The Twilight of French Jewry, the Twilight of France

French Jews are emigrating to Israel by the tens of thousands. Their departure isn’t just about them; it’s about the end of the French idea.

October 7, 2015 | Alain El-Mouchan
About the author: Alain El-Mouchan is the pen name of a professor of history and geography in Paris.

Tributes to those killed in the terrorist attack on the HyperCacher kosher supermarket in Paris, January 12, 2015. Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images.

The violent turmoil in today’s Middle East is producing an array of bewildering and seemingly contradictory effects. One of them is this: hundreds of thousands of refugees, soon perhaps millions, are fleeing the region in hopes of finding shelter in a Europe deeply uncertain both of itself and of what to do with them. Simultaneously, on a much smaller but historically portentous scale, tens of thousands of Jews are departing France, the home of Europe’s largest Jewish population, and heading for the same Middle East, but in their case for a country ready, willing, and eager to enfold them.

What meaning can be given to this apparent coincidence of opposites? Focusing almost entirely on the situation in France, the analyst Alain El-Mouchan here teases out the causes that lie behind the departure of thousands of its Jews for home in Israel. Much has already been written about the crisis of European Jewry, including notably by Michel Gurfinkiel and the late Robert Wistrich in Mosaic. But, especially in the light of the continent’s stark disorientation as it confronts masses clamoring for entry, the topic has become timely again, carrying as it does lessons not only about the past but for the future.


“If 100,000 Frenchmen of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is no longer France. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” Thus declared Prime Minister Manuel Valls to the National Assembly in January 2015, within days of the homicidal jihadist attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket.

What prompted this impassioned declaration? It is true enough that increasing numbers of French Jews have been leaving for Israel. In the past five years alone, more than 20,000 have done so, and since 2012 the annual figures have been moving steadily upward. Still, the French Jewish population, standing at about 480,000, remains the largest in Europe, and the latest surge, following as it does upon earlier, smaller movements of French Jews to Israel, is a far cry from the Prime Minister’s alarmed figure of 100,000. Is so massive an outflow really imminent, and, no less important, is there a sense in which the departure of a cohort of 100,000 Jews would truly mean the failure of the French political model of republican governance—that is, of France itself?


I. Jewish Emigration from France: Causes and Effects


Between the 1950s and the turn of the 21st century, the intermittent stream of Jewish emigration from France to Israel was mainly impelled by two factors. One was the positive pull of Zionism; the other was the negative push of anti-Semitism. But the latter, even though it could take on a violent or occasionally deadly form, was perceived, including by many Jews, less as a national problem than as a passing and unfortunate spillover from the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East or as a lingering expression of extreme right-wing hatred of Jews. Nor did the French government take it seriously. Until 2002, indeed, the socialists in power were in complete denial about the threat, and in this they enjoyed the complicity of the mainstream press, which operated on the (fallacious) premise that to publicize anti-Semitic violence would only exacerbate it.

Then, between 2002 and 2014, the number of home-grown anti-Jewish threats and acts—verbal abuse, desecration of cemeteries, swastikas on Jewish property, fire-bombings of synagogues, and other forms of violence up to and including murder—climbed to three times the figure for the entire previous decade. The 2006 torture and murder of twenty-three-year-old Ilan Halimi was a marker of this “new” breed of anti-Semitism, whose perpetrators were drawn from the impoverished and crime-ridden sectors of the Muslim community. Another such marker, six years later, would be the murder of a Toulouse rabbi along with his young sons and another child by the self-styled “Islamic warrior” Mohamed Merah. December 2014 saw a home invasion, robbery, and rape in the Paris suburb of Créteil; its Muslim perpetrators justified their choice of victims with the same words as Halimi’s torturers: “Jews have money.” And so it went.

Between 2002 and 2014, the number of home-grown anti-Jewish threats and acts climbed to three times the figure for the entire previous decade.

In January 2014, during a “Day of Rage” protest demonstration against, ostensibly, the government’s failed economic policies, incendiary slogans like “Jew, France is Not Yours” were shouted by a small group representing the most extreme element of the French right—the first time since the Dreyfus affair in the late-19th century that a call for the elimination of Jews from public life had been heard in French streets. In the summer of the same year, the cry “Death to the Jews” was chanted in pro-Hamas demonstrations organized by a medley of Islamic and extreme left and right groups; in the ensuing riots, shops and synagogues were stormed and sacked.

