Liberté, Egalité, Émigré?


With a Jewish population of about 500,000, France is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the world. In comparison, it is estimated that there are between six to seven million Muslims, in a total population of over 66 million. The recent terror attacks in France have been among the most horrific in decades, although anti-Semitic incidents have been occurring for years already. In response, aliya figures for French Jews have been increasing at a phenomenal rate. But, while every French Jew is concerned about the terror level, opinions differ on the future of the Jews of France and whether they should be seeking a new life elsewhere. Let’s meet some of these Jews, who describe the Paris attacks and give us a glimpse of life in France.

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Muriel Cohen* was at home preparing for Shabbat, when her husband came home from work and told her about the attack on the Hyper Cacher, a kosher chain of supermarkets in France and Italy. “The same information was being repeated over and over again on the radio, but I could not bring myself to switch it off until it was time to light Shabbat candles,” says Muriel, a first-generation French-born Jew of Sefardi heritage. The Cohens have three children, aged nine and below, with one on the way.

Muriel and her husband have been thinking about leaving France for about a year. She never felt this way, growing up, even though her family had never felt comfortable wearing their kipot, tzitzit, wigs, or head scarves in public. The situation has grown much worse over the years. When her husband and son walk on the streets, they hide their kipot under caps, and she tells her son to hide his tzitzit. In some Jewish areas in France, like their neighborhood in Strasbourg, men can more easily go outside with a kipa exposed, but only on a few streets. It is similar for women; they prefer to put on a wig (not a scarf) if they need to go in the city center, for example, as it is less noticeable. 

“The horrible murder of Ilan Halimi, in 2006, shocked the entire Jewish community,” says Muriel. The 2012 attack against the Jewish school in Toulouse was another severe blow for us. Then there was the attack in Belgium, followed by the violent riots in Paris and all over France against Jews during the Gaza war last summer. And now there are the four victims who were simply doing their Shabbat shopping.” She was particularly distressed to see the French people in the streets defending the “poor Palestinians” in Gaza or, more recently, their sacred freedom of expression but not to show such support for the innocent and peaceful Jewish population. She believes that the French people are afraid of Muslims while at the same time feel antipathy towards Jews. She took her children out of school when the Hyper Cacher attack occurred but plans to send them back in a few days. Since she is a teacher and is home on maternity leave, she is able to home school them. However, she knows this is not an ideal solution, and her children don’t see their friends anymore.

Although it is reassuring for Muriel to see the many soldiers in their area, near a yeshiva and shuls and on the street corners, she knows it is only temporary. She does not believe that it is possible for the schools to hire armed guards privately, so when the government guards leave again, she and her husband will have to decide what to do. Even now, with the guards, the younger children have begun to feel very insecure seeing this militarization around the school, as if they were in a war zone.

Muriel’s husband once asked his rabbi whether he thought they should leave France. His reply was, “When you will be afraid to send your children to school, it will be the time.” They think now is the time.

The Friday of the Hyper Cacher hostage situation, messages to say tehilim for people and names of some of the hostages began to circulate through text messages. Her husband immediately called his extended family who live in that area to check on them. Muriel was “very, very worried, because we know how the most hostage situations end, and we feel as if each Jew is a member of our family.”

On the way home from shul Friday night, her husband heard some news from a non-Jewish man whom he met in the street: The hostages were freed, but there were some deaths. They didn’t know names yet. After the Shabbat candles were lit, Muriel prayed and read a lot of tehilim with the children. She didn’t tell them what had happened but simply explained to them that the Jews in general need tehilim.

The Cohens describe other small anti-Semitic incidents have occurred to people they know. Recently, Muriel’s good friend, who is pregnant, told her that a Muslim man on the subway roared in her ears, “Dirty Jew,” before leaving the train. Nobody moved; nobody said anything to comfort her friend. “She was as shocked by the lack of reaction as she was by the incident itself. The same friend was out with her children in December when a young Muslim came up and said “Israel is finished, we’re going to do Jihad.” A while back, a friend of her husband was about to get on the subway when a Muslim man blocked his way saying, “You, you don’t get in.” In the end he had to come home on foot.

