Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's effort to lure French Jews to Israel is meeting resistance from his co-religionists, who don't appreciate his attempts to erase their community.
- By Gregg CarlstromGregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo.
JERUSALEM — The thousands of mourners gathered under a clear blue sky on Tuesday for the funeral of the four Jews who were gunned down at a kosher supermarket in Paris last week heard a stark and seemingly contradictory message: European Jews shouldn’t have to flee their countries — but they probably should, anyway.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke first at the Har Hamenuchot cemetery, imploring France to do more to protect its Jewish citizens, and spoke about the right of Jews to live in any country, in peace.
“Returning to your ancestral home need not be due to distress, out of desperation, because of destruction, or in the throes of terror and fear,” Rivlin said.
But Israel’s political divisions were laid bare when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed Rivlin at the pulpit and quickly contradicted him.
“Our president was right when he said that Jews have the right to live in many countries,” Netanyahu said. “But I believe that they know deep in their hearts that they have only one country, the state of Israel, the historic homeland that will accept them with open arms.”
The supermarket shooting by Amedy Coulibaly, a homegrown French jihadi and an acquaintance of the Charlie Hebdo killers, shocked France’s Jewish community, the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. It followed a steadily intensifying spate of anti-Semitic acts over the past few years: Synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses have been firebombed, and families in religious garb have been attacked on the streets. The victims of last week’s attack were buried in the same Jerusalem cemetery as the four people killed in a 2012 shooting at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. (It is not unusual for Jews from abroad to request burial in Israel for religious reasons: One of the supermarket victims, Philippe Braham, had already buried his parents and a son here.)
In reaction to the wave of anti-Semitic attacks, a significant portion of this roughly 500,000-person-strong community is clearly looking for the exits. For the first time ever, last year France was the largest source of new Jewish immigrants to Israel: Some 7,000 of them arrived, twice as many as in 2013. The Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental body that oversees immigration, expects another 10,000 this year. Hundreds of people visited a previously planned immigration fair sponsored by the agency in Paris on Sunday, Jan. 11.
These numbers are a sharp increase over those from the previous two decades, when no more than 2,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel annually. One of the supermarket victims, François-Michel Saada, had recently purchased a home in Israel and was planning to move here.
More strikingly, the Jewish Agency said that some 50,000 French Jews inquired about immigration last year. All of those people are not necessarily looking to leave due to the spate in violence: Millions of French people, regardless of their religion, are looking to escape a stagnant economy, where the jobless rate stands at 10 percent and at nearly 25 percent for young people. A French parliamentary commission estimated last year that some 2.5 million citizens live overseas.
“It’s a very complicated scenario. You have to remember, the Jews aren’t the only ones leaving France. There’s a general pattern of emigration,” Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, told me. “And the Jews who leave, not all of them are going to Israel. It’s not their only option.”
Many recent arrivals say they experienced growing anti-Semitism in France and worry about the safety of friends and relatives in the old country. But they also insist that they aren’t here because of what Rivlin called an “immigration of fear.”
“I’m here because I like living in Israel.… My family is still back in France,” said Suzanne Cohen, a student who immigrated here in 2012 and attended the funeral with a group of friends. “It’s a personal choice.… I’m Israeli and I’m French, and I don’t have to choose only one.”
None of this has stopped some Israeli politicians from casting the issue in stark, binary terms. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman echoed Netanyahu’s remarks, calling on French Jews to move to Israel for their own safety. Yair Lapid, a centrist politician who was until recently the finance minister, put it in perhaps the bluntest terms, urging European Jews to “understand that there is only one home for Jews, and that is the state of Israel.”
Comments like these are not new. Israeli politicians, particularly on the right, have long urged the diaspora to “come home.” The issue was a constant source of friction with the Soviet Union, which spent years barring Jews from emigrating. When the restrictions were finally eased in the late 1960s, more than 160,000 Jews flooded to Israel in the space of a few years. More recently, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sparked a diplomatic crisis in 2004 when he told French Jews to flee a country plagued by what he called “the wildest anti-Semitism.” The French president at the time, Jacques Chirac, told Sharon he was not welcome to visit France until he explained his comments.
Jewish immigration to Israel has dropped to about 20,000 people per year, roughly 10 percent of what it was during the peak period of Soviet migration in the early 1990s. The slowdown has contributed to fears that Palestinians will soon have a demographic majority across Israel and the occupied territories, if they do not already.
Fearing the shifting sands of demography, conservatives in Israel have recently pushed for defining Israel as a Jewish state, and they have long sought to portray themselves as the protectors of the Jewish diaspora — a position that fits with their general emphasis on security issues. But the looming Knesset election injected an element of politics into Sunday’s solidarity march in Paris, where the Israeli delegation was led by the three top right-wing politicians: Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Naftali Bennett. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog stayed home and kept quiet.
The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that France initially did not want Netanyahu to attend the march, fearing his presence would be “distracting,” and that he insisted only after learning his political rivals planned to make the trip. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s comments did not prompt a diplomatic incident similar to that which occurred between Chirac and Sharon. President François Hollande did leave an event at the Grande Synagogue in Paris before Netanyahu spoke, but his office chalked it up to a busy schedule.
Still, Netanyahu’s comment urging French Jews to move to Israel elicited a negative response from many Jewish commentators, both in Israel and in the diaspora. Chemi Shalev, a columnist for Haaretz, said the remark “helps terrorists finish the job started by Nazis and Vichy: making France Judenrein,” meaning free of Jews.
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association, the largest federation of Jewish groups in Europe, said the calls for mass emigration were “Pavlovian” responses that did nothing to end “anti-Semitic terror.”
The immigration push also comes at a time of deteriorating relations between Israel and Europe, where some legislatures have unilaterally recognized Palestinian statehood. The French Parliament did exactly that in December, over sharp objections from Israel. France also voted yes at the U.N. Security Council last month on a Palestinian resolution setting a 2017 deadline to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
“There’s a sense here that the whole continent is a band of craven anti-Semites,” said one senior European diplomat in Tel Aviv, describing the Israeli criticism of the European Union.
Patrick Maisonnave, the French ambassador in Tel Aviv, probably felt a bit of whiplash on Friday, when Netanyahu met with him and said their two countries stood united in “a common battle for our values.” Exactly one week earlier, Maisonnave had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an airing of grievances in which a senior official told him of Israel’s “deep disappointment” over France’s U.N. vote.
Netanyahu’s call for mass migration may have resonated with his domestic audience, skeptical of Europe and conservative in its foreign policy. But it won him few plaudits from a French community that, while broadly supportive of Israel, feels close ties to both countries.
“We’re all worried about the situation. It’s scary,” said Yohan Vaknin, a French Jew who flew in from Paris for the funeral. “But I want our community to have a future.”
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