French Jews Still In ‘Wait-And-See Mode’
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French Jews Still In ‘Wait-And-See Mode’

Six months after attack on kosher market, ex-pats here say little has changed back home.

Most of the Parisian Jews who had considered making aliyah before a fatal terrorist attack on the city’s Hyper Cacher supermarket six months ago still think about moving to Israel, but few have taken the step, said a Manhattan expatriate who returned earlier this month from a visit to relatives in France.

In Nantes, northwest France, the soldiers guarding the city’s synagogue around the clock are gone, but police stand outside on Shabbat — as before the kosher market attack — according to a native of northwest France who was back there with her family last week.

But on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, home to a growing number of French Jews in recent decades, Rabbi Eitan Bendavid of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue said he notices an increase in the number of young Jews from France, mostly professionals, attending synagogue events since the Jan. 7 attack.

Following the attacks on the kosher supermarket and the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, which took a total of 16 lives, Israel called for wide-scale immigration from France. And many French Jews, wary of further anti-Semitic incidents, said they were ready to leave.

Since then, according to the Jewish Agency and to French Jews here who recently visited their homeland, reality has set in — it’s back to Jewish business, and Jewish life as usual, they say. It’s all talk and little aliyah.

A 2013 European Union study found that nearly half of French Jews said they were considering emigrating.

While the Hyper Cacher attack, the latest in a series of often-fatal attacks on French Jewry in recent decades, still resonates with many Jewish leaders and American politicians, the heightened concern within the French Jewish community seems to have abated; Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that “indifference is the profound challenge” in an address to the American Jewish Committee New York Region last week.

“Nothing has changed” since January, said Ilan Benhamou, a Paris native who moved to the Upper West Side six years ago. His friends discussed aliyah. “Nobody left. They’re in a wait-and-see mode.

“They have a good life in France,” he said. The attacks six months ago, “if anything, strengthened their pride in being French Jews,” he said, adding, “It’s not that easy to make a living in Israel.”

“The shock has passed. The sentiment of danger has somewhat leveled off,” said Stella Amar-Cohen, a native of France who has lived on the Upper West Side for a decade. She returned last week from a family visit.

She said the Jews she met in France are “more cautious, more aware” of personal security and show an interest in moving abroad, particularly to Israel. “But,” she said, “these clearly are not short-term plans. They’re not talking about leaving right away.”

While the number of French Jews who said they would make aliyah in the first months of this year was predicted to be 25 percent higher than last year’s figure, an actual decrease is likely, recent figures show.

Haaretz reported last week that 1,710 French Jews made aliyah in the first five months of this year, a drop of 19 percent compared with 2014.

While “the latest statistics say there has been a decrease of 15 percent of aliyah this year, these statistics are slightly flawed for several reasons,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, American Jewish Committee director in Paris, said in an email interview. The 2014 figure of 7,000 French Jews making aliyah “doesn’t take into account the number of Jews coming back to France and those who live in reality between France and Israel. This also doesn’t take into account those who emigrate elsewhere such as the United States or Canada.”

Rodan-Benzaquen cautioned that a sudden increase in aliyah from France was unlikely, despite the heightened fear in early 2015. She cited as a reason that fact that French Jews view “the January attacks … not isolated incidents” as part of an ongoing series of attacks committed mostly by poor, Arab émigrés whose families come from northern Africa. “French Jews have been worried for the past 15 years,” she said. “Every attack, every anti-Semitic incident renders the Jewish community more anxious and more worried. Smaller incidents have continued to happen since January. They know that it is possible, even probable that further, bigger attacks will happen.

“On the other hand,” Rodan-Benzaquen said, “they are grateful and reassured that the French government is taking the threat so seriously and has made it its priority to combat anti-Semitism.”

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency, which coordinates Israel’s aliyah activities, said interest in aliyah among French Jews and their participation in the Agency’s aliyah information sessions has remained high throughout the year.

“We expect more than 4,500 French Jews to make aliyah by the end of August, a 27.5 percent increase over the first eight months of 2014,” Avi Mayer, the agency’s spokesman told The Jewish Week in an email interview. He added that the “sense of insecurity amongst many French Jews remains potent.

“We are holding significantly more aliyah information sessions than ever before. … a recent [session] in Paris drew more than 6,000 attendees, triple the number of those who attended the same event last year,” he said.

For many French Jews, the United States, with more career opportunities for people with professional training, is a more likely destination than Israel.

Rabbi Bendavid, whose congregation is comprised of at least 60 percent French Jews, said the number of members with roots in France has not gone up significantly in the last six months, but he has noticed more young, single Jews from France; in other words, families and seniors are not coming here from France, but unattached members of the community are looking into possible employment here.

“Everyone who has family in France — there’s a lot of discussion about the future: Are we going to move? Are we going to make aliyah? Are we going to America?”

Their families often encourage them to consider the US instead of Israel, Rabbi Bendavid said.

Benhamou said many of the French Jews he knows are members of families who fled northern Africa 60 years ago after Israel was created and anti-Jewish discrimination increased. In France, they created new lives for themselves. “They don’t want to do this again,” he said.

steve@jewishweek.org

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