How Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in France are influencing Israeli politics

Israel goes to the polls on March 2, the third time in a year. Many countries have tracked Israel's lengthy political crisis, but it has particular resonance in France, home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, Don Murray writes.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has made public overtures to French Jews

Holocaust survivor Saul Oren lights a candle with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Roglit memorial in Neve Michael, west of Jerusalem, on Jan. 23, 2020. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

It's a small country, but it is watched by the world.

Israel goes to the polls on March 2, the third time in a year. Many countries have tracked Israel's lengthy political crisis, but it has particular resonance in France.

It has the largest Jewish community in Europe and, in recent years, has been the largest European source of immigration to Israel. Immigration driven in part by fear.

The last decade has burdened France with a number of shocking and bloody memories, but one aggression, one victim, remains locked in the public's mind.

She was Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish retired kindergarten teacher living in a high-rise in Paris. Among her neighbours was Kobili Troaré, a 27-year-old man she knew and chatted with from time to time.

On April 3, 2015, shouting "Allahu Akbar," he burst into her apartment and threw her from her third-floor balcony, killing her.

The murderous attack had consequences that have rippled through France and Israel and reached the top of the political pyramid to this day.

But it wasn't the first, or last, onslaught to frighten French Jews, who number somewhere between 450,000 and 600,000. (The French census is forbidden from asking questions about ethnic or religious origin.)

In 2012, a terror attack against a Jewish school in Toulouse left three schoolchildren dead. In January 2015, there was a series of bloody events, beginning with an attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people.

Two days later, a five-hour siege in a kosher supermarket in Paris left four Jewish victims dead. Then, in November 2015, 130 people of different faiths were killed in co-ordinated attacks on cafés and a theatre in Paris. 

People hold placards during a 2019 rally in Marseille, France, to protest a flare-up of anti-Semitic acts in the country, including the vandalization of Jewish graves. (Boris Horvat/AFP via Getty Images)

All these were the work of Islamic extremists.

A small stream of French emigration to Israel swelled to a river, creating new political realities in both countries.

Many live in fear

In 2014, 7,238 Jews left for Israel. In 2015, the number was 7,835. Since the turn of the century, emigration has totalled almost 60,000, according to figures compiled by Marc Knobel, a historian with CRIF (the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France).

That's 10 per cent of the Jewish population of France, and that scares the French government. A few years ago, then-prime minister Manuel Valls spoke of the outflow almost like a wound. On Jan. 9, 2016, the one-year anniversary of the kosher supermarket massacre, he said, "Without the Jews of France, France wouldn't be France."

The disquiet remains. A survey published in January 2020 in the newspaper Le Parisien indicated that 34 per cent of French Jews have been the victim of anti-Semitic slurs or incidents. Seventy per cent said they live with fear.

A 'memory watcher' patrols a Jewish cemetery in Jungholtz, eastern France, on December 2019. A number of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated by anti-Semitic graffiti in recent years. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

Those who leave for Israel seek security and parties that preach a hard line against Arabs. The Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon published a survey in 2018 showing that 72 per cent of French immigrants said they were right-wing. Only 11 per cent described themselves as left or centre-left.

Those opinions mirror those of the 500,000 Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Russia in the past 20 years. That constitutes a powerful right-wing voting bloc.

'They are angry'

Laly Derai is an immigrant from France herself. She left in 1991 and is now the director of Atid Israel (Israel's Future), which helps French immigrants. In a 2019 interview with the newspaper Haaretz, she underlined the anger of recent French immigrants compared to earlier groups.

"They are a lot more militaristic and extreme," Derai said. "They are angry, because they see themselves as the second generation of expulsion by Arabs. Their parents were expelled from North Africa [when France agreed to Algerian independence in 1962] and they left France because of the harassment by immigrants of Muslim origin."

The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows the political position of French immigrants and wants more of them, not hesitating to make public calls to French Jews to leave their country and make a new home in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vying for re-election in his country's election on March 2. (Reuters)

The French government has not been indifferent to these calls, or to the fear in the Jewish community. After the attacks of 2015, armed military patrols appeared in French cities. In front of a Jewish school on my street, heavily armed squads of soldiers stood guard for more than two years.

French President Emmanuel Macron underlined in January 2020 that 868 synagogues and Jewish schools still have reinforced police protection around the country.

Those measures have helped reduce the outflow. Yearly Jewish emigration to Israel has dropped below 3,000 in the past two years.

'A battle the French republic must wage' 

President Macron, like his predecessor François Hollande, clearly wants to be seen as the unshakeable defender of the French Jewish community. During a visit to Israel in January, he made this dramatic declaration: "Anti-Semitism is not a problem confined to the Jews, it's a battle the French republic must wage."

So determined is Macron that he has created a confrontation with the country's law enforcement system that echoes Trump's broadsides against his own Department of Justice.

After the murder of Sarah Halimi in 2015, a French court and then an appeals court determined that her killer was mentally unfit to stand trial. Her family and CRIF protested and said he should be tried for anti-Semitic murder.

On the plane that recently took him to Israel, Macron urged that the case be reopened. "The need for a trial is there. A trial can help right some of the wrong and it is necessary on that basis."

That brought a swift and negative response from France's Supreme Court. "Judicial independence is essential for a functioning democracy. Supreme Court justices must be able to hear all appeals in an atmosphere of serenity and independence."

President as protector

It seems Macron was more concerned with the political and social benefits his statement might bring than with any legal problem it might cause.

Charles Enderlin, the French Israeli author of French Jews: Between Republic and Zionism, said that since 2015, the key for the French government and for French Jewish institutions has been to keep as close to the Israel government as possible. French government criticism of Israeli policy has been muted at most.

Enderlin contrasts this with the vigorous debates in the Jewish communities in the U.S. and Canada over the policies of the Netanyahu government.

French President Macron signs a book during his visit to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City in January. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

In an interview with the magazine Le Point earlier this month, Enderlin offered as an example the annual commemoration of the roundup in 1942 by French police of Jews to be sent to Nazi concentration camps.

For two decades this had been a strictly French ceremony of contrition, but in 2018, Macron invited Netanyahu to attend, and even repeated the Israeli prime minister's formula that "anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism."

Said Enderlin, "I have the impression that [in the past five years] for the French government, Israel has become a sort of Jewish Vatican."

If so, it's a combative Vatican where the support of the French president is considered useful, but secondary. The central battle is electoral. If Netanyahu clings to power with a decisive third election win on March 2, he may owe his slim margin of victory to the solid voting bloc of French immigrants.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.