Frightened by Militant Islam and Anti-Semitism, French Jews Flee to Israel

Tel Aviv patisserie
Tel Aviv patisserie

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

In the wake of Friday’s horrific murders in a Paris kosher supermarket on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, The Telegraph dramatically proclaimed: “Anti-Semitism in France: the Exodus has begun.”

It’s an inaccurate headline. The exodus of French citizens who no longer feel safe living openly and freely as Jews in the homes and neighborhoods where they grew up hasn’t simply “begun.” It’s well underway.

Israelis who live in my city know this well – it’s happening on our doorstep. Over the past two decades, I’ve watched a parade of French Jews make the move into my Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana and become my friends and neighbors. What began as a trickle in the 1990s is now a flood. In my daughter’s fifth-grade class this year, three new children arrived – all French. They were among the 7,000 French Jews who uprooted their lives and moved to Israel in 2014 – more than double the number who came the previous year.

After this traumatic Friday – when Jews lost their lives simply because they were in a kosher supermarket, when Jewish life shut down and Jews huddled in their homes in fear, and when Grand Synagogue in Paris closed its doors on Shabbat for the first time since World War II – I can only imagine how many French children will be joining them for sixth grade.

Just as we American immigrants were glued to the television and telephones, horrified after the September 11 attacks in 2001, I watched my French friends and neighbors here follow the unfolding events and speak to their frightened family members in Paris back home after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and then, with more urgency, during the supermarket siege. They were as shocked and saddened over the tragedy as we Americans were back then, with one big difference – we were shocked and stunned, and they weren’t surprised at all.

After all, it was the primary reason they are here in the first place – because openly Jewish life – attending synagogue, buying kosher food, wearing a kippa – have become incompatible with personal security.

My town has long been a magnet for affluent Western immigrants from around the world. Some leave safe and comfortable countries out of Zionist commitment – from the U.S., Canada, or Australia, or because they married Israelis, as I did. There are significant groups, however, that come to get away from difficult political and economic situations: South Africans, Argentineans, Venezuelans.

And now, the French are coming. We joked that it was “the French revolution” when they first began arriving here in noticeable numbers in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, telling stories of feeling intimidated in the streets of Paris or Marseilles and the feeling that the French government was not stepping in to protect them. That sentiment reached a head with the horrific murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006.

And then there was a lull. After 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected, the number of new French neighbors and classmates slowed. When I would chat with visitors to Israel from France, they seemed confident that while they still worried about anti-Semitism, they felt the French government had the situation under better control. During that time a significant number of the early wave of French newcomers returned home after finding integrating into Israel too difficult for their families economically and culturally.

But over the past few years – as the post-Sarkozy era coincided with the rise of militant Islam in France and across Europe, and the increase in anti-Semitic incidents shot up. The faltering economy in Europe didn’t help matters, either.

And so the influx has resumed full force.

Here in Ra’anana – or in Netanya or Tel Aviv – we didn’t need to look at the Jewish Agency statistics to tell us that. The signs are everywhere – literally. Signs on shops that were previously only in Hebrew and English – have added French. Real estate prices are sky-high, both because of French Jews moving here and many more purchasing a home here “just in case.” The park across my street from my house brims with mothers and children chattering in French on any given day.

The good news for us locals is that finding an excellent croissant – or any other form of French pastry – has become as easy as getting a good falafel.

Let’s be clear – though these French Jews loved and felt connected to Israel, these families aren’t necessarily burning with personal Zionist fervor. Most were as professionally and culturally tied to France as American Jews are to the United States. And to be sure – many of the French Jews who can manage financially and logistically have – and will continue to head for destinations other than Israel – New York, Florida, and Canada.

But the fact that so many do come to Israel – even as the rockets were flying in Gaza last summer – that they view it as a place where they are safe, I suppose, only emphasizes how unsafe they are feeling in France. And they’re not the only ones. As the siege was unfolding in Paris, I spoke to Jo, a French friend whose child is one of the kids in my daughter’s class.

Jo immigrated to Israel alone – her mother and stepfather, who isn’t Jewish, still live in France, but her mother recently bought an apartment in Ra’anana, and her visits are growing longer and longer. But after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the whole shocking aftermath, she said, it’s not only the Jews who are feeling unsafe in France.

“My mother told me that her gentile neighbors are saying that the Jews are lucky. At least we have somewhere else to go.”