In its report for the year 2014, France’s Jewish Community Security Service (SPCJ) observed that anti-Semitic acts had doubled since the previous year and were now occurring almost without interruption. Indeed, in 2014, 51 percent of all racist acts committed in France had targeted Jews, a community representing less than one percent of the country’s population—even as racist acts directed at those other than Jews had decreased overall by 5 percent.

Still, if one is digging for the causes of today’s sudden upsurge of emigration, a comparison with past outbreaks of anti-Semitism in France, and with similar outbreaks elsewhere in Europe, suggests that additional factors must be at work as well. As the chart below suggests, there were more anti-Semitic acts in France in 2002 and in 2004 than in 2014, and yet, after a brief peak in 2005-2007, Jewish emigration decreased. Moreover, the incidence of recent anti-Jewish activity is far more developed in European countries other than France. In Norway, where a blood-libel cartoon was published in the main national tabloid, anti-Semitism has become intense enough to alarm the pan-European Organization for Security Cooperation. In Sweden, the number of threats against Jews has doubled just since this past January, actual crimes against Jews have multiplied, and the perpetrators are rarely apprehended and almost never convicted. In the UK, anti-Semitic incidents doubled between 2013 and 2014; according to a poll taken that year of several thousand British Jews, 45 percent feared they had no future in Britain, and 58 percent were concerned they had no future in Europe altogether; a quarter of those surveyed had considered leaving Britain in the past two years.

French Aliyah to Israel | Create infographics


In brief, the rise in overt anti-Semitic threats and acts may usefully be regarded more as contributing to the sharp upsurge in Jewish emigration than as constituting its sole or root cause. And we can name other such factors whose significance must similarly be placed in context. Within the French population as a whole, for example, polls have shown a decrease in anti-Semitic attitudes; in addition, anti-Semitism as an instrument of party politics, once very palpable, has all but vanished from the scene. (In contrast to the Jobbik party in Hungary, or the openly Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece, France’s National Front has been careful to eschew anti-Semitism altogether.)

Weighing against this, however, is the longstanding and obsessive demonization of Israel by the French (and European) mainstream press and the concomitant liberation of anti-Semitic rhetoric and discourse, sometimes linked with open incitement against Jews of the kind manifested in slogans like those—“Death to the Jews,” “Jew, France is Not Yours”—cited above. In packed theaters, the “humorist” Dieudonné, promoter of the quenelle sign (an inverted Nazi salute), was able to bring together, in anti-Semitic communion, the far right, the far left, and Muslim youths from the outskirts of France’s major cities. In other words, among certain minority groups and in certain defined quarters of French society and opinion, anti-Semitism is not only persistent but ceaselessly expanding.

Not to be ignored in this connection is the instrumental role of the Internet in giving free rein to anti-Semitic agitation. The impunity conferred by this egalitarian, quasi-universal, and “extraterritorial” medium has created an extraordinary amplifier for crusading anti-Semites. Both Mohammed Merah, the Toulouse jihadist, and Mehdi Nemmouche, the killer of four at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014, became Islamic heroes on the web. The same medium has served the purposes of those maliciously harnessing the left-wing pan-European campaign against “racism” to the cause of anti-Zionism: a nexus codified decades ago in the 1975 UN resolution identifying and condemning Zionism as a form of “racism and racial discrimination.” In contemporary France, this toxic combination has licensed the naming of Israel and Jews as enemies of multiculturalism and of those, nearly exclusively Muslim, deemed to be real or imagined victims of racism.

French authorities, too, have had a part in abetting these developments. True, after the killings in January 2015, the government became sufficiently alarmed to declare the fight against anti-Semitism a national priority; this was the thrust of Prime Minister Valls’s moving speech to the National Assembly, in which he ringingly affirmed the unacceptability of French Jews being condemned to live in daily fear, and denounced “Islamofascism.” In the wake of the January attacks, massive security forces, involving even the military, were promptly mobilized to guard synagogues and Jewish cultural centers.