As if it were not bad enough that the public does not step in to help a Jew being harassed, there are places in France, Muriel says, where even the police do not dare to go, some of them not far from where she lives and in many suburbs of the largest cities. Muriel says these places are filled with weapons, drugs, delinquency, and hatred.

Muriel says most of her friends are worried, but they want to continue to live normally. And she knows several families who have already made aliya because they feel safer in Israel. Muriel and her husband, who is a CPA, would like to come to America, but they would need a job offer in order to obtain a permanent visa – and getting diploma equivalencies can sometimes prove difficult. If anyone in Baltimore is in the position to be able to help them, they would be most appreciative.

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Rebecca Rosenbaum, a recently married accountant, lives in New York. Her family came to America from Paris eight years ago to escape anti-Semitism. Already at that time, they felt that there was no future for them in France, as they were constantly worried, especially when the older children had to travel to school by subway. It was “déjà vu all over again” for this family, since Rebecca’s parents were sent to France from Morocco for safety by their parents. Rebecca’s grandparents eventually followed their children to France once the youngest children finished high school.

Rebecca’s family is typical of many French Jews, who migrated from the countries of North Africa in the 1950s and 60s. They joined the remnants of the Ashkenzi population, depleted after World War II, many of whom had become thoroughly assimilated. Indeed, some did not even know they were Jewish, because the Church rescued them as children and kept their identities secret. Rebecca’s aunt married one such man. His mother did not tell him until years after the War of his true identity. He later became observant and returned to the fold. Today, Sefardim constitute the majority of the Jewish community in France.

Rebecca feels that the French population has never been accepting of Jews, but the Toulouse school terror attacks in 2012 brought anti-Semitic acts up to a level they had never seen before in her generation. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, who was killed in that shooting along with his two young sons, was her first cousin’s husband. The eight-year-old girl who was killed was a third cousin.

These days, the security situation in France is very unstable. Armed soldiers are posted around Jewish schools to protect the children and school personnel from terrorists. (The Jewish parents bring them snacks every day.) The children are checked as they leave school to make sure that their tzitzit are tucked in and no visible sign of Jewishness is detectable. Students are also not allowed to hang around outside the school buildings. In addition, the soldiers patrol the subway stations near the schools, as many incidents have taken place there; Rebecca’s cousin was once beaten up on the subway for being Jewish. Some past incidents involved Arabs targeting students with pepper spray and other general harassment.

The Nefesh B’Nefesh offices in France are overwhelmed with people lining up out the door. Rebecca’s extended family is still in France and they can’t wait to leave. Although many would prefer to come to the U.S., since it is more difficult to arrange, most will end up going to Israel, where the government also makes it easier to transfer French professional degrees. Rebecca’s family was able to relocate to America, because she had an uncle who moved here many years ago and was able to sponsor her family.

As appreciative as she is for the freedoms America has afforded her, Rebecca is getting a bit skeptical about the long-term Jewish future here. (She is not yet a citizen but holds a green card.) Every time she goes into New York City, she gets a little paranoid. She and her husband are constantly talking about making aliya.

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Daniele (Rochel) Sullivan left France when she was 16 years old, when her family made aliya. She has been in the U.S. since 2003, and her most recent visit to France, where she still has family, was about seven years ago.

Daniele feels that, unlike the U.S., where we can feel very comfortable being identified as Jews, in France this is not so. She never felt totally at home there, sensing that the French people don’t truly want their Jewish population. Little signs could be found in the subway, for example, where it was common to see “Juif Go Home” on the walls. Still, Daniele led a very protected life growing up. She always went to Jewish schools, and the only non-Jews she ever spoke to were doctors or salespeople when she went shopping. Although her father’s business put him in contact with many non-Jews, and her mother was a doctor, also in the public realm, the children had almost no knowledge of French culture. She never even knew that the French ate frogs’ legs until she moved to America.

