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The Uncivil Servant: Fleeing France

Mitchell Abidor
July 22, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor france_physiqueTWO PLANES CARRYING 430 French Jews landed in Israel on Wednesday, July 16th. All of them were new immigrants about to settle in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya, Ashdod, or Ashkelon. Former Soviet refusenik and current head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, said that "More and more people are asking whether Jews have a future in France. But no one doubts that French Jews have a future in Israel." The increase is striking: in the first two months of 2014, the number of French Jews moving to Israeli increased from 274 to 854 over the same period last year. In 2013, 3,263 French Jews came to Israel (second only to Russia), and the Jewish Agency's expectation is that 5,000 of France's 500,000 Jews will leave l'Hexagone for Israel this year — which, according to Sharansky, constitutes the first time that "within a single year... a Jewish community in the West is sending a full percent of its Jews to build their lives in the States of Israel." By way of contrast, JTA reports that Jewish emigration to Israel from North America was 3,389 in 2013 — about one of every 2,000 Jews on the continent. The rate from France is two hundred times higher. Almost all of the French émigrés are from Paris, and the 430 includes some two hundred children, who probably didn’t have much say in the matter. The fact is that even if Sharansky’s projected number is reached, a 1 percent emigration hardly constitutes a mass. How many will stay and why are they going are questions the conservative daily Le Figaro asked in its report on the story. How many are motivated by Zionism, and how many are victims of the economic crisis? ShowImageThere is no question that there are anti-Semites in France, but Sharansky’s notion that Jews have no future in the country is an absurdity. Perhaps it happened while I was distracted by the World Cup, but I don’t seem to remember reading that French Jews were banned from schools, could no longer work in the liberal professions, are not allowed to appear on television, can’t sit in public parks, or are restricted to certain neighborhoods. That would mean they have no future. The situation in France is certainly ugly, but catastrophism has long been critical to Israel's efforts to attract Western Jews, so it can easily be discounted. Tears happyNEVERTHELESS, ANDREW HUSSEY, in his fascinating and disturbing book The French Intifada, stresses the centrality of anti-Semitism to the worldview of many young blacks and Arabs of France’s cités. The more radical the expressed hatred of the Jew, he observes, the more influential the hater, which means that Mohammad Merah, who killed four Jews in Toulouse and three soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, is all but a god; that the killers of Ilan Halimi are admired and unrepentant; and that the vile “comedian” Dieudonné remains immensely popular. Relations between France’s Jews and the mostly Muslim immigrant population has become absolutely poisonous, with demonstrations against Israel’s actions in Gaza degenerating into street brawls. Thuggery by the mob, however, can only lead to a dire future for Jews (or any community) if it has popular and, more importantly, governmental support and legal sanction. The contrary is the case in France. How far we are from the truly threatening situation of the 1930s can be seen by the fact that President François Hollande, at a ceremony at which the Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld were decorated, expressed his determination that “no act, no word will be tolerated that causes a resurgence of anti-Semitism.” Indeed, the French government has regularly trampled on democratic rights in defending Jews against any possible threats. After a riot outside a synagogue in eastern Paris by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, for example, the government put into effect a ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations under conditions that might lead to violence. When a demonstration occurred anyway in the immigrant neighborhood of Barbès in Paris on July 19th, the police intervened. The following day, a banned demonstration degenerated into a riot in suburban Sarcelles. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the riots “all the more justify the choice taken” to ban the demonstrations. The opposition, on the other hand, saw the bans as “a form of provocation,” and Le Monde editorialized that it was “a confession of the government’s powerlessness.” Most tellingly, the riots in Paris and Sarcelles, where demonstrations were banned, were not matched elsewhere in France, where the marches weren’t banned. ANTI-SEMITISM IS REAL, and all of Hollande’s kind words and harsh measures can do nothing to stop it. And let us make no mistake, the French case is the rare one in which the lament that “anti-Zionism is just another word for anti-Semitism” actually does apply. If the pro-Palestinian demonstrators attacked and trashed the Israeli Embassy, they could be called anti-Zionists. Attacking synagogues, trying to break into them during services, is clearly and unequivocally anti-Semitic. It is an encouraging sign that progressive groups in France, like Montpellier’s Ensemble et Citoyens Pour Montpellier 2020, have called these attacks precisely that. But does banning demonstrations do anything to diminish that reality? In fact, banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations is a failure in all regards, and in a way makes the situation for France’s Jews even worse. As Andrew Hussey also makes clear in The French Intifada, the immigrant youth who represent the dominant force in French anti-Semitism also hate France, a hatred, he makes clear, that has ample historical motivation. These young people can be led to several conclusions by these government bans: the first is that the government, by banning protests against Israel’s acts, tacitly supports them; the second is that the government can fairly be seen as curtailing democracy for the benefit of the Jews. The rights of all Frenchmen are infringed in order to forestall a potential threat to a portion of them, and something like this cannot be countenanced. Hard on the heels of the banning of Dieudonné’s shows, it serves to confirm the anti-Semites’ belief that Hollande’s is a government in the pay of the Jews. Hating Jews and France, this merging of the two cannot but lead to conflagration. The French Jewish community as a community faces no existential risk. Those who leave for Israel for fear of the young of the cités will be living under infinitely more physical risk than they had in France, where under normal circumstances the greatest danger is that claimed by some Jews that they are mocked for wearing yarmulkes. And just as the number of Jews immigrating to Israel constitutes an insignificant fraction of the community as a whole (and even more, of the French population) those who engage in anti-Semitic attacks are an insignificant proportion of the Muslim community (what the majority of them feel is another matter, but no government can change that). The government has made itself the primary defender of the Jews of France, and that ensures them against disaster. But it has shown itself incapable of finding a way to combat anti-Semitism while protecting democracy. It is in the gap between the two that violence occurs. Prior to the departure of the planeloads of Jews to Israel, Le Monde published an argument against aliyah by the writer and activist Marek Halter. “Will you cede to those seeking our disappearance?" Halter asked. "Will you leave this home of ours to jihadists and the National Front?” It was a rare and welcome call to a Jewish community whose leaders are looking towards Israel for salvation to stay in France and defend themselves and their democracy. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.