But that is all on the one hand. On the other hand, most French politicians have gone out of their way to avoid so much as mentioning the words Islam, Islamism, or jihadism in connection with the upswing of anti-Semitism or with the declared convictions of its main perpetrators; some have explicitly denied the existence of any such connection. In speeches after the January 2015 assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, President François Hollande referred to the terrorists simply as “these deluded visionaries, these fanatics” and went on to assert categorically that they “have nothing to do with Islam.” A month later, after the massive desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Alsace, the president was still assiduously “balancing” one form of fanaticism with another by citing the need to oppose equally both anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic sentiments, despite the documented fact that, up until January 2015, anti-Muslim activity had been continually decreasing in France, while anti-Jewish violence has skyrocketed.

This refusal to identify either the culprits or their victims by their proper names—a refusal typical also of the Obama administration—has perversely combined with the swift posting of police and military guards at Jewish institutions to make Jews feel that at best they have become “protected citizens” in their own country, reinforcing the idea that they are no longer at home in France but are rather a new kind of dhimmi. And this, too, has contributed to swelling the wave of aliyah.

Finally, we must take note of three additional factors. One, already mentioned in connection with earlier instances of aliyah, is the pull of Zionism. If, for most American Jews, the Jewish state is an abstraction, a place they seldom or never visit, French Jews, on the contrary, have a very strong connection with the country: many visit regularly and in proportions far higher than those mustered by any other community worldwide, and/or own property there, or otherwise invest in the country. Many, too, have family living there; indeed, thanks both to the current aliyah and the cumulative results of earlier waves, about 150,000 French Jews now reside in Israel.

The emigration of French Jews to Israel today is a matter less of impulsive flight than of deliberation and rational choice—a decision often taken with regret and a sense of historical loss, if not betrayal.

A second factor is the economic situation at home: economically, France is languishing, the victim of a self-inflicted system that discourages initiative and entrepreneurship, imposes equality at the expense of innovation, knocks down young couples and retirees through heavy taxation, and fails to create growth. There was a time when economic prospects were brighter in France than in Israel, but this is no longer the case. Here, too, French Jews are not the only European Jewish community so affected. The same situation helps explain Jewish emigration from Italy, where, despite a far lower level of anti-Semitism than in France, aliyah to Israel doubled between 2013 and 2014. In Belgium, the Antwerp Jewish community is facing extinction—not because the city has become the home of the European Arab League but because of the decline of the diamond industry, which flourishes in the U.S. and Israel. (Nor, of course, are Jews the only ones departing. In 2013, a quarter of top university graduates in France were looking for jobs abroad, a doubling in one year; between one-third and half of Frenchmen in the same age bracket say they would emigrate permanently if they could. As for retirees, many would rather enjoy their pensions in Spain or Greece than in France.)

The third factor is the strong ripple effect created by the first two—added, of course, to the very real feeling of insecurity created by the recent outbreaks of anti-Semitic threats and acts.

Still, even taken together, do all these suffice to account for today’s Jewish emigration to Israel? Not quite, and not really. In the end, the decision to leave must be seen as a matter less of impulsive flight than of deliberation and rational choice: a decision often taken in regret and with a sense of bitter historical loss, if not betrayal. And that leads from a discussion of proximate causes to deeper causes, and into the heart of the matter.


II. From Old Paradise to New Paradigm


Throughout the centuries after the French Revolution of 1789, despite ups and downs, and with the sole major exception of the Vichy period (1940-44), Jews have tended to regard French society as exceptionally open and welcoming—including at the peak of the Dreyfus affair itself. At that time, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would recall his father saying, the idea that half a nation could be for a Jew would have been unimaginable anywhere else in Europe.

In fact, even before the United States, and centuries before the existence of Israel, enlightened France was the place for Jews to be. The Enlightenment, coupled with emancipation, brought religious tolerance, freedom of thought, political liberty, scientific progress, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. Jews as well as Protestants attained citizenship in Catholic France and were able to make their way into political and economic circles without being required to abandon their religion. Naturally, some, like the composer Jacques Offenbach, did convert. Others followed the path taken by Adolphe Crémieux, the French minister of justice who in 1848 was responsible for abolishing slavery in France’s overseas colonies; while permitting his wife to convert their children, Crémieux always laid proud claim to his own Jewishness. Still others simply remained who they were—like the brothers Emile and Isaac Péreire, prominent financiers during the Second Empire.

