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The End of French Jewry?

The End of French Jewry?

After the horrific murder of Ilan Halimi and three subsequent anti-Semitic attacks, pressure to flee growing for some, and dismissed by others.

by Gabrielle Birkner

Noam Chelly was a baby when his family emigrated from Tunisia to France, settling in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles -- the enclave sometimes called "Little Jerusalem" by its Jewish residents.

The recent abduction and murder of a young French Jew, Ilan Halimi, followed last weekend by three anti-Semitic attacks in Sarcelles, has convinced Chelly, an 18-year-old high school senior, to move to Israel. Chelly's choice is emblematic of the perception -- alternately embraced and rejected among French Jewry -- that there is no future for France's nearly 600,000 Jews.

"I can no longer live here," said Chelly, who plans to make aliyah and join the Israeli army by the end of the year. "There are too many problems, too much noise, and since Ilan's murder things have only gotten worse. There is more and more aggression against Jews -- verbal and physical."

In Sarcelles, during one 24-hour period last Friday and Saturday, Eliahou Brami, the 17-year-old son of a local rabbi was attacked, his nose broken; 18-year-old Yacob Boccara was insulted by a group of five men, who stole his cell phone; and a 28-year-old man, wearing a kipa, suffered a dislocated shoulder after he was verbally and physically assaulted by four men.

The third victim was carrying a young child at the time of the attack, during which perpetrators said they "wanted to kill him like Halimi," according to Marc Djebali, president of the Sarcelles Jewish community.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, following a meeting Sunday with Sarcelles Jewish leaders and the victims of last weekend's anti-Semitic attacks, announced that security would be tightened at Jewish institutions in the suburb north of Paris. Sarkozy said that police presence would be reinforced and video surveillance expanded in light of the incidents, according to an Agence France-Presse report. Jews comprise about 20 percent of Sarcelles' approximately 60,000 residents.

News of the attacks there came as chilling details of Halimi's murder continued to emerge. On Saturday, Youssef Fofana, the suspected ringleader of the gang French officials say kidnapped Halimi for ransom -- and for three weeks reportedly tortured the 23-year-old cell phone salesman, stabbing him in the throat, burning him with cigarettes, and dousing him with acid -- was extradited to France from the Ivory Coast, where he fled after the murder.

Halimi was not rich, but the band of kidnappers -- at least 19 suspects, including Fofana, are in French custody -- assumed otherwise because he was Jewish. Though the central motivation for the abduction appears to have been pecuniary, the kidnapping and murder were predicated on an ethnic stereotype, and are therefore being prosecuted as hate crimes.

"I've thought a lot about moving to Israel, and my parents urged me to think about it carefully because life is difficult there," said Chelly, an observant Jew. "Now I've made my decision, now it's definite."

An "atmosphere of anti-Semitism" has many French Jews pondering moving to Israel, said Rabbi Simon Barchichat, who works at La Griba, a Jewish school in Sarcelles.

"There is fear," he said. "There is disgust, and if they can leave, they do."

During the second intifada, a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France prompted an influx in French Jews making aliyah, and Rabbi Barchichat expected that the Halimi murder could have a similar effect.

Some Jewish community leaders suggested that the impact may be particularly acute in communities like Sarcelles, where Jews live amid large populations of poor Arab and sub-Saharan African immigrants and where cross-cultural relations are often tense. The suspects in the Halimi case are predominantly Arab and black Muslims.

Yet others dismiss the run-for-the-hills approach as alarmist and counterproductive.

"They are not thinking this through," Djebali said, noting that emigration does nothing to combat the hatred that fuels bias attacks. "They are anguished, they are sad ... but if they leave, the problem will repeat itself elsewhere because the world today is very open."

Yonathan Arfi, who sits on the board of directors of the French Jewish community umbrella group, CRIF, urged caution against drawing the conclusion that the Halimi murder is "a signal of the end."

"We have to realize that this was something very isolated," said Arfi, who lives in Paris and is the immediate past president of France's politically active Jewish student union, UEJF. "It's not something common, and it was not even something imaginable before it happened."

He added that the French government's swift and aggressive response to Halimi's murder and the enormous outpouring of sympathy from the nation's non-Jewish community has proved that Jews do have a future in France.

"We've shared with the French population something very strong, very deep," he said.

Arfi compared the outcry over Halimi's murder to the national uproar in 1890s France in response to the dubious treason allegations against Captain Albert Dreyfus, a Jew whose conviction would become a symbol of French anti-Semitism. The national response to the so-called "Dreyfus Affair" ultimately united in horror Jews and non-Jews in France, Arfi said.

"In a way, when something so terrifying happens, it can also have a positive impact," he said. "Maybe it will make French society change the way it considers minorities."

However, Miriam Sebbah, 43, a Riverdale resident who grew up in Marseille and whose family still lives there, insisted that to look for anti-Semitism's silver lining is to deny the facts on the ground.

"When I talk to my mom, I say, ‘Be careful where you go, be careful when you go," Sebbah said. "But she says that it doesn't matter because everybody knows who's Jewish."

She and her husband, Dan, a Paris native, were among about 150 area residents to attend a memorial prayer vigil in front of the French consulate in Manhattan Sunday, March 5. The ceremony, held in Halimi's honor, was organized by Amcha: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, headed by Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Sebbah surmised that by next month, when Halimi's murder is no longer front-page news, many French Jews "are going to forget."

"They'll say, ‘Life is good here,'" she said. "Right now people say, ‘We're going to make aliyah, we're going to make aliyah,' but how many people actually go?"

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.

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Published: March 11, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 48

(48) jérémy assous, May 2, 2006 12:00 AM

La RESISTANCE!!!

As citizens of the french Republic we(the chosen people) have the duty to protect the french from problems that they understand little of...However we have a moral obligation to accomplish our aims as israelites: getting our homes back from the lands we were thrown out of. In addition, many of us next-generation french israelites have varying origins (breton, marrocain, algerien, tunisien...).
So, in the end, who do we look up to?How do we give as much importance to all these factors as they deserve? These questions can only be answered in Israel...its our kampf! our jihad! our struggle!

(47) Anonymous, April 11, 2006 12:00 AM

History

Of course I live in United States where I feel confortable to live freely as a frum jew, so I can not speak from past experience. But History repeats itself. We must learn from past events.

This all seems to familiar.

(46) SAMUEL CHEKROUN, April 5, 2006 12:00 AM

IT ISE THE DESTYNY FOR ALL JEWISCH PERSONS

AFTER 18 YEARS IN FRANCE.WE THEK THE DESISION TO LEAVE EN ISRAEL I SIGNE ONE CONTRAT FOR BI A MASTER IN HEATHING SYSTEMS IN 1978 ALL THE FAMILY IN ISRAEL 3 CHIDRENNS AND NOW I AVE GRANDS CHIDRENS IN TSAAL.BAROUH A CHEM.

(45) Jeffrey, March 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Like the 30's in Germany

I'll bet many German Jews in the 30's thought things would get better also. Despite the French government's half hearted efforts to quash anti-semitism and "protect" Jewish places, the situation is out of control there and will only get worse as more Muslims enter France. Jews should leave France now for Israel or the U.S.

(44) Judith, March 26, 2006 12:00 AM

It is resistance which will cause world Jewery to return to Israel

I have often thought of what would cause US to return to Israel...it certainly would not be a "cushy" life anywhere in the world....it is likely to be the current rise in anti-semitism which we are seeing which is likely to propel us to return to eretz Israel....is this what will hasten the Moschiach?

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