Israel Must Stop Encouraging French Jews to Emigrate

There's a fine line between offering Israel as a refuge for Jews and insensitive opportunism. Israeli leaders have opted for the latter.

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A man wearing kippa cries near a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, on January 10, 2015.
A man wearing kippa cries near a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, on January 10, 2015.Credit: AFP

It’s a fine line - and we Israelis have been stomping right over it.

It’s the distinction between generously offering Israel as a refuge for traumatized French Jews - and insensitive self-serving opportunism that infantilizes and undermines Diaspora Jewry.

The numbers don’t lie. Thousands of French families have decided that the time has come to leave their country. Some - though not all - have decided to make Israel their destination. But immigration anywhere is a painful and personal decision that takes a tremendous numbers of factors into account - economic, family relationships, cultural self-confidence, career opportunities. It isn’t a sudden and impulsive decision one makes on the basis of an incident, no matter how horrific. And it certainly isn’t something you do because the politicians leading that country instruct you to do it.

That is exactly what Israeli leaders are doing.

Even as the French Jewish community was still reeling from Friday’s horror at the Hyper Cacher supermarket, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time. "I wish to tell to all French and European Jews – Israel is your home," he proclaimed. For good measure, he pointed out to other Diaspora Jews that they had better get out before their kosher supermarkets are targeted. "If the world doesn't come to its senses, terror will strike in other places as well."

It was all part of his announcement that "a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism."

All of this before the victims of the tragedy had even been buried.

Not to put the entire onus solely on Netanyahu - the same drumbeat was sounded by other Israeli politicians - and the Israeli media was no better. Nary has a French Jew been interviewed by the Israeli media without the second or third question being whether or not they were planning immigration as the result of the circumstances, with a strong subtext of “you’re crazy not to be thinking about it.”

To be sure - it is always Israel’s place to remind distressed Jews anywhere in the world that they have a place to go - after all, providing a refuge and a homeland for Jews is the point of the whole Zionist enterprise.

But there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it, and Israel’s unsubtle ham-handedness is clearly the latter. Statements like Netanyahu’s sends a message that Israeli government, in a perverse “I told you so” manner is glad that Jews abroad are threatened because it strengthens their raison d’etre.

The backlash from world Jewry has already begun.

On Sunday, European Jewish Association head Rabbi Menachem Margolin slammed into such statements “The Israeli government has to stop with that Pavlovian declaration every time there is an anti-Semitic incident in Europe.” Aliya (immigration to Israel), he said, “is not a solution for terror.”

“It saddens me,” he told the Israeli website NRG, “that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government comes out with the same declarations about the importance of aliya, instead of rallying all of the diplomatic and intelligence tools at their disposal to increase the security of the Jews living in Europe.”

Just as residents of Gaza communities, he said, aren’t urged to pack up and move to Tel Aviv every time a Hamas rocket hits them - neither should European Jews be pushed to flee at every sign of anti-Semitism. While the cries of “come home” may be politically expedient for Netanyahu and company - they do European Jews no good.

“Reality shows us that the vast majority of European Jews aren’t picking up and moving to Israel. The Israeli government has to recognize this reality and remember the strategic importance of the Jewish communities as supporters of Israel in these countries,” Margolin told NRG.

Israel should also recognize that such statements undermine the Jewish communities’ political leverage in pressuring their governments for better security for Jewish institutions, and offer a message that encourages those anti-Semites who might like nothing better than to see France Jew-free. Miriam Shaviv, a London resident, wrote on Facebook, “It is completely unhelpful to the Jews of France to be vocally proclaiming that they don't really belong there, that they're not really French right now.”

Imagine if the half-million French Jews, with their rich history and contribution to the culture of the country, were gone. If one thinks such a scenario through, it paints a chilling picture, reminiscent of the Eastern European villages where Jewish communities once thrived, now empty of Jewish life, the synagogues that are still standing turned into museums and memorials. Even in the highly unlikely scenario that all of French Jewry headed to the Jewish state, it would be far less a victory for Zionism than a larger and more terrifying defeat - and not only for the Jews.

Even the French themselves understand this. Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed French Prime Minister Manuel Valls this week before the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks.

Valls told him: “The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens. To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - and any other Israel leader - must not be seen as wanting to contribute to this failure - much less cheer it on.

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