A year ago, on January 11, 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu entered the Grand Synagogue in Paris for a memorial service for the four Jews who had been murdered two days earlier in the Hyper Cacher grocery store. He was received with rapturous cheering – a sharp contrast to the much more restrained reception given French President Francois Hollande, who had arrived a few moments earlier.
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Perhaps it was a response to the rumors that Hollande had tried to dissuade Netanyahu from coming to the gathering of world leaders at the mass march in memory of the Hyper Cacher victims and the 11 people murdered on January 7 at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Maybe it was just a more fundamental demonstration of their solidarity with the Jewish state. Hollande had kept his distance, making do with a few perfunctory words of greeting and leaving before Netanyahu spoke.
It was a 27-minute speech that, aside from a few sentences in French at the start, was made in Hebrew, translated by Netanyahu’s ally, French National Assembly member Meir Habib, and punctuated throughout by rounds of applause. It was vintage Netanyahu, on Israel and France’s shared Western values and shared threat of radical Islam and how “those who butchered Jews in a synagogue in Jerusalem and those who butchered Jews and journalists in Paris are members of the same murderous terror movement,” and that the only worse thing could be those terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, which is why Iran must be stopped.
He ended his speech with a message “to my French Jewish brothers”: “You have the right to live in peace and quiet as equal citizens wherever you choose, including here in France,” but there is “an additional privilege” and that is “to join your Jewish brothers in our historical homeland in the land of Israel, the privilege to live in the free state, the only one of the Jewish people, the State of Israel.” He promised they would be welcomed there “with open arms and a warm willing heart,” and “God willing they will come and many of you will arrive in the home which belongs to us all. Am Yisrael Chai.”
This section of the speech was cheered the loudest and longest. But as Netanyahu was about to step off the bimah, shaking hands with the various dignitaries, they didn’t sing “Hatikva” or “Am Yisrael Chai.” Instead someone in the audience struck up the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” and the entire congregation joined in, forcing Netanyahu back up to stand stiffly for another minute. There was something defiantly French and also poignantly Jewish about the moment.
French rabbi: 'Not just Jews are leaving'
Ten months later, outside the same Grand Synagogue and after another memorial service, this time for the 130 victims killed in the November 13 attacks in Paris, I asked one of the local rabbis what he thought about that moment, when they sang “La Marseillaise” and whether French Jews were heeding Netanyahu’s call. “Three hundred thousand French citizens are leaving this year,” he answered, barely concealing his impatience with a question too many foreigners had asked him recently. “There are other reasons why people are leaving rather than terror, and it’s not just Jews. Besides, most of us are staying.”
I heard similar answers over the last year from dozens of French Jews, and from Jews in other European countries. For all the talk of a rising threat of terror and despite the exhortations of Netanyahu and other members of his government to European Jews to “come home,” most of them are staying put. And those who are considering emigration are doing so for a wide range of reasons, with the threats of Islamist terrorism and anti-Semitism far from being the main ones.
Jews in Hungary told me they were much more worried by the illiberal policies of Prime Minister Victor Orban, as are other members of their country’s educated middle class, than by the anti-Semitic Jobbik Party. French Jews cited the stagnating economy and the tax policy of the Hollande government as a prime motivator for emigration. A communal leader in Britain told me that the greatest threat to the viability of Jewish life there is low birthrates, largely related to social policies making it difficult for women to at once be mothers and pursue careers. 2015 may have been marked by the fear of terror in Europe, but that isn’t pushing away the Jews.
The huge majority of Western European Jews, despite all the hype and the talk of an exodus, are saying “no” to Netanyahu’s invitation. Aliyah from France was up in 2015, but only by 10 percent. Some 7,900 Jews emigrated from France to Israel last year, a far cry from the 15,000 that was being mentioned as a minimum last January, A total of 774 Jews emigrated from Britain; the largest number of British olim in over a decade and still just a paltry quarter of a percent of Britain’s 300,000 Jews.
Still no mass Western aliyah
Emigration trends from Western countries rarely change overnight, and the stark fact remains that in the 67 years of Israel’s existence, there has not been mass immigration to Israel from any Western country. No matter the level of terror in the West or the invitations from Netanyahu and his government, last year’s aliyah statistics bear that fact out once again.
Over 30,000 Jews immigrated to Israel in 2015, 15,000 more than in 2014 and the highest number in a dozen years. Some 7,000 Jews emigrated from Ukraine, which in the second year of political turmoil and near-war with Russia, was once again the second-largest source of aliyah. In a close third was Russia, with 6,000 new immigrants, up a whopping 40 percent from 2014. The correlation between political instability in that part of the world – caused by the Ukrainian conflict and the bleak financial outlook due to the plummeting price of oil, on which Russia’s economy depends – and the number of Jews emigrating is inescapable. The number of olim from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was up by nearly 25 percent in 2015, but grew only by 6 percent from Western Europe. (The numbers from the United States and Canada actually decreased.) Vladimir Putin’s policies and the price of oil have brought more Jews to Israel than the threat of terror and Netanyahu’s appeals.
It wasn’t a happy year for Jews in Europe, with murders in Paris and Copenhagen and attacks in other places foiled by security services, but it was still safer there than in Israel, where statistically Jews were twice as likely as those in Europe to be killed last year in terror attacks. And while Israel’s economy has done relatively well in a decade during which Europe has suffered, and even though favorable tax regulations are offered to new immigrants, the fleshpots in most of the European Union are still more comfortable.
By all accounts, including the few surveys available, the Jews of Western Europe are as Zionist as ever and will continue to come for their holidays to Israel, but barring a massive campaign of terror, the surprise electoral victory of Marine Le Pen and complete financial meltdown in the Eurozone, they will continue to say “no, thank you” to Netanyahu and sing “La Marseillaise” and “God Save the Queen.”