The neighborhood she grew up was a very elegant one, but in those days, there were very few other Jews close by. Once, when she and her brother were once locked out of their apartment building, it never even crossed their minds to ask a non-Jewish neighbor for help. Whenever the family walked up and down eight floors in the dark stairway of their apartment building on Shabbat, if a neighbor happened to notice them, they never explained that they were shomer Shabbat. They just said, “Oh, we are just doing it for the exercise” – in high heels!

Of course, here in America, it is totally different. Daniele does not hesitate to tell her non-Jewish customers that she has to stop working to prepare for Shabbat. And they are not only understanding but also impressed.

Daniele still recalls the 1980 bomb attack on the Paris Reform synagogue on Copernic Street.  A 13-year-old cousin of hers normally attended services at that shul, and everyone thought he had been caught in the bombing, which killed four people and injured many. As it turned out, that Friday night a friend of his happened to suggest that he accompany him to a different shul, so he went there instead. 

Danielle’s own parents, who were from Egypt, never bought a home in France. The apartment they lived in was a benefit of her father’s job. They bought investment property to rent out but never intended to remain permanently in France. They retired to Israel after her father’s health was failing about 30 years ago. Fortunately, he did much better than was medically expected and was able to thrive for 10 more years before his death.

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Dr. Binyomin Pinchasi,* 40, lives with his wife and three children in Paris. He is second-generation French born, with both Ashkenazi and Sefardi parents. He studied in an American yeshiva in Israel for a year after high school and goes to Israel very often on vacation.

The Pinchasis took their children out of their Jewish school for a few days immediately following the Hyper Cacher terror attack. With the armed military guards now stationed at every Jewish school and shul, they have gone back to class. However, the government has only committed to protecting the schools for a few months. Even before this most recent incident, parents had been thinking of hiring private armed guards and are again considering that option. The Pinchasis plan to keep their children in school. Because of the added measures that have been instituted at all Jewish schools, parent volunteers go every day to assist getting the kids in and out quickly.

Currently, Dr. and Mrs. Pinchasi are not planning to leave France, but radical Islamist anti-Semitism has become a major concern. Dr. Pinchasi feels that, ever since 9/11, things have gotten worse, with anti-Semitic acts gradually increasing. Just recently, he was cursed by someone on the street for being Jewish. Yet he says he feels fairly comfortable walking in public in “Jewish” clothes, though his wife is more nervous about it, especially since she often has the children with her on the street.

Although the recent events are still too fresh to develop clear ideas for the future, Dr. Pinchasi feels there are basically two attitudes within the Jewish community: leave France for Israel or another place abroad, or stay. He himself has confidence that the French government will be able to protect all of its citizens and sees a Jewish future in France, particularly since the Islamist threat is worldwide. Because he owns his own company, Dr. Pinchasi has the option of working from anywhere. “However,” he says, “one should not forget that Jews have been in France for many generations, and their country and education is deeply French. We imagine it is the same for American Jews who feel deeply American and Jewish. Let’s pray for Hashem’s protection and peace in the world!”

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Sacha and Alexandra Cohen, in their 30s, live in the heart of Paris. They are both social workers and do not have children yet. Sacha feels that this is really the first time that the Jewish community as a whole feels fear and anxiety because of the sense that anyone can be affected –  while shopping for Shabbat, going to synagogue or just staying at home. Simply having a mezuza on your doorpost has become risky. Some Jewish parents have chosen not to send their children to school, despite the new security measures adopted by the government. “It is very dangerous these days,” says Sacha, “to walk in the streets of Paris with a Jewish religious symbol such as a kipa or tzitzit.”

