Don’t Tell French Jews What to Do

A response to Rogel Alpher’s call on French Jews not to immigrate to Israel.

Gabriel Abensour
Gabriel Abensour
A woman holds up a sign proclaiming "I am a French Jew' at a support rally in Jerusalem following the murders in Paris last January.
A woman holds up a sign proclaiming "I am a French Jew' at a support rally following two terror attacks in Paris last January.Credit: Reuters
Gabriel Abensour
Gabriel Abensour

Rogel Alpher has urged me and my relatives not to immigrate to Israel (“Jews of France, there is nothing for you in Israel”). I understand his concern. But I don’t think it’s a concern for the thousands of French people who would suddenly have to make the switch from the best of Western culture to the Israeli jungle, as he claims. Rather, Alpher is worried about something else: the arrival of thousands of Jews whose views are radically different from his own.

My own message to Alpher is this: “Don’t tell us what to do.” Like you, I also think it’s time to end the occupation – the hegemonic occupation by you and your ilk. Israel has ceased to be a country of enlightened, secular Ashkenazi Jews, and perhaps it will yet become a Jewish state in all its variety. You, of course, have rights here, but you aren’t the ruler.

There’s no doubt the immigration of French Jews wouldn’t suit you. What can you do? Your narrow horizons can’t cope with rightist intellectuals or religious leftists. You can’t understand that in France there are Jews who are connected to their Jewish roots, but at the same time enjoy reading Victor Hugo and proudly quote from Jean-François Lyotard. Complexity is an issue beyond your enlightened and one-dimensional understanding. Jews who live in the heart of enlightened Europe and who consciously choose to emigrate to the Wild East simply don’t make sense to you.

I understand your fears. Mizrahim (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin), Ethiopians and Russians have already come along to threaten your “enlightened” Israel – a hegemonic Israel you thought was your birthright, an inheritance from your forefathers. How will you cope with the mass aliyah of Jews, most of them traditional and Mizrahi, and including doctors, lawyers and first-class intellectuals? The kind of people who succeeded where you and your ilk failed: in building a complex, positive identity that includes Western philosophy combined with the beauty of Jewish tradition.

Your anti-Zionism is just an excuse. If we’re talking about the French, let’s quote Lyotard, the greatest philosopher of the modern age. In his article “On Universal History,” he identifies claims like the ones you make about the failures of modern secularism – the same hegemonic narrative that purports to be “universal.”

The people you identify with assumed that the “others” within Israeli society would very quickly melt into your enlightened group. But now you see the years have passed and those “others” have turned you into the “other” instead.

While you’re still part of the cultural hegemony, you know that its strength is waning. Soon, we’ll tell our children how a small minority tried to force its views on the majority in the name of enlightenment; to forcibly secularize Yemenite children in the name of progress; to silence right-wingers in the name of democracy; and even rule over another people in the name of freedom and brotherhood. We will tell our children how that same group, in its sabra-like chutzpah, dared claim that it represented the liberal, pluralistic and democratic world.

You’re accustomed to telling others what to do. Rule, occupation and silencing others is your modus operandi. Don’t tell French Jews to immigrate or not, and don’t try to lecture us on France and its enlightened views.

Despite your attempts to categorize me, I really have no interest in living in a religious or apartheid state. I will not fulfill your heart’s desire to group me with the evil, ignorant fascists. Like the great majority of French Jews, I grew up in the lap of Western democracy and I’m well acquainted with its myriad benefits.

Perhaps you’ll be surprised to hear that in the land of human rights, I developed left-wing views that most Israelis wouldn’t recognize: a left that isn’t paternalistic, oppressive and hegemonic. A left that advances itself within different groups, among diverse people, and knows how to respect a number of identities. I’m concerned for Israel’s future, but no less concerned than for Europe’s future or that of the entire Middle East.

I’m among those who moved to Israel before the terror attacks and the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. I came here because I feel that I belong to this space, and only here can I play my part in building a just society, a society that is seeking peace and brotherhood.

Believe it or not, I’m sure that my complex identity – French and Israeli, religious and secular – will allow me to hold a genuine, honest dialogue with the Palestinians. You, apparently, are the one who is too “Western.”

By the way, we do agree on one thing: Israel isn’t Europe. And that’s a good thing.

The writer is a French immigrant studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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