’Things have only gotten worse’: French Jews are fleeing their country

Facing record levels of anti-Semitism, members of Europe's largest Jewish population seek a new life in Israel—and face new challenges.Thursday, 21 November 2019

By Yardena Schwartz
Photographs By William Daniels

GROWING UP IN Paris, Esther Coscas felt safe. Her home was in the heart of “Little Jerusalem,” a neighbourhood in the suburb of Sarcelles dotted with kosher restaurants and shops bearing Hebrew names. Jews and Arabs lived side by side. While there was occasional friction, Coscas, who is Jewish, never feared for her life.

That changed in the summer of 2014, when pro-Palestinian demonstrations disintegrated into attacks on the Jewish community. Chanting “Death to the Jews,” protestors smashed windows and burned Jewish businesses, barricading congregants inside a synagogue and attempting to burn it down. Coscas, now 30, had just become a mother. She began to fear for her family’s future in France. Her siblings had already moved to Israel, but she wanted to stay near her parents.

Then, a year ago, the cloud of anti-Semitism came so close to home that she could no longer avoid it. Her best friend, who lived on the same street, was attacked on her way home by a group of young men who called her a dirty Jew and punched her in the face, breaking her nose. That night, Coscas knew that she would be moving.

Facing record levels of anti-Semitism, many French Jews are joining an exodus to Israel. A third of all the French Jews who’ve emigrated to Israel since its establishment in 1948 have done so in the last 10 years, according to data from the Jewish Agency, which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel. The 1950 Law of Return enables any Jew from around the world to become an Israeli citizen entitled to numerous government benefits, including financial aid, tax breaks, free Hebrew courses, and a free flight to Israel. In 2015 alone, nearly 8,000 French Jews made what is known as Aliyah—ascent to the Holy Land—the largest number from any Western nation in a single year.

On a scorching July afternoon in Paris, a Jewish Agency Aliyah flight is set to take off for Tel Aviv, and Coscas is on it. “We want to open a new page,” she says. Her two-month-old baby sleeps in his bassinet, while her four- and six-year-old daughters frolic through the aisles. Her family packed their entire life into 130 cardboard boxes and 24 suitcases “because we want to live our Judaism freely and openly, far away from anti-Semitism.” Now her parents, and her husband’s, have no children left in France.

“Spreading like poison”

France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. Yet this historic community—dating back to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and expulsion of the Jewish population 2,000 years ago—is in the midst of an existential crisis.

France's interior minister has warned that anti-Jewish sentiment is "spreading like poison." President Emmanuel Macron declared that anti-Semitism was at its highest levels since World War II. Amidst a string of attacks, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe admitted that anti-Semitism is “deeply rooted in French society.”

Eighty-nine percent of Jewish students in France report experiencing anti-Semitic abuse, according to a poll published in March. In 2017, Jews were the target of nearly 40 percent of the violent incidents classified as racially or religiously motivated, despite making up less than 1 percent of the French population. In 2018, anti-Semitic acts rose by nearly 75 percent.

The current wave of immigration began in earnest after the 2012 Toulouse massacre, in which a French-born Islamic extremist opened fire at a Jewish day school, killing a young rabbi who was shielding his three- and six-year-old sons, then shooting to death both boys and an 8-year-old girl. Three years later, a gunman pledging allegiance to ISIS killed four customers at a kosher supermarket in Paris. “In the days after that, we received thousands of calls from people saying they wanted to leave,” says Ouriel Gottlieb, the Jewish Agency’s director in Paris. “Of the four people murdered at Hyper Casher, three of the families moved to Israel.”

Nearly every year since has seen another deadly anti-Semitic attack, from the beating and defenestration of 65-year-old Sarah Halimi in 2017 to the gruesome killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018. Less frightening, but just as damaging to this fragile community, are the constant smaller-scale incidents, such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and memorials, or attacks on boys wearing yarmulkes. Such attacks have led many here to hide outward appearances of their faith. Others choose to leave.

Those who’ve stayed say it’s only a matter of time before the next grisly headline. “Things will only get worse,” says Samuel Sandler, the father of the rabbi who was killed in Toulouse. Sitting in a Paris cafe, Sandler recalls how his parents fled Nazi Germany seeking a better future for their children in France. His grandmother, cousin, aunts, and uncles were killed in Auschwitz. “I used to think, ‘The war is finished,’” he says, “‘We are in France now. We are safe.’”

A new form of hatred?

From the expulsion of Jews in 1306 to the Dreyfus Affair of 1894 to the Vichy government’s cooperation with the Nazi extermination of 75,000 French Jews, France has a long history of anti-Semitism. Today hate comes from both the far right and far left. Some Yellow Vest protesters have accosted prominent French Jews and called President Macron “a whore of the Jews.”

Yet the Jewish community has also flourished here. France granted equal rights to Jews in 1791, inspiring other nations to follow. France has had three Jewish prime ministers. One of them, Leon Blum, helped establish the Jewish Agency with other Jewish luminaries, including Albert Einstein.

These days, however, many French Jews see a new form of hatred. This new anti-Semitism, they say, is deeply intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Listing every deadly anti-Semitic attack since 2003, Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), concludes, “Twelve people have been murdered for the sole reason that they were Jewish. All of them by radical Islamists.”

