A Delicate Dance Over French Aliyah
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A Delicate Dance Over French Aliyah

Israeli leaders’ comments spark debate.

Tel Aviv — None were Israeli citizens, but they were all laid to rest in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon.

Set against the backdrop of the Israeli flag and the French Tricolore, the joint funeral for the four Jewish victims of the terrorist attack on a Paris kosher supermarket was attended by Israeli dignitaries, a member of the French cabinet, and hundreds who came to pay respects to Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham and Francious-Michel Saada.

Mr. Saada’s son Yonatan said at the ceremony that his father had wanted to live in Israel. “He was in love with Israel,” he said. “He’s here now, and I’m sure that he’s really happy.”

The Jerusalem funeral was the latest memorial event following the spate of terror attacks that started with a massacre at the headquarters of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and ended Friday evening when French police burst into Hyper Cache to rescue hostage shoppers and kill the attacker.

Israeli speakers paid tribute to the ties between Israel and French Jewry, Europe’s largest diaspora community at about 500,000, but the remarks also reflected an ongoing debate here about how to handle the delicate the issue of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the rising numbers of French immigrants who have arrived in Israel in recent years.

After Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, called on European leaders to take “firm measures to restore a sense of security and safety to the Jews of Europe,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he concurred but added, “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, like beloved children.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog seemed to strike a counterpoint. Recalling the synagogue that his great-grandfather presided over as the chief rabbi of Paris a century ago, he paid tribute to a “proud,” and “Zionist” community and predicted it would continue to thrive.

“It has absorbed painful blows through the years, but it will continue to … develop majestic education and impressive cultural life and cultivate leaders in all realms of life in France,” he said.

In the initial hours of trauma after the attacks, news reports cited the rising tide of French immigration in recent years and said that Israeli kibbutzim were girding to absorb a new upsurge. According to the Jewish Agency the number of French immigrants doubled last year to 7,000, and the agency had predicted nearly a 50 percent increase in 2015 even before the attacks.

Netanyahu and other government ministers helped spark the debate with remarks on the eve of the Sunday mass solidarity march in Paris urging French Jewry to make aliyah — the Hebrew word for ascension that also means immigration to Israel.

While Netanyahu said Saturday evening that French Jews should consider Israel as a home, not just an object of religious devotion, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went a step further in his remarks.

“The most important message to French Jewry is: Ascend to Israel,” Lieberman said while in Paris. “If you are looking for security and a safe future for your children, there is no alternative.”

The remarks sparked a firestorm in Israel. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky warned Israeli politicians not to “dance on the blood” of the Paris victims.

An official at the Jewish Agency called the remarks by Lieberman and other Israeli officials “irresponsible,” and said that Israel should not be seen as aiming to exploit the violence.

Writing for the Israeli news site Walla! from Paris, journalist Amir Tibon observed that French Jewish leaders in parliament and the government were not pleased with the Israeli remarks. Even though there was no public backlash against Israel by French Jews this week, Netanyahu’s call was seen as weakening the community rather than strengthening it.

To be sure, encouraging aliyah to Israel has always been in the country’s ideological DNA, ever since the Zionist founders of the country sought to realize the messianic vision from the Bible of a “kibbutz galuyot,” an ingathering of the exiles.

Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said encouraging diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel has always been a national priority. Over the decades Israeli governments have worked to promote aliyah from widespread locations such as the Middle East, Russia, Ethiopia and Argentina. Immigration has helped boost Israel’s Jewish population tenfold since the country was founded.

“Aliyah has always been seen to have strategic importance, and maybe even existential importance,” Liel said. “There was always a focus on distressed communities, because those communities would be more open to aliyah,” he said. “Now the problem is with anti-Semitism in France.”

Liel noted, however, that this goal always risked creating tension in diplomatic relations because may countries — particularly France — did not look kindly on public calls to move or activities encouraging aliyah. Liel noted that when Ariel Sharon made such a public appeal when he was prime minister, “France was furious.”

Roger Cukierman, the leader of French Jewish umbrella group CRIF and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, told Israel Radio that while the community was reeling and insecure after the hostage attack, he expected the vast majority of them to remain in France.

“I am very worried. I remember Toulouse, when they shot at Jews from point-blank range,” he said referring to a 2012 attack on a Jewish school that killed a rabbi and three children. “They said all of the red lines had been crossed, and now they are killing Jews again.”

Since the attacks, members of Israel’s community of French Jewish immigrants have spent much of their time connecting with relatives back at home by phone and through social media. Franck Valensi, who moved his family of six from Paris to Israel three years ago, said most of his relatives are in France and he is worried for their safety.

Valensi, 44, said that when his sister moved to Israel 15 years ago he did not understand the decision. However, the string of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years persuaded him that the best place to raise his kids in safety is Israel.

Valensi said Jews could not walk in public with yarmulkes in France, and that they felt on the defensive whenever there is a flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as last summer’s war in Gaza. Though tightened security around Jewish community institutions is supposed to give a feeling of reassurance, Valensi said it had the opposite effect.

“The problem is not with the government; they are doing everything they can. They can’t protect every Jewish person personally. They are overwhelmed,” he said. “The problem is in the neighborhoods,” a reference to Paris suburbs that are home to large numbers of disenfranchised Muslims, many of them immigrants from North Africa.

Colette Avital, a former deputy director general at the Foreign Ministry for Europe and a former parliament member who headed the committee for immigration absorption, said that threat of anti-Semitism is a relatively recent problem in France.

“From what we know, 80 to 85 percent of anti-Semitic incidents come from the North African community,” said Avital, who also served as Israeli consulate general in New York.

European anti-Semitism, driven by centuries-old [and now disavowed] Catholic Church theology portraying Jews as Christ killers, is on the wane, Avital said. She said European countries are much more proactive about anti-Semitism than in the past, and have passed laws to punish it, as well as those outlawing Holocaust denial. “You can’t term [European] countries as anti-Semitic,” she said.

She added that while Israel should quietly encourage immigration from France, the prime minister’s public appeal was “a faux pas.” Israelis would not have liked it if countries like the U.S. or France encouraged citizens living here to return home during waves of Palestinian bus bombings, she said. “You don’t do that when a country is licking its wounds.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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