In a certain way, some thought, France had built itself as a nation on the model of the Jewish people.

The idea of a law enforcing universal principles of justice and insuring civic equality was most appealing to Jews because those principles had been their own for millennia—and because they dreamed of living in a place where non-Jews would do likewise. Of course, there was a price to be paid for this “divine” surprise: namely, the surrender of the autonomy Jews had long enjoyed in conducting the internal affairs of their own communities. French Jews effectuated this surrender by dissociating their religious identity from their national identity. As Lazare Isidor, grand rabbi of Paris, put it in 1852:

We have proved that we are worthy of freedom, worthy of the title of citizen, and that we can be both Jewish and French. The Jewish people died, its national platform is dead, but what is not dead and never will die is the spirit of Judaism, its principles and truths, immutable as the rock on which God proclaimed [His commandments].

For many French Jews, now that the external world seemed to be adopting Jewish values, Jewish particularism appeared supererogatory. What need to play the part of an ethical avant-garde once the war against injustice and prejudice was on the verge of being won? The author and statesman Joseph Reinach, a pillar of the Dreyfusards and, in 1899, one of the founding fathers of the Ligue des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the powerful association dedicated to defending and promulgating the rights of man in all spheres of public life, even contemplated the dissolution of Judaism itself into republican universalism.

Meanwhile, from the other side, some French intellectuals had begun to acknowledge their debt to Jewish universalism. Wrote the historian Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu in 1893:

There are stones of Palestine in the substructures of our new societies. In many respects, the [French] Revolution was an application of the ideal that Israel brought to the world. To find the source of 1789, . . . we should go farther back than antiquity and the Gospels to the [Hebrew] Bible, the Torah and the prophets. In this sense, it is true that the new Decalogue of human rights derives from the tablets brought down from Sinai.

In a certain way, some thought, France had built itself as a nation on the model of the Jewish people.

In 1905, a law on the separation of church and state relegated religion to a purely private sphere of life. The law aimed at achieving three goals: enforcing the religious neutrality of the state, protecting the free exercise of religion, and breaking the connection between public power and the Catholic Church. It became the backbone of French secularism (laïcité). From then on, all Jews could live a Jewish life under the protection of the law. For decades after World War II, ad-hoc arrangements settled the little issues of everyday life: kosher meals for army draftees, two extra days off every year for Jewish civil servants, exams discreetly rescheduled for Jewish students on days other than Shabbat and festivals—all without ever requiring that the secular institutions involved adapt themselves to Jewish norms or practice. The principles of secularity remained officially intact.

To be sure, there were signs of impending danger—especially in the aftermath of the Algerian war in the 1960s. Under Charles de Gaulle, French foreign policy went through a complete shift in its relation to the state of Israel. From France’s faithful little ally, the Jewish state came to be depicted as a permanent thorn in the side of Franco-Arab reconciliation. Intensifying after the Six-Day War of 1967, a pro-Palestinian narrative emerged with which the center-right majority, the Christian left, and the extremes on both sides could all identify and from which only very few—like Prime Minister Valls in 2015—would prove capable of extricating themselves. By the 1970s, as David Pryce-Jones writes in Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (2006, expanded French edition 2008), French foreign policy had become openly pro-Arab and pro-PLO, anti-Semitism was displaying itself in the guise of anti-Zionism, and French Jews were starting to be fingered as potentially disloyal citizens.

But the real game changer at home would not occur until later, triggered by the growing demographic heft of the Muslim population (today more than ten times the size of the Jewish population) and its burgeoning awareness of its own social and political weight. Whereas Jews had made themselves inconspicuous, Muslims started to demand more and more from secular society: removal of pork from school cafeterias, permission to wear the veil, provision of female doctors for women in hospitals. At first, French authorities reacted defensively, enforcing rules by the book and, in order not to be accused of discriminating, even banning many things that had hitherto been allowed to others, like wearing a skullcap in state-run facilities (public schools and hospitals, courtrooms, government offices at all levels, and so forth). Coerced at once by Islamic pressure and by lingering loyalty to their own principles, those who had long lived with the old ad-hoc arrangements became increasingly zealous in behalf of laïcité and increasingly intolerant of religious differences across the board.