The two major Muslim organisations in France declined to comment for this story. But in an open letter published in Le Monde last year, 30 imams condemned the growing extremism and anti-Semitic attacks, while also defending their faith. "We are also Muslims, like the rest of our co-religionists, peaceful Muslims, who suffer from the confiscation of their religion by criminals,” they wrote. “This radicalism or radicalisation must be fought intelligently by all concerned, from politicians to imams through families, schools, and security.”

“It was totally different.”

Sarcelles, a suburb of hulking housing complexes, was built to house the North African immigrants—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—who arrived in droves from former French territories in the 1950s and 60s. The new immigrants spoke the same language, came from the same countries, and shared the same culture. Although many of the Jews were fleeing violence in Muslim countries, for a while everyone got along.

But it didn’t last. “Relations between these two minorities changed notably as Jews were integrated as citizens into the French state while Muslims were integrated as outsiders,” says Maud S. Mandel, a historian and author of Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict. While there was already a Jewish community in France with organisations that could help them acclimate, the Muslim arrivals didn’t have that kind of welcome. “That set them up for very different relationships with each other,” says Mandel, who is president of Williams College in Massachusetts. “Various triggers [such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] started to happen that placed them on opposing sides.”

“What hurts most is that we grew up together,” says Moise Kahloun, who immigrated from Tunisia in 1969 and is president of Sarcelles’ Jewish community. Standing inside the synagogue where he was among those barricaded by protesters in 2014, he says, “When we came it was totally different. For 40 years, community life in Sarcelles was the symbol of ideal Jewish life in France.”

After the attack on the kosher supermarket in 2015, France deployed 4,700 troops to guard 717 Jewish institutions across the country. While such measures surely prevented more massacres, they have also perpetuated feelings of insecurity. Esther Coscas avoided synagogue in Sarcelles because she couldn’t bear the site of armed soldiers outside.

Though French officials have acknowledged the crisis of anti-Semitism, many French Jews feel their words are empty. In July, a French judge ruled that the man who murdered Sarah Halimi in 2017 was unfit to stand trial because he was high at the time. That echoed another ruling from 2010, when the man who killed a Jewish DJ was found unfit for trial due to mental instability.

“The government isn’t doing anything to fight anti-Semitism,” says Yohanane Elfersi, 64, who is leaving France because the ongoing exodus has emptied his neighbourhood synagogue. “When things happen they say, ‘Oh no, this is so sad, we are with the Jews.’ But then the guy goes to trial, and they say ‘Oh no, he was crazy, it’s not his fault.’”

Some say the government’s neglect is driving them to leave even when they’d prefer to stay. Stella Bensignor fled one suburb of Paris for another after she was targeted twice. In one case, someone broke into her home and knocked over all her Jewish items. Two months later someone scratched “JEW” in giant letters on the side of her car. The police told her to move to another neighbourhood. An anti-racism organisation suggested her family move to Israel. “We don’t want to flee France, but this was two years ago and things have only gotten worse,” says Bensignor. “I know we will end up in Israel.”

French bakeries and Hebrew lessons

“Welcome home to the land of Israel,” announces the captain as the flight lands in Tel Aviv. Passengers clap. Some kiss the ground as they descend to the tarmac, where a giant tent filled with hundreds of people awaits to celebrate their arrival.

France is the third largest source of immigration to Israel, after the former Soviet Union and the United States. The massive influx of French immigrants in Israel has given rise to neighbourhoods filled with French bakeries, cafes, and real estate agents catering to French clientele. Yet Aliyah from France is slowly declining. In 2018, 23 percent fewer French Jews moved to Israel than in 2017, which was 25 percent lower than 2016, according to Jewish Agency data.

This decline is not for lack of desire. The hardships faced by immigrants in Israel has led many to stay in France. According to a recent survey by Qualita, an organisation serving French immigrants in Israel, 10 percent move back to France within three years. Many struggle to adjust to what is an extremely different society. The Jewish Agency is aware of this, and is lobbying the government to improve its services and make integration easier, says Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. “The French live in a very developed country, and they expect that they will have the same quality of life here,” he says. That expectation often falls too far from reality.

Many of the immigrants on the flight in July planned meticulously to avoid the mistakes of those who returned to France. Yael and Thierry Zeitoun, who immigrated with two teenage sons, spent three years preparing. They saved money, researched work opportunities, and now plan to spend one year focusing on learning Hebrew and living frugally. “We know it won’t be easy,” says Thierry.

Uriel Hertzberg encountered difficulties even before he arrived. He and his wife thought they had closed on an apartment in Tel Aviv months ago, but the deal fell through at the last minute due to bureaucratic issues. Two hours after landing, he passed out from heat exhaustion and had to be wheeled out of the tent on a stretcher. Now he’s wrestling with the cost of living in Tel Aviv, which was recently rated the world’s 10th most expensive city.

“Everything is more expensive here, and everyone makes less here. I don’t understand,” says Hertzberg, as he walks to his son’s apartment for Sabbath dinner, past crumbling buildings draped in graffiti and dripping air conditioning units.

Despite it all, he is elated to be reunited with his sons, who moved in the past few years. “For me, Israel is hope. Hope that everything for a Jew is possible,” says Hertzberg, eyes gleaming. His parents escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland, and his wife’s parents fled Algeria and Morocco. “Our parents and grandparents had no choice,” he continues. “Today we come by choice, at least at the moment. I hope it will always be like this.”

Yardena Schwartz is an American journalist and producer based in Tel Aviv. Her writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, Time, and other publications.

William Daniels is a French documentary photographer based in Paris. His work revolves around social issues and humanitarian concerns, mostly focusing on isolated or fragile communities.
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