Exodus 13 — when Pharaoh’s policy finally changed, he drove them out at a moment’s notice, leaving them with half-baked matzot instead of bread.
And it has remained the case down to our own times, as the history of the Zionist enterprise makes clear. Large-scale emigration from the Diaspora to Eretz Yisrael, the Palestine Mandate and eventually the State of Israel was, always and everywhere, the result of the Jews being pushed out of their countries of origin — whether in Eastern Europe, North Africa or the Middle East.
There has never been a large-scale wave of Aliyah comprised of people motivated by ideology, religious fervour or any other abstract cause. The number of Olim to Israel from free, democratic and open societies has always been negligible and their drop-out and return rates have always been high. In the case of the US, the absolute number of Olim has always been so low as to be statistically insignificant in the context of the overall American-Jewish community.
Those are the facts and they are especially salient today with regard to French Jewry – the second-biggest Diaspora community anywhere, the largest in Europe, and, as research has repeatedly proven, the Diaspora community with the closest ties to Israel.
This century has seen an upsurge in French Aliyah – but this incipient wave has followed the historic pattern to the letter. The driving force behind it has not been an upsurge in Zionist identity in France, let alone any pro-active policy moves by the Israeli government.
Rather, the mini-waves of aliyah in 2004-07 and then in 2013-15 have been linked to general civil unrest in France – which has exposed the scale and severity of the socio-economic and ethnic-political splits within French society – and the waves of specifically anti-Semitic activity. Large swathes of French Jewry have concluded that they have no long-term future in France and are actively preparing themselves and/or their children to move – whether to Israel or to other potential havens, including Britain, North America and Australia.
However, after surging to unprecedentedly high levels in 2013-15, French aliyah dropped by some 40% in 2016. Coming against the background of major terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, as well as ongoing socio-political unrest, this seems strange and counter-intuitive.
One explanation proffered by French aliyah activists (see, for example, the article by Arieh Kandel in the Jerusalem Post of January 24), is that the Israeli government has done too little to facilitate – let alone promote – the immigration and absorption of French Jews. Kandel and his colleagues urge the government to seize this historic opportunity and launch a major effort to ensure that as many as possible of France’s Jews head to Israel, rather than the alternatives available to them.
I absolutely agree that the Israeli government is responsible – at least partially, certainly not solely – for the fizzling of the latest mini-wave. Much more could have, should have and still can and should be done to attract French Jews to come, and to ease their absorption and integration when they arrive.
However, Kandel and all French Jews urgently need to grasp the harsh realities facing them:
- The Israeli government and its agencies: Fuggedahboudit, guys. It ain’t gonna happen. There is no senior Israeli politician who is seriously interested in aliyah, especially not French aliyah. There are only a handful of Knesset members who care about aliyah, most of them Russian and not oriented to French Jews and their specific needs.
- The general public in Israel is also uninterested. This think that France is a rich country and the Jews there are comfortable, so why do we have to spend money on them? If they want to come, bevakasha. If not, that’s fine too. Zionism is passé.
- Meanwhile, the doors are closing around the world. Have you heard or read about Trump and his immigration policy? Has news of Brexit made it over the Channel? Nobody wants the “poor, huddled masses” any more – only the rich and the highly-educated (in useful professions — and make sure you speak English).
- France is crumbling. The speed of decline is accelerating. If/when there is a recession, things will get very unpleasant.
- The euro is toast. When it collapses, the revived French franc will be one of the losing currencies, along with the lira and peseta, not a winner like the deutschemark and the guilder.
- Meanwhile, the Israeli economy and is currency keep getting stronger. French Jews who came five or ten years ago had it easy compared to those who come now. As for those who want to delay another five or ten years…
- …and all that is without mentioning Marine le Pen and the upcoming presidential election
In short, French Jewry should stop pretending it has plenty of time, stop imagining it has numerous options, and stop deluding itself that Israel and the Israelis are going to pro-actively welcome it. Get your act together, guys, and get out.
The Israeli record is clear – when the situation is disastrous, it will make extraordinary efforts and do incredible things to save Jews. But you should aim to be watching that happen on Israeli TV, not experiencing it first-hand.