PARIS – Some two months after a group of pro-Palestinian protesters reportedly attacked Paris’ Roquette Street synagogue, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett visited the congregation, telling worshippers on Sunday that Israel will always be there for them. The riot, referred to as the “Roquette incidents,” was one of several protests held outside French synagogues on the sidelines of anti-Israeli demonstrations coinciding with last summer’s war with Gaza.
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“Jews were attacked here because they’re Jews. I want you to know that Israel is with you. Israel is a rock. It exists so that no Jew would have to hide and lower his head, even here in France,” Bennett said in Hebrew as the synagogue president translated into French.
Yet while these are times of record aliyah from France, with 5,000 new immigrants expected this year, the minister said he wasn’t trying to persuade more Jews to join them.
“The situation is worrisome here, but we’re not pushing them to move to Israel. They can stay here. It’s okay,” Bennett told Haaretz.
“Times have changed,” he said. “Israeli officials used to come to France and elsewhere asking Jews to donate money and make aliyah, but I’m not doing that. There’s a historic change of approach. Israel doesn’t need your money. Our economy is doing well. French Jews and Israel can be partners, cooperate on various levels like education, business.”
Bennett said the number of French Jewish youths coming to Israel on Birthright programs would multiply by nine this year, to 700.
Although few locals in the synagogue seemed to know much about Bennett, dozens hugged him and took selfies with him.
Community leaders hadn’t publicized the event to keep it low key. Before the Roquette Street synagogue was attacked on July 13, it announced it would hold prayers for peace in Israel. This time, only synagogue members were informed during Rosh Hashanah service that Bennett would come, although community leader Joel Mergui said, “We have no problem inviting the Religious Services minister of the democratic State of Israel,” referring to Bennett’s other portfolio.
One congregant, who gave her name only as Martine, said, “They could have prepared us. He’s charming but we don’t even know what ministry he holds. He gave us so much hope and energy. I was worried for Israel but he reassured us.”
Another synagogue member, Nicole Grinshtein, said, “I thought he was Russian until he spoke of assimilated American Jews. It’s very moving to see an Israeli minister in your synagogue and my daughter, who moved to Israel nine years ago, is a big supporter.”
Bennett told his audience that French Jews are a key to bringing “the Jewish soul” back to world Jewry due to their strong connection with their religion and heritage.
“I began politics because I felt that at the end of the second Lebanon war, the spirit of Israelis wasn’t strong enough. They weren’t determined enough and certain that they had to defeat the enemy. The goal is to bring back the Jewish soul to the State of Israel,” he told the congregation. “That’s something we have to learn from you.”
“Today many Israeli soldiers don’t even know who the patriarchs were. Everything is connected. When you know your heritage, you know what you’re fighting for.”
Community members said French Jews changed their attitude towards immigration to Israel in recent years. “Some still face difficulties when they arrive in Israel, but today Jews in France organize their lives so they can eventually make aliyah. They send their children to Jewish schools and find ways to make the transition as smooth as possible,” said Pinhas Messas, grandson of the late Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shalom Messas, noting that he divides his time between France and Israel. “They buy a summer house in Israel and in time it becomes their home all year round.”
The head of the Consistoire, which runs the country’s synagogues, Jewish services and schools, said one of the French community’s goals is to bring secular Jews back to religion.
“As many have made aliyah, we now have to manage the shrinking of our community. We have to replace those who have left with Jews who have lost touch with their roots,” Mergui said.
“There may be many kippas in synagogues, but half of France’s Jews are absent, he noted. “They don’t feel this involves them. Our project, like in Israel, is to bring them back. Allow every Jew to get his identity back. We need every Jew.”