In today’s European identity politics, Jewish identity is held tacitly suspect at once by its association with the West and, in the form of Zionism, by its association with a retrograde ethnic particularism.

Theirs was largely a losing cause. When it came to Islamic obduracy, the proud French model of secular republicanism was putting on blinders and sliding into accommodationism. By the time the French looked up, the old model had become anachronistic, replaced by cultural relativism and postmodern multiculturalism, both deeply incompatible with enlightened republican principles—the very principles that had enabled Jews to integrate into secular society in the 19th century but that did not work for Muslims in the 20th and 21st centuries. Now, as if in compensation for the failure of Muslim integration, French authorities undertook instead to ensure that Islamic identity, and Islamic separatism, would be officially esteemed, protected, and when necessary excused.

Seen in this light, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the 2000s was one side of a coin; the other side was a willed official denial of its virulence and significance—and of its main source. In his 2004 interim report to the Ministry of the Interior on the “struggle against racism and anti-Semitism” (Chantier sur la lutte contre le racisme et l’anti-Sémitisme), Jean-Christophe Rufin documented the reduced involvement of the classical extreme right in anti-Semitic violence and the simultaneously rising role played by youths of North African descent. But, thanks to the peculiar species of identity politics fostered by the new French model, even as Muslim identity was to be valued and protected, Jewish identity was held tacitly suspect—both by its association with the now-demoted values of Western liberalism and, in the form of Zionism, by its association with a retrograde ethnic particularism. We have already seen how the politically correct European campaign against racism became hitched to the cause of anti-Zionism. In line with this, it was all too predictable that, ten years after Rufin’s report, a new study of French public opinion by Dominique Reynié (L’Antisémitisme dans l’opinion publique française: nouveaux éclairages), whose findings dramatically confirmed the central role played in anti-Semitic violence by Muslim youths, was heatedly bashed as itself racist in the left-wing French press.

Historically, not even the threats of Communism, fascism, and Nazism had induced Jews to despair of France; after World War II, even after the Six-Day War and the pro-Arab turn in French foreign policy, they wanted to believe in the French promise. But by the beginning of this century, France had lost the cultural and intellectual means to defend itself in those terms, leaving Jews adrift and without recourse. Whether or not the French Enlightenment had represented, as Leroy-Beaulieu thought, a universalization of Jewish values, the extinction of Enlightenment values was accompanied by a rejection of Judaism.

Without an awareness of the very special relationship that obtained between Jews and the French Republic in its heyday, and then in its deterioration, there is no understanding the depth of this new 21st-century trauma.


What about now? After what has been characterized as the “wake-up call” of the January 2015 killings, has there been a turnaround? According to some, the impressive civic solidarity displayed in the mass protest of nearly a million people across France, and epitomized in the ubiquitous slogan “Je suis Charlie,” portends a hopeful new beginning, even a revived national commitment to classical republican ideals. If a new beginning, however, it is a false one, resting on a foundation of hypocrisy and lies.

For one thing, to celebrate Charlie Hebdo as a beacon of free journalism is to celebrate a publication less irreverent than obscene and, at the margins, anti-Semitic. For another thing, many of those loudly proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” had only yesterday been decrying the publication of cartoons mocking Muhammad and demanding that the press exercise self-censorship. Nor is it true that what was under threat in France was freedom of expression per se. Cartoonists were targeted only for what Muslims considered blasphemous, and for nothing else. Finally, self-censorship remained alive and well—not only, as we saw earlier, in the response by President Hollande and others to the January attacks but also in the unreconstructed press itself, which, in the immediate aftermath of the killings, hastened to downplay the Jewishness of the Jewish victims and to elide or delete the killers’ Islamist identity and beliefs by rebranding them as “mad extremists.”