Sacha sincerely believes that there is no future in France for Jews. The event that highlighted this to him was the cold-blooded murders in Toulouse of a rabbi and three children, simply because they were Jews. He believes the wave of aliya will grow and that the majority of French Jewry will emigrate to Israel and the United States. He and his wife have decided to make aliya this summer.

“Not a single day passes in France without an anti-Semitic incident,” says Sacha. He is bitter about the Paris Unity March: “Over a million people were at the march, but this was only because journalists were targeted this time – not because Jewish blood was spilled. No such rally took place in 2012.”

Sacha feels that the French government has shown its good will and wants to stop terrorism, “but nobody here really believes it will succeed, because the terrorists are dangerous lunatics and France is not prepared for this type of war.”

The Cohens have received many messages of support from their non-Jewish friends and believe in their friendship, but, Sacha says, “This is not enough. I do not think that non-Jewish French can understand how we have been living for years and that it is getting worse every day.”

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Judith Levy, originally from France, with both Moroccan and Algerian heritage, has lived in Silver Spring for four years, where she owns a hair wear business, Judith de Paris. She still has family in France, including a married daughter and grandchildren in Strasbourg. Her parents made aliya a few years ago. 

If she were still living in France at this time, Judith would not be so hastily thinking of making aliya or emigrating elsewhere. Like many French Jews, she feels that the country is also her country, despite the problems, and that people should not think of fleeing. “Aliya by choice is an acceptable thing to do, but aliya because of running away is like surrendering to the terrorists.” Judith gets angry when Americans, upon hearing her daughter is living in France, comment, “What? They are still there?! When are they leaving already?” Her family has been in France for generations, and believes that living in a multicultural society in France is possible. However, if it ever became impossible to practice Judaism or send the children to religious schools, they would leave in a heartbeat.

Judith, herself still gets homesick for France. Since the recent events, she especially feels a pull to be with the rest of her family and former community to feel their pain and help strengthen them. Her viewpoint is that Israel is still “part of the galut” with its own problems: security, parnassa difficulties, and problems with chinuch for older children. “It is idealistic to think that it is a simple solution to make aliya. Uprooting a close-knit family can be very difficult. However, everyone always has an eye open to aliya as an option in the future.”

Judith would like to retire in Israel. It is very easy to get from Israel to France, which would make it more convenient to visit her grandchildren and vice versa. Israel is also a common and convenient vacation destination for French Jews. Some even “commute,” living in Israel while continuing to working at a French job.

Nonetheless, it has become less comfortable for Judith when she visits France. There are many more Muslims now, who, unlike the mainly secular French people, are actively religious. Muslims are looked down upon by the French as the lower classes in society – and many of these people are full of rage at the government, at Jews, and at Western culture in general, blaming them for all their ills. While Judith believes that the French in general do not like the Jews, they are happy to tolerate them and perhaps feel they need the Jewish community – as long as they blend in with the rest of the secular culture.

When she was growing up, religion was something that you “kept in the house,” as the French don’t like seeing religious expression outside. People who were identifiably Jewish might have gotten funny looks, but it never felt dangerous as it does today.

Judith’s sister, who lives in Paris, and always wore a scarf as a head covering, began to feel uncomfortable, because she felt the other French people would think she was a Muslim. So, despite the Sefardi custom to not wear a sheitel (wig), she switched to wearing one. In general, it is much easier for a frum Jewish woman to blend in than it is for a man.

Based on past events, Judith assumes things will quiet down again, but believes that unless the French government gets a handle on the situation, it will reach a boiling point and explode. Unless they are willing to deal with the source of the problem, France will continue to deteriorate.

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Raissa Forgeron* lives in a suburb of Paris. Her father is Parisian, her mother from Belgium. She is married with three children who go to Jewish schools and, like many French Jews, has been to Israel many times. She and her husband began to seriously think about emigrating last summer when large-scale rioting broke out in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb, during the Gaza war. Arab mobs burned cars, looted Jewish and non-Jewish stores, and attacked synagogues. The Forgerons would like to emigrate to North America, preferably to the U.S., but are considering Canada if they can’t fulfill the necessary requirements for America (finding a job or sponsor and getting work permits). They are not considering aliya, because they would feel unsafe. They have a few friends who are also thinking of leaving France with eyes on North America, Australia or, for those who don’t speak English, Quebec.

