French Jews Find Out Zionism and Family Won’t Win Them Refuge in Israel During Coronavirus

COVID-19 deaths are particularly high in the French Jewish community, but if you want to come to Israel, you better have a passport: 'My wife and children live in Tel Aviv, but I'm forbidden from visiting'

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A man wearing a face mask walks near the Eiffel tower in Paris on the 22nd day of a lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by )
A man wearing a face mask walks near the Eiffel tower in Paris on the 22nd day of a lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus. Credit: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP
shachar peled
Shachar Peled

PARIS – In the Jewish world, perhaps one of the most controversial outcomes of these unprecedented times is the new restriction on the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. For the first time since its establishment, the country has shut its doors to non-Israeli Jews living abroad.

And some of them are outraged. In France, for example, coronavirus-related deaths in the Jewish community are reportedly four times the proportion for the overall population.

“People are shocked in France,” says Bernard Abouaf, president of the radio station Radio Shalom. “This is an existential issue. It never happened before that Jews who have the power on the land tell to Jews who don’t have this power ‘you can’t come because we have to protect ourselves.’”

Abouaf, a prominent on-air personality in the Jewish community, has relatives in Israel but isn’t a citizen. He is especially upset because, despite the Foreign Ministry’s efforts to bring back stranded Israelis from abroad, Israel is “leaving behind” its most dedicated advocates, he says.

“The French community is a very Zionist community. You won’t find one unit in the IDF without the French, you won’t have one district in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv without the French,” Abouaf says. “But then we saw all these planes of El Al going to search for Israeli people and bring them home, without us.”

The concern for Israel is so great, according to Abouaf, that people are more interested in what’s happening there than in France. “When I present the news to our audiences every night at 6 P.M., I begin with an update on the corona situation in Israel, not in France,” he says.

To him, barring non-Israeli Jews from entry shows that there’s a difference between a citizen and a Jew, and this alarms him. “I don’t only disagree, I am shocked,” he says about the policy. “Suddenly if you’re French, nobody cares, because you’re not Israeli.”

The new restriction poses a problem for people like Lionel Brami, 47, a restaurateur from Paris’ 17th Arrondissement who hoped he would be able to join his wife Emily and two children, ages 11 and 17, in Israel.

Lionel Brami, 47, a restaurateur in Paris who hoped to join his wife, Emily, and two children in Israel during the coronavirus crisis. Credit: Courtesy Lionel Brami

“My wife and children hold Israeli IDs and have been living in Tel Aviv for the past couple of years,” he says, though Brami divides his life between the two countries.

“I visit Israel for 10 days every month, but when I called the consulate I was told it’s forbidden to go to Israel because I don’t have an Israeli passport, even though I told them I’m married to someone who lives there.”

Brami says he has since contracted the coronavirus, most likely from a colleague at the restaurant; he tested positive on April 2.

“I stay at home, I have a fever, can’t taste food anymore. Now that I have the COVID-19 I don’t want to come [to Israel] any longer,” he says, adding that despite the painful situation, he agrees with the restrictions. “We know that Israel is always open for the Jewish people but now it’s closed because it doesn’t want to be responsible for the danger.”

As he puts it, “If I didn’t have the COVID I would have been very angry. I think they should have given me the pass to go because I have my family there – it’s not normal to be like this on Pesach, alone in my house.”

Some understand

Gilles Guthman, 64, and his wife, Ruth, 65, are in a similar situation. Four of their six children live abroad, two of them in Israel.

“Our daughter Fanny is 26 years old, a student at Bar-Ilan University in Israel,” Gilles says. “She is single and alone in this situation. She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to come and when we’ll be able to visit her.”

While both his children are Israeli citizens, Guthman and his wife are not. “We know we cannot visit Israel but we cannot blame anybody. This is unprecedented all over the world; it’s a problem for everyone with family abroad,” he says.

Gilles Guthman on the phone with his daughter during the coronavirus crisis, April 2020.Credit: Gilles Guthman

The Guthmans usually visit Israel at least three to four times a year, so staying away is difficult. “I guess what the Israeli government decided to do is hard but it’s the right thing to do in order to manage the crisis,” Gilles says.

No place to go

Talya Lador-Fresher could not have imagined such an assignment. Dropped in as Israel’s temporary ambassador to France in January, Lador-Fresher, previously the ambassador to Austria, was quickly forced to navigate extremely volatile waters.

“In March, the Israeli government decided not to accept nonnationals into the country,” she says, adding that, despite this, the flood of entry requests from French Jews only heightened. “We have since been constantly working with the Jewish community here.”

The local consul, Michel Harel, who is responsible for handling these requests, says every appeal is addressed but some cases are complicated.

“The main problem is when one spouse is an Israeli citizen and the other is not, or when the center of life of the appellant is not in Israel,” he says. The request is then transferred to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which considers each case individually.

According to Shimon Mercer-Wood, the embassy spokesman, much of the support that the consulate provides is simply emotional.

“Relatively early on in the crisis I received a phone call from a member of the [Jewish] community who told me he was scared that if tomorrow morning a Holocaust takes place in France, he has no place to go,” Mercer-Wood recalls. “And while this is an extreme example, it shows the range of emotional reactions we’ve been facing, and simply answering their calls and talking to them I believe helps.”

Israeli Embassy spokesman Shimon Mercer-Wood, left, and the temporary ambassador to France, Talya Lador-Fresher, Paris, 2020.Credit: Embassy of Israel in France

According to Lador-Fresher, while the embassy officials sympathize with the Jewish community’s particular suffering during the crisis, they say there is little they can do for nonnationals.

“I think that the Jewish community here was upset when it was only Israel taking this step,” she says. “But once most countries, including France, had shut their doors, then these emotions and criticism decreased and what was left was sadness, which we can all relate to.”

But Abouaf of Radio Shalom remains unsettled. “For us, Israel is all our lives; I think it’s a scandal,” he says, noting the many events in the past when the French Jewish community’s solidarity with Israel was unquestionable.

“During the second intifada the only Jewish community in the world that came to Israel to spend the holidays and vacations there was the French,” he says. “Every single Jewish institution organized a trip to Israel to help boost its economy; we felt we had to do it. And now you tell us ‘you don’t have a passport? You stay in France.’”

This policy runs contrary to Israel’s Law of Return, which gives Jews the right to live in Israel, and to Israel’s efforts over the decades to bring in Jewish people from places like the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Iran.

“This is the first time that we see the plane passing in front of us and not only are we not part of the story, but they tell us ‘please don’t bother us.’ So for us it’s very shocking,” Abouaf says.

He adds that he has encountered dozens of painful stories, ranging from people who have elderly parents in Israel to those who have children serving in the Israeli military but are barred from seeing them.

“Someone showed me a picture of his son, who was in the terror attack in Toulouse and is now serving in the Golani,” Abouaf says, referring to the 2012 shooting attack, “and of his daughter, who is a doctor fighting against corona in Israel.

“He told me that [for Israel] ‘to take my children is okay, but if I want to see them now, then no. I explained this in the embassy, and was refused.’”

But despite this recent aggravation, Abouaf believes that the Jews of France will not turn their backs on Israel. “We’re not at the point that we will distance ourselves from Israel,” he says. “These things shock me but not to the point of divorce. Still, I feel taken for granted.”

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