French Jews: To stay or to go?Posted: July 19, 2016
Valley residents Esther and Don Schon just returned from visits to France and Israel as part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. The Schons are the Major Gifts Chairs in the 2016 Campaign Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. This guest blog post was written by the Schons on July 13.
The conundrum “Do we go or do we stay?” may well summarize the agonizing decision that French Jews face.
Jews in France make up the third-largest Jewish population in the West, but represent less than 1 percent of the French population. Contrast this with a Muslim population of an estimated 10 million. Because of anti-Semitism, 12,000 French Jews have made aliyah in the last five years. Many of the immigrants are funded with money raised through JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) facilitated by The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
About 900 anti-Semitic incidents involving individual Jews or families occurred this past year. Jews, 1 percent of the population, experienced 50 percent of hate-related episodes in France last year. Anti-Semitism is not uniformly distributed in France. Professionals we met living in upper-middle-class areas did not fear their environment, and were working with government ministers to make hate speech of all kinds illegal.
However, we met residents of Sarcelles, a lower-middle-class neighborhood outside of Paris. They experience fear every day. They do not wear Jewish jewelry or kippot outside. Expressions of hatred – verbal and sometimes physical – are everyday experiences.
On the other hand, wealthier neighborhoods are free of these problems. We also listened to a panel of young entrepreneurs who feel they are creating a new post-Holocaust reality in France above the level of ignorance-based prejudice. On the other hand, we spoke with a graduate student and a law student, both at the Sorbonne, who felt traumatized on a frequent basis by Islamic students and by professors with views from the far left or far right.
So Jews move from the smaller cities to Paris for safety and comradeship denuding these areas of Jewish culture and tradition. Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, now has 15,000 Jewish residents crowded into one square kilometer. In 2014, 1,700 recent Arab immigrants, incited by radical imams trained in North Africa and the Middle East, marched through the Jewish section burning cars, smashing all in their path, forcing terrified Jewish children to cower in their homes.
About 8,000 Jews made aliyah last year from France. But school funding to Jewish day schools from the government is per child. Thus, classrooms are closing. Jewish culture is in danger of contracting and without a strong diaspora population, it is questionable that the French government will continue to fight anti-Semitism and support Israel in the future.
JAFI sends over 100 Jews making aliyah to Israel every two weeks. Today [July 13], we personally were chosen to hand tickets and passports to 220 individuals. We all experienced tears of happiness for this great honor.
So do they go or do they stay? The beauty of what our federations are doing in France is allowing each individual Jew the gift of choice on a non-need-based basis. We in Phoenix and around North America help them fight anti-Semitism and connect to world Jewry if they elect to stay. We also help them make aliyah if they wish to leave. Each gets to choose. What could be more beautiful?