Will Paris’ Jewish community finally make Israel its home?
By Cookie Schwaeber-Issan | July 3, 2023
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, among all the cities in Europe, Paris has the largest Jewish population of them all, estimated at 300,000 of the 500,000 who reside in France. Of those numbers, a great many already have Israeli citizenship but don’t, yet, live here full-time. And there is a reason for that. French Jews, throughout the last 25-30 years, have witnessed some worrying trends in their country, one of which has been the emergence of a nationalistic, extreme, right-wing political movement, which has come on the heels of massive Muslim immigration. In many ways, the feeling that these migrants have taken over, changing the character and social sensibilities of what once defined Paris as one of the world’s most exciting and alluring cities, has now turned into a bit of a chaotic nightmare. It happened just last Tuesday, after a 17-year-old Muslim Algerian teenager was shot and killed when refusing to cooperate with an officer who pulled over his rented Mercedes for a routine inspection in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre. Although the officer was detained two days later, for his improper response, it did not stop an outbreak of riots which have spread throughout the entire country. By Saturday, more than 1,300 arrests had been made and firefighters have since worked feverishly to extinguish the 2,500 cases of arson, which damaged cars, buses, schools, police stations, municipalities and other buildings. Lootings also took place in the center of Paris, and more riots quickly spread to Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg. French President Emmanuel Macron wasted little time condemning the act, knowing that, not doing so, would further ignite violent protests among the very large Muslim migrant community that has made France their home. Although official estimates state 5.7 million migrants, there is speculation by many, that the real number is closer to 10 or even 15 million. Although this latest unrest is not connected to the Jewish community in France, there is, nonetheless, a great deal of fear and trepidation that they could somehow be caught in the middle of all of this rage, which is being unleashed in full measure. Many of the neighborhoods, where riots have taken place, also have a significant Jewish presence, and one of those areas is Sarcelles, a venue that has a history of violence perpetrated on the Jews. It is this suburb, north of Paris, which has seen looters and the burning of cars. So, despite there having been no official reports of anti-Semitic incidents there that related to this particular shooting, a monument for Holocaust victims in Nanterre, was vandalized. Similarly, many wonder if the damage inflicted on Sarcelles' Jewish-owned business was an opportunity for rioters to take advantage of wreaking destruction, in the name of injustice, rather than the not-politically-correct attack on Jews. It is a well-known, open secret that many French Jews have dual citizenship (in France and Israel), feeling that it would provide them with a prudent insurance policy in the event that the country, which they actually prefer over Israel, ends up no longer being a safe place for them in which to remain. This action, which has been taken by many in the French Jewish community, was responsible for presidential hopeful Marine LaPen, parliamentary party leader of the National Rally, saying if she were elected, she would only allow one citizenship to be held by France’s citizens. Those with two would have to choose to drop the second or leave the country. Although her 2022 presidential bid was unsuccessful, she still managed to gain 41.5% of votes, a huge jump, from 2012, when she only received 17.9% of the vote. But as migrants continue to flood France, changing its character, charm and sense of safety, the country’s long-time citizens may see LaPen as an appealing choice since her own positions more closely line up with the traditional French “paysan.” (simple, rustic, agricultural class) A LaPen win would, in many ways, be disastrous for members of France’s Jewish community because it would automatically present them with the choice to leave or rescind their Israeli citizenship. While LaPen was quoted as saying she was the only one who could best protect the Jewish community - stating that she wanted the Jews to stay in France - many fear that, in reality, she is closer to the controversial sentiments of her 95-year-old father, Jean-Marie LePen, founder of France’s far-right National Front (FN,) who was accused of having been an antisemite because he is said to have defended Nazi war crimes. All of this has been a worrying concern, but most French Jews, many of whom do the “straddle,” living part-time in France (where they earn their living) and part-time in Israel where they vacation and enjoy the holidays, they’ve been able to buy some time and dismiss those fears since LaPen has not been able to unseat Macron. Yet, with these latest troubling events, French Jews are, once again, beginning to re-evaluate their future in their beloved city of lights, because Paris is burning, and they no longer feel safe to stroll the streets as they once did. While they know that the chaos is not specifically directed at them, they can’t ignore that, among the ransacked businesses was also a kosher supermarket, an Orthodox wig shop and a couple of other Jewish-owned stores. They were, unfortunately, businesses that were ripe for targeting, just because of their location, however, chaos can be just as chilling as anti-Jewish sentiment, because each involves one’s very real perceptions of impending danger. So much depends upon whether or not this growing anger will subside, how the government will handle law-breaking migrants and if, as a response to these events, French citizens will look for a stronger political hand to control a situation that has continued to spiral out of control. French Jews are at a crossroads, and, despite Israel’s own political unrest, the Jewish homeland may soon begin to look like a safer option to them. True, Jerusalem is not called the city of lights, but it is, coincidentally, the place from where the light (the Law shall come forth from Zion) shall go forth to all nations!
Cookie Schwaeber-Issan | A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.