Where the situation of France’s Jews is concerned, a brief example will help drive home the historical point. On May 10, 1990, in the southern town of Carpentras, one of the country’s oldest Jewish cemeteries was desecrated: more than 30 tombstones were uprooted, and the body of a recently buried eighty-one-year-old man was exhumed and displayed next to an umbrella. The contrast between 25 years ago and today? As the SPCJ pointed out in its 2014 report, older citizens still remember how the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Carpentras “brought the French people to the streets,” whereas in 2006, “after the anti-Semitic murder of Ilan Halimi, and in 2012, after the attack against the Jewish school in Toulouse, rallies were almost exclusively composed of members of the Jewish community.”

In January 2015, if Jews alone had been killed and not cartoonists, Jews alone would have been marching in protest in the streets of France. All French Jews understand this. As so often in history, anti-Semitism in France today is a symptom of the degeneration of the social bond.


III. At the Crossroads


In 2004, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, apprised of the statistics on French anti-Semitism, urged French Jews to move to Israel. His words sparked a scandal. Theo Klein, the honorary president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewry, echoing the words of the offended spokesman of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, informed Sharon in no uncertain terms that French Jews could take care of their own problems.

Ten years later, after the events of January 2015, a similar scenario would play again. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the Grand Synagogue in Paris, reminded French Jews that “Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray; the state of Israel is your home.” One sharp reaction came from Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association:

I regret that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government dispenses the same statements about the importance of aliyah rather than taking all measures . . . at its disposal in order to increase the safety of Jewish life in Europe. Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are.

Another rebuke, first of the Israeli prime minister and second of French authorities who took the occasion to plead with French Jews to stay, came from Haim Korsia, France’s chief rabbi:

[A]liyah responds to spiritual, religious, and ideological needs. It should not be conceived as an escape. The use of the word “stay” [also] bothers me because it seems to imply that, in our country, our Jewish fellow citizens are ontologically transient. This is totally wrong, because Jews have been contributing for 2,000 years to making this country what it is today.

Roger Cukierman, head of CRIF, similarly bemoaned the recent aliyah as a sad and worrying phenomenon.

All four victims of the HyperCasher attack were buried in Israel—a slap in the face of the French society to which Jews have been “contributing for 2,000 years.”

Such statements by some of the community’s key leaders are noteworthy both for what they say and for what they don’t say. On the one hand, Rabbi Margolin appears to acknowledge that increasing “the safety of Jewish life in Europe” is within the remit not only of European governments but of the Israeli prime minister. A Freudian slip, perhaps, but one that suggests a revealing disparity between the official face of Euro-Jewish spokesmen and their deeper worries. On the other hand, Rabbi Margolin seems oblivious of the fact that the issue in Europe is no longer the “right” of Jews to live securely but the possibility of doing so in a society sick with anti-Semitism and too often without the will to combat it. For his part, Rabbi Korsia seems to have forgotten that outside of Israel, for all intents and purposes, most Jews have long been and still are “ontologically transient.”

To these responses, a refreshingly frank note was added by Binyamin Lachkar, a former adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem for the French community and later executive director of the United Israel Appeal (Keren Hayesod) in France. Lachkar bluntly enumerated the Jewish establishment’s practical reasons for refusing to support large-scale aliyah: “without community, no more donors, no more members, no more status of notable [important person], which grants access to respectability and contact with the pageantry of the Republic.”

Lachkar, one might say, was only doing his job. By the same token, however, the Israeli prime minister was doing his job in reminding Jews that they have a national home again—and what that means. Although Michel Tubiana, the Jewish honorary chairman of the League of Human Rights, insisted that Netanyahu had “no legitimate grounds for calling on Jews to exile themselves [sic!] in Israel,” reality suggests otherwise. A telling fact is that all four victims of the HyperCacher attack were buried in Israel—a slap in the face of the French society to which the Jews have been “contributing for 2,000 years” and of the 28 kings of ancient Israel and Judah sculpted on the façade of Notre-Dame cathedral.

None of this is to say that French Jews moving to Israel today will necessarily enjoy an easy linguistic, socioeconomic, or cultural transition; already, their arrival in significant numbers has prompted complaints from various segments of Israeli society. But there’s nothing new or especially worrisome in that; if Israel could integrate a million post-Soviet Jews, many of them completely ignorant of or far removed from Judaism, what danger can French aliyah pose?

