A Tale of Two Cities
From February 7th - 10th, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) led a solidarity mission to Paris, France with the goal of understanding the issues facing the local Jewish community and finding ways in which we can help. Forty community leaders from 18 different cities across the US joined the trip, including Rabbi Kenneth Brander of Yeshiva University. Amanda Esraelian (President of Stern's Torah Activities Council) and myself (President of Yeshiva Student Union) were fortunate enough to participate in this mission and share our experiences with the student body.
There was something foreshadowing in the duplicity of the weather throughout our stay in Paris. It was both sunny and cold, or at times cloudy but pleasant. It would take until the end of the trip for me to realize that this duality will become the defining characteristic of the state of the French Jewry. As we learned more and more about different aspects of local Jewish life, I increasingly understood that the matters at hand are hardly black and white. Every topic of conversation revealed that even in cases where the situation seems straightforward, there is always some other less-obvious side of the coin too.
The raison d'être for the entire trip was, of course, the recent attack on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket that left four Jews killed during a hostage crisis. The attack hastened the recognition that anti-Semitism is on a new rise throughout Europe. Rising levels of anti-Semitism are increasingly felt on the entire continent. In France specifically, there was 101% rise in hate crime this past year, 50% of which was directed against Jews (while Jews make up about 1% of the country’s population). Tali Ochayon, Chief Executive Deputy of the Protection Service of the Jewish Community (SPCJ) explained that they have started training parents of over 12 000 children on basic security measures and asked them to take turns in patrolling the Jewish neighborhoods. While these are scary facts, I was even more shocked after having learned about the massive size of the French Jewish community.
There are an estimated 550,000 Jews living in France today. 30,000 children attend Jewish day-schools and there are over 600 Jewish institutions (schools, restaurants, cemeteries, shuls, JCC's) in Paris alone. France has the 3rd largest population of Jews, ranking after Israel and the United States only. The Jewish community dates back over a millennium, and was home of rabbinic giants like Rashi.
It appeared to me that our generation doesn’t know the “concept” of living in a large, well established community while at the same time still facing open anti-Semitism. We understand communities like the US and Israel, where Jews live in relative safety and do not have to be worried about being targets of hate. It was surreal to see a Jewish day-school of 1,200 students (one of the 30 different Jewish schools) all of whom are advised to take off their kippas when leaving school. Or a street full of kosher restaurants and judaica stores being guarded by French soldiers (that is, members of the military, not even policemen) because of the very real threat of attacks. Intuition would tell us that with large numbers comes some sort of safety, and yet in France today this does not seem to be the case.
The French government will soon be publishing a “roadmap” of actions it intends to take in order fight racism and anti-Semitism - as it was explained to us by Mr. Gilles Clavreul, a minister of the government. He assured us of the government’s commitment to protecting its Jewish population, as exemplified by the presence of the military in front of synagogues, schools, and JCC’s. He also admitted that eventually the Jewish community will have to rely on its own to protect itself as the soldiers cannot stay forever. Mr. Clavreul said that “..they (the soldiers) will stay as long as their mission is necessary”, but as to what that means and what will happen after that he would not disclose. I personally walked away from the meeting with a sense of disappointment, because between the promises of commitment and dedication, there were very few tangible facts and solutions mentioned.
The second biggest issue we discussed was Aliyah and Israel. Recent years have seen massive increases in the number of Jews leaving France especially to Israel but also to Canada and the US. In 2014, a record breaking 7,000 Jews made aliyah and this number is expected to grow to 10,000 in 2015. University (and high school) students we met with expressed that they don’t see themselves living their lives in France. Their reasons included anti-Semitism, the desire to live in Israel, and family ties. “The terrorist attacks only boosted the trend of Jewish emigration from France and it will have a long lasting impact on the local community” - according to Diego Ornique, JDC’s (Joint Distribution Committee) Regional Director for Europe. He noted that “the 550,000 Jews will never leave the country en masse, it’s mostly the affiliated and active members of the community who leave. This creates a vacuum in leadership, as the ones who are left here (in France) are less able to effectively protect and advocate for themselves.”
Yossi Gal, the Israeli Ambassador to France expressed the same concern. He is worried for the people who will undoubtedly be left in France without leadership. He emphasized that the State of Israel sees itself as the defender of Jews anywhere in the world, and that his government is closely monitoring the recent events. The ambassador lauded the efforts of the French government and considers France a historic ally of Israel. A few years ago there were hopes for the return of the “golden age” of French-Israeli relations but recent events (especially the war in Gaza this summer) distanced the two countries from each other. Ambassador Gal noted, however, that while Israel receives condemnation about matters related to the Palestinian issue, France has been absolutely consistent in opposing Iranian nuclear armament. The French government has been very supportive of Israeli initiatives taken against Iran.
The trip to Paris left me with a lot of different feelings. On the one hand, France is experiencing an economic and a societal crisis. As we’ve seen too many times before, nothing attracts anti-Semitism more than economic issues facing the general population, and in this regard the situation in France is too typical of our 2,000-year-long diaspora. A massive Jewish population is living under fear, something I compared in my mind to the late 1930’s of Europe. I imagine the Jews of Poland felt the same way as attacks on them increased over the years leading up to the darkest years of modern Jewish history. There is this tension in the air that things are not going the right direction and something must be done. The French soldiers who - for now - practically live in Jewish schools and shuls will undoubtedly leave eventually, and then the burden of protecting Jews all over France will have to fall on someone else. Who will make sure that all those who just want to daven with a minyan in Paris can feel safe doing so?
Of course, we have the State of Israel now, a country that welcomes any Jew who wants to return for any reason. The reality is, however, that there will be Jews left in France (and Europe) for many more decades to come and their struggles must not be ignored. History is known to repeat itself, and we must make sure we have learned from the past so that the Jewish people can prevail in the future.
 If some of you are imagining the SPCJ as something along the lines of the 'shomrim' we have in our neighborhoods, allow me to clarify that: the SPCJ deals with real, constant terror attempts against the local community. Just a few days before our arrival, outsiders tried to get into a friday night dinner at the Victorie Synagogue (pretending to be Jewish) in order to scout for a possible future attack.