Raissa relates that, nowadays, when they are in areas with a large Arab population, her husband covers his kipa with a hat or cap. This is a recent phenomenon for them. On the other hand, Raissa says, there are more people now who never wore a kipa in public but have begun wearing one to show they are not afraid to express their Judaism. They have friends who have received insults for being Jewish, but this has happened all over Europe, not just in France. In general, Raissa feels that the non-Jewish people in her area are nice or neutral. They feel more cautious among Muslims due to the recent problems.

On the Shabbat of the Hyper Cacher attack, most synagogues did not close. Raissa feels that the ones that did close, per government guidelines, were making the correct decision to recognize their limitations. When she read that some people abroad looked at the synagogue closings as a “punishment,” she did not relate to this line of thinking. “France is not used to these terror attacks,” Raissa says, “so only time will tell if they will be able to handle it. If not, they may have an ‘Israel situation’ on their hands, or a civil war. We don't want to wait until that. The Jewish future will depend on the future of the Republic.”

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Sara,* who lives in Baltimore, is married to a French citizen. Interestingly, she remembers telling her high school French teacher that she would rather be studying physics, upon which her teacher presciently responded, “You never know; you might marry a Frenchman someday.”

During his youth, Sara’s husband Moshe and his friends used to play with Arab kids in the streets. They had fights at times, but he didn’t feel any blatant anti-Semitism from them in those days. Things have changed since then. A few years ago, he was in France to attend his brother’s wedding. He ended up at a bus stop with one other man, a Muslim. The guy said to him, “If I had a gun, I would shoot.” He didn’t say “shoot you,” just “shoot.” Her husband kept a cool head and gave the man a “therapy session” to calm him down. The man was grateful and even showed his appreciation by offering to pay for Moshe’s bus ticket.

Moshe has seen the French Jewish community grow a lot over the years and finds it a very warm and welcoming one. At the same time, he feels the French government has been closing its eyes to what’s been happening and just hopes the problem will go away. Moshe’s father, originally from Tunisia, was active in the Jewish community in Paris for many years. While some of his siblings live in Israel and New York, most of Moshe’s large family is still in France, living in various parts of the country. Many of them are Chabad emissaries. No one in his immediate family, who are either engaged in chinuch or the rabbinate, is planning to leave France at this point. His family is actually fairly attached to and comfortable in the French culture. Their feeling is that this type of radical Islamic terror could happen anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s approach to terror attacks was not to run away but to increase light to combat the darkness. This is why, after the terror at the Chabad House in Mumbai, a new shali’ach was sent (with better security measures) to continue its important work. This is undoubtedly a motivating factor for many of his family members who are active in community affairs. But although Moshe’s family does not believe in leaving France in “surrender,” this does not rule out any future moves.

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The words of the French Jews above echo what David Horovitz wrote for the Times of Israel website. About the Paris Unity Rally and its aftermath, he wrote, “But now that the 3.5 million marchers have all gone home, we are left with the question: What are the French actually going to do about the mounting challenge of Islamist terrorism? More security? Evidently so. More vigilance? Doubtless, at least for a while. More substantive action, truly designed to eliminate the danger? Don’t bet on that.” Like another leader we know, French president Francois Hollande has declared that “these terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion.” Horovitz feels that until the French government recognizes Islamist terrorism for what it is, nothing will be done to stem the tide.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The Atlantic, quotes French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who comments on the possibility of a Jewish exodus from France, “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” PM Walls may be right, but many in the French community fear that his words – and the French efforts to keep its Jews – are coming just a bit too late.


*a pseudonym

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