“The situation is not bad, but neither is it good.” This is the succinct assessment of Maurice Lévy, the influential CEO of the French company, Publicis, one of the largest communications firms in the world, on the current state of affairs for French Jews.
I was in Paris earlier this week with our president, Alisa Doctoroff, as part of a 30-person mission of UJA-Federation of New York lay leaders. We had come to express our solidarity and learn more about the distressing increase in anti-Semitism in France, home to 600,000 Jews, the third largest population of Jews in the world behind Israel and the United States. With access to a broad range of political, business, rabbinic, and communal leaders, a picture of the unique challenges facing French Jewry began to emerge.
While there has long been anti-Semitism in France, as in other parts of the world, today’s challenge is exacerbated by violent expressions of anti-Zionism. The growth of the Muslim population — particularly new immigrants under 30, uneducated, and vastly unemployed — provides a receptive audience, easily ignited. And when Israel is in conflict, as it was this summer, things do ignite.
Many people point to the events of July 20th as a pivotal moment. An anti-Semitic riot erupted in Sarcelles, a French suburb known as “Little Jerusalem,” home to large Jewish and Muslim communities. Several hundred rioters attacked the local synagogue, shouting “Death to the Jews,” and looted a number of Jewish shops. Gripped by anxiety and concern about the future, some in Sarcelles and beyond are beginning to examine the long-term challenges facing the Jewish community in France.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, one of our largest overseas beneficiary agencies, briefed our group. He reports that the Jewish Agency is holding an increasing number of informational sessions about aliyah at the local Jewish day school. They expect 7,500 French Jews will make aliyah this year, up from the 2,000 who did so last year. And it is our support that is making this possible.
We asked the Jews of Sarcelles what more we could do to help. They asked us to walk with them as a proud Jewish group through the streets of their town. And so we did, taking the route from the synagogue to the civic center, which is the site of dialogues between Muslim and Jewish groups, seeking to heal the rifts. I am happy to report we were seen and heard. Our presence provided reassurance that French Jews are not alone.
We met with top French officials who assured us of their strong support for the Jewish community, and called the riots in Sarcelles an attack not just on a community but on the republic itself. Broadly speaking, they are correct that these riots highlight a larger problem, not just for Jews but also for France. More narrowly, their words give us reason to hope that France will not allow its Jewish citizens to once more be the victims of hate. On one hand, this is a thriving community with proud traditions, day schools, and community infrastructure that mirror our own. On the other, there is genuine fear of Jews being killed simply for being Jews. Uncertainty prevails, and yet, in keeping with our commitment to klal Yisrael, we are proud to show our support, proud to make aliyah possible, and proud to walk together with the Jews of Sarcelles.