By Gerard Leval
Over the course of the last year, many of the Jews of France have been confronting a dilemma of Shakespearian dimension: “to leave or not to leave.” Should Jews leave the nation that has been their home, in many cases, for hundreds of years or should they stay and weather the current storm? Within the last few weeks, this dilemma has suddenly become acute.
Not only has the number of anti-Semitic attacks in France been dramatically on the rise, but it has become increasingly apparent that there may simply not be a solution to this very real problem of anti-Semitism in France in the foreseeable future. Jewish institutions are being well protected by the French government with the posting of heavily armed soldiers at every such institution. The French government is providing all of the appropriate assurances. But how long can this situation continue and how can a vibrant Jewish community live in his manner? The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, considered a great friend of the Jewish community, has conceded that a solution to France’s anti-Semitic problem will require the work of a full generation. He may be an optimist.
I have just returned from a trip to Paris. During my stay, I met with many Jews and non-Jews, mostly professionals, with whom the issue of the future of French Jews always seemed to crop up. My Jewish interlocutors were more pessimistic than I would have imagined. Some indicated that, even if they were not actually giving any consideration to leaving France, they knew many Jews who had either already left or were planning to do so in the near future.
Every Jew with whom I spoke indicated that in one way or another they found themselves forced to consider the “leave or not leave” dilemma. Jews of Ashkenazi background and those of Sephardic origin, both seemed equally affected by this dilemma, albeit for very different reasons. Importantly, none of those with whom I spoke believed themselves in imminent danger from the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Rather, their fears were a long-term concern.
The Ashkenazim seemed afflicted by the fear of making the same mistake that many of their parents and grandparents had made, namely of waiting too long to make the decision to leave. For those from families who survived the Nazi occupation of France (virtually the entire Ashkenazi part of the Jewish community), consideration of the dilemma is motivated by a powerful impulse to avoid being caught up in the same kind of maelstrom as the one that overwhelmed France 75 years ago. Despite all of the anti-Semitism that whirled around in the 1930s, the Ashkenazi Jews of France (then the vast majority of French Jews) always believed that the French Republic would protect them. They turned out to be wrong – terribly wrong. Their descendants (at least those who have not totally assimilated) live with the awareness of that error deep within themselves.
The Sephardic Jews, now by far the majority of the French Jewish community, have a different historic experience. They are themselves immigrants from North African Muslim countries or the children or grandchildren of those immigrants. Embedded in their memories is the violence of their last years in those countries and the humiliation they so often suffered at the hands of their Arab neighbors.
As one Sephardic friend said to me, “no Jew who has lived in a nation controlled by Muslims ever wants to be in that situation again.” For those Jews, the dilemma seems to loom even larger than for the Ashkenazim. Their experience is more recent and, with the large Muslim population in France, seems more relevant. Furthermore, the immigration experience is sufficiently recent that the Sephardic Jews have not developed roots within French society that are as deep as those of their Ashkenazi brethren, and they do not seem quite as reluctant to pack their bags yet again.
Thus, for very different reasons, but with a reverberating urgency, many French Jews are feeling the pressure of the question of whether or not to consider leaving. It is not Benjamin Netanyahu’s appeal that resonates with the two French Jewish communities. It is history itself that beckons.
In many ways all of France seems under psychological siege and there is a growing pessimism throughout French society. Jews, however, feel very specifically targeted and have historical experiences, regardless of their specific origins, that force them to give consideration to the notion that exodus may, regrettably, be the best alternative.
So, many Jews in France, even though they do not now face and may never face a truly existential threat, are being forced to give consideration to a dilemma they had thought inconceivable a generation ago and that they dread now: whether or not they should leave France forever. Sadly, the current situation gives them much pause.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Arent Fox LLP. He is active in both the Jewish and French communities of the Washington, DC metropolitan area.