A more serious line of inquiry is this: what, in particular, can and will French Jews bring to their national home? In that connection, one may cite a particularly relevant passage written in the Age of Enlightenment by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, godfather of the modern French socio-political order. The passage is from Emile, Rousseau’s 1762 treatise on education:

If anyone in our day dared to publish books that were openly in favor of the Jewish religion, we would punish the author, the publisher, and the bookseller. This regulation is a sure and certain way of always being in the right. It is easy to refute those who dare not venture to speak. The more learned and enlightened a Jew is, the more cautious. You may convert some poor wretch whom you have paid to slander his religion . . . while all the time their men of learning are laughing at your stupidity. But do you think you would get off so easily in any place where they knew they were safe? . . . I shall not consider I have well heard the arguments of the Jews until they have a free state, schools, and universities, where they can speak and argue without danger. Then alone can one answer the question: what do they have to say?

What do French Jews have to say? Of course, they are not all the same. Most of them are traditionally religious Jews from French-speaking North Africa, many of whom, when they had to leave their homes in the 1950s and 60s, felt a bit guilty about going to France instead of Israel. Arriving at the time of decolonization, large numbers never fully embraced the terms of the Franco-Jewish Enlightenment. Once ensconced in the Jewish national home, they will undoubtedly assimilate to the norms of Israeli religious traditionalism as practiced by the Mizraḥi community there—and will do so just as easily as their secular French counterparts will fit into secular Israeli society.

From neither traditionalists nor secularists, however, are the old ideals of republican universalism likely to re-emerge or find a voice in Israeli democratic discourse. French Jews wedded to those ideals either came to Israel earlier, in some cases after the Six-Day War, or came and then left, and they were also conspicuously fewer in number. If few of today’s immigrants carry with them the universal ideals of the French model, the reason is plain: in their case, the promise of that model, after two centuries of impressive success, collapsed in front of their eyes. In decades to come there will still be Jews in France, as everywhere else in the world, but the strong French Jewish presence will have tipped into history. By contrast, the state of the Jews still thrillingly embodies the core promise of its universal ideals and, speaking in their name, has more than ever to say to a world that, with enemies at and within its gates, wallows in flaccidity and self-doubt.

The France born with the French Revolution was supposed to be the place where no one could ever scream in the streets, “Death to the Jews.” At the beginning of the 21st century, it is not that place anymore. That place is the state of Israel, the only place, as Rousseau understood so clearly, where Jews “can speak and argue without danger” and where Jewish universalism, wedded to Jewish particularism, can thrive to its fullest.

The France born with the French Revolution was supposed to be the place where no one could ever scream in the streets “Death to the Jews.” At the beginning of the 21st century, it is not that place. That place is the state of Israel.


To cite Prime Minister Valls one last time: “History has taught us that the awakening of anti-Semitism is the symptom of a crisis for democracy and of a crisis for the Republic. . . . When the Jews of France are attacked, France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked. Let us never forget that.” Unfortunately, to judge by the looks on the faces of his auditors in the National Assembly, many in France prefer not to be reminded—which is to say, they prefer not to face the grim reality that what is happening to Jews in France is not about the future of French Jews but about the future of France.

Welcoming and protecting persecuted Jews was for centuries the pride of a republic that aimed at embodying liberalism, secularism, and tolerance. In that sense, Jews had become a symbol of the success of the republican model. This is precisely why many members of the French elite regard Jewish departure as an insult and an outrage. For it tells them an unacceptable truth about themselves: namely, that the French republican idyll, one of the most attractive and promising chapters in the history of mankind, has reached the beginning of the end. France can still pretend for many more years to represent the epitome of Enlightenment, but it is a pretense, and an increasingly hollow one. And this is something that not only Premier Valls but, deep down, a majority of Frenchmen understand—just as everyone understands that Jews, the proverbial canary in the coalmine, are always the first victims, but others soon follow.

On a sunny summer day, on the terrace of a typical Parisian café, a French ambassador, proud to regard himself as an embodiment of enlightened European and republican principles, was having a drink with a Jewish friend. They were indulging in small talk about a famous line by the poet Paul Valéry: “Civilizations, too, are mortal.” Suddenly the ambassador fell silent, pondering for a few seconds, and then turned toward his friend. “Of course, you can always go to Israel,” he said. “But us . . . where shall we go?”