Over the past decade the status of the 500,000-600,000 French Jews, who constitute the third largest Diaspora community, has continued to deteriorate.
This can be attributed to a combination of the dramatic increase in the numbers and power of Islamic extremists, the revival of indigenous anti-Semitism and consistent French support of the Arabs in the Middle East conflict since the Charles de Gaulle era.
In recent years, burgeoning hostility emanating primarily from radical Muslims has led to increasing desecration and bombing of Jewish sites and synagogues, as well as violent altercations on the streets climaxing with the 2006 kidnapping, brutal torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, a young Parisian Jew. Hostility has become so pronounced that Jews are now warned not to wear kippot in public even in central thoroughfares such as the Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris.
The media is obscenely hostile to Israel. It was French TV in 2000 which initially launched the Muhammad al-Dura blood libel, a fake video manufactured to portray IDF soldiers deliberately killing a young Palestinian boy. It generated enormous waves of global revulsion against the Jewish state and paved the way for the Goldstone Report.
Although traditionally inclined to vote for left-wing parties, Jews overwhelmingly supported the presidential candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy who they regarded as a friend.
Sarkozy, who was baptized to Roman Catholicism as a young child, has Jewish roots. His mother was of Salonikan Sephardi Jewish descent and only last month one of his grandsons, whose mother is Jewish, underwent a traditional circumcision. As minister of the interior, Sarkozy ruthlessly suppressed Muslim violence and introduced a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitic crimes.
The vast majority of Jews were therefore delighted when he was elected president, anticipating that he would usher in a new era for Jews.
Their expectations were further raised shortly after the election when Sarkozy accepted an invitation to be guest of honor at the annual banquet of the Jewish representative body, CRIF, where he reiterated his warmth toward Israel, pledging never to shake hands with any leader who refused to recognize the Jewish state and called for the introduction of compulsory Holocaust courses in the curriculum of the French educational system.
THE EUPHORIA soon subsided. Although unquestionably a marked improvement from the open hostility toward Israel of the Chirac regime, French foreign policy soon drifted back to its traditional pro-Arab stance. The new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who like his British counterpart is of Jewish origin, is clearly no friend of Israel. At the last UN General Assembly, France joined those European states which endorsed the resolution in favor of the Goldstone Report. More recently, Sarkozy proclaimed “I will rein in Israel” and described the assassination of the Hamas terrorist in Dubai as “murder.”
Yet, some Jewish leaders are hesitant to write off Sarkozy, noting that he has a close personal relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and has displayed an excellent track record on Iran. In what may prove to be wishful thinking, they predict that when the chips are down, Sarkozy would never betray Israel.
However, in stark contrast to their British counterparts, French Jewish leaders in recent years have never hesitated in protesting and mounting effective pro-Israel demonstrations whenever they considered that their government was applying double standards or behaving unjustly toward Israel.
Former CRIF president Roger Cukierman set the tone when he organized an impressive march by tens of thousands of Jews and supporters of Israel through the streets of Paris in protest of the anti-Israeli policy of the Chirac government during the last intifada.
Although some attribute the courageous approach of French Jewish leaders to the ongoing memory of the Holocaust, the ethnic composition of the community is the more likely contributing factor.
Many of the older Ashkenazi Jews have become acculturated and drifted away from Jewish life. Jews originating from North Africa now comprise approximately 70 percent of the Jewish community. They take pride in their ethnic origin and even many of the nonobservant retain some of the Jewish customs of their parents. Their attachment to tradition is exemplified by the presence of more than 100 Parisian kosher restaurants in which the majority of clients do not wear kippot. Thirty years ago it was difficult to find a kosher restaurant in the city.
THEIR COMMITMENT to Israel is even more impressive. Astonishingly, approximately 300,000 French Jews, half of the entire community, visit Israel annually either on vacation or to visit friends and families. That says it all. As insurance or for psychological reasons, many also purchase properties here, many of which regrettably remain empty for much of the year.
In the course of a recent visit to Paris, I met a cross section of French Jews, including Richard Prasquier, the current president of CRIF, who like his predecessor Cukierman is an Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor. Both have children residing in Israel and represent a breed of dedicated Jewish Diaspora lay leaders who, alas, are becoming an endangered species.
Prasquier waxed lyrical about the impressive 25th annual CRIF dinner over which he presided with the participation of more than 800 guests, including President Sarkozy and 23 ministers as well as political leaders, ambassadors and representatives from the Catholic Church and Islam. Prime Minister Francois Fillon was the principal speaker and the event was broadcast live on French TV, generating discussion concerning anti-Semitism, Islamic extremism, relations with Israel and the Iranian threat.
Prasquier takes particular pride in the dialogue between Jews and French Muslims which, unlike American interfaith extravaganzas, are never conditional on prior “compromises” over Israel or involve the participation of Muslims whose moderation is questionable.
Prasquier expressed great concern about the burgeoning hatred and violence against Jews which had steeply increased since Operation Cast Lead. However, he insisted that it was incorrect to describe France as an anti-Semitic country, noting that most French leaders are genuinely trying to curtail traditional anti-Semitism.
Recognizing that most French Jews would not be making aliya in the immediate future, he believes that CRIF’s primary obligations must be to strengthen the French Jewish community.
Although French Jews are the most committed Zionist Diaspora community, there are nevertheless numerous extremist anti-Zionist Jews making their presence felt. They are lauded by the general media, but shunned by mainstream Jews, the vast majority of whom proudly associate themselves with the Jewish state.
Most Jews are extremely depressed and foresee a bleak future for their children in France. They recognize that anti-Semitic forces are gaining strength and greater political influence. Despite the banning of the Islamic veil and intensified efforts to crush Islamic extremism, integration of Muslims into French society has until now been a failure. Besides, if the low birth rate of indigenous French citizens and the prolific demographic expansion of the existing 6 million Muslims continue, there is every likelihood that in 50 years France would become a predominantly Muslim nation.
In this environment, while some Jews will be immigrating to Canada, in the long-term French Jews represent the main source for future aliya and Israeli society will certainly benefit from the input of such high-caliber immigrants.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post