Where do France’s Jews Belong?

A version of this story appeared on TIME.com published 7.21.2004

Ariel Sharon’s belief that the Jews of France belong in Israel and ought to get there as soon as possible lest they fall victim to anti-Semitism gone wild has opened a major diplomatic row between France and Israel. But it’s also a signal of deeper tensions on the question whether it is the “manifest destiny” of almost two thirds of the world’s Jewish population, who live outside of Israel, to emigrate to Israel and help maintain a Jewish majority there.

French Anti-Semitism:
Is Israel the answer?

The furor began when, in a speech to U.S. Jewish leaders, Sharon said that while he wanted all the world’s Jews to move to Israel, in the case of France where they face “the wildest anti-Semitism” such a move was essential and a matter of urgency. France is home to Western Europe’s largest Jewish community, numbering some 600,000. The condemnation of Sharon was swift and shrill, not only from the French government, but also from leaders of France’s Jewish community who accused Sharon of pouring gasoline on the fire.

Curiously enough, despite Sharon’s claim that “wild” anti-Semitism leaves French Jews no option but to flee to Israel, the Anti-Defamation League’s own study of European anti-Semitism released in April suggests that there has actually been a 10 percent decline in anti-Semitic attitudes in France over the past two years. (Sharon himself commended the French government for taking steps to fight it.) To be sure, anti-Semitic attacks have become a worrying reality for many Jews in France, and a tiny, but growing minority have taken Sharon’s advice. Still, the reason French Jewish leaders have been particularly dismayed by Sharon’s comments is not hard to see: One of the questions asked in the ADL survey as a measure of anti-Semitic attitudes was whether the survey’s respondents agreed with the statement “Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own country.” Sharon left no doubt about his belief that they ought to be.

Seeking to explain Sharon’s remarks, Israel’s eloquent New York consul Alon Pinkas offered the following on CNN: “Israeli prime ministers, by definition, by their mission statement, and if you will, to borrow a term from your political culture, by their manifest destiny, are expected and required to ask Jews to come and live in Israel. Mr. Sharon has asked American Jews to come and live in Israel. In fact several months ago said he hopes that within a few years, a million American Jews will come to live in Israel. I didn’t hear George W. Bush saying that he’s upset about it.”

The “manifest destiny” theme was reiterated by a number of current and former Israeli officials. Former Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, for example: “As you know Israel is a Zionist state. We always advocate that all Jews should return to Israel. This is not a new opinion.”

Indeed. And nor is the idea of tension between the Zionist leadership and Diaspora Jewish communities over how to respond to anti-Semitism. Some 110 years ago, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, went to Paris as a journalist to cover the notorious trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army falsely accused of spying for Germany whose indictment touched off a wave of anti-Semitism in France. The case may have prompted an outraged Emile Zola to pen his famous J’Accuse indictment of French anti-Semitism, which he denounced as a betrayal of France’s own values – but Herzl reached a different conclusion. The founder of the modern Zionist movement wrote in his diary that “In Paris, then, I gained a freer attitude toward antisemitism which I now began to understand historically and make allowances for. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of efforts to ‘combat antisemitsm.’ ” Today, Sharon appears to echo Herzl’s notion of the futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism in France. Despite acknowledging the efforts of the French government to do so, he maintains that immigration is the only solution.

But a belief in “manifest destiny” even over the preferences of Jews who choose to live elsewhere is driven today not so much by pure ideology, but by the demographic concerns of the Israeli leadership. Anyone following political discussion in Israel will notice how prominently demographic trends feature in political discourse. Ariel Sharon promotes his Gaza pullout plan to his own party which has traditionally opposed a Palestinian state anywhere west of the Jordan river via the demographic route: Based on the territory currently under its control, Arabs will eclipse Jews as the demographic majority inside Israel in the next ten to twenty years. This, too, is the argument of the left for handing back the West Bank, also. And these demographic concerns have prompted Ariel Sharon, since he first took office, to repeatedly stress his desire to bring 1 million Jews to Israel in the next ten years. But these days, of course, they’re proving difficult to find.

According to Israeli figures, some 46 percent of the world’s Jewish population live in North America, compared with 37 percent in Israel and 12 percent in Europe. Given the fact that North American Jews are, in the main, unlikely to emigrate any time soon, that leaves Sharon to seek his new immigrants mostly in Europe, the former Soviet territories and among the 350,000 Jews of Latin America and the 80,000 in South Africa.

Traditionally, from Herzl onward, the basic argument – as I learned it in the Zionist youth movement in South Africa – has been that Jewish life in the Diaspora is inherently unsafe, unfulfilling, and transient. Sooner or later, all Jews will realize that their destiny lies in Israel. But the demographic trends are showing the opposite: A majority of Jews when given the choice, have chosen to remain in the Diaspora. Not only that; a growing number of Israeli Jews appear to be choosing to join them. Late last year, the Israeli government revealed that some 760,000 Israeli Jews are currently living abroad, a number that has increased by 40 percent since the onset of the current Palestinian uprising in 2000. And last year’s total Jewish immigration into Israel, numbering some 23,000, was a 15-year low. And even as Sharon insists that the safety of French Jews depends on immigrating to Israel forthwith, Israelis are flocking to European embassies to apply for EU passports. Indeed, concern for their personal security may actually be prompting more Jews to actually leave Israel than to settle there.

Germany, rather than Israel, is the preferred destination of Jews leaving the former Soviet territories today – a fact that has Zionist officials so steamed that they’re calling on the Israeli government to pressure Germany to stop “enticing” Jews to settle there. The very fact that Jews leaving the former Soviet territories are being given a choice to go anywhere other than Israel appears to be unacceptable, since in the words of Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Merridor “this drastically effects immigration to Israel.” Merridor appears oblivious to the irony in attacking Germany for making it easier for Jews to live there.

As a Jew who actually likes living in the Diaspora and sees no reason for immigrating to Israel, comments such as Merridor’s – and Sharon’s – make me uncomfortable. My Uncle Adam and his family live in Paris, and have no desire or intention to leave. My cousin Cathy and her children live in Israel, and they, too, have no intention of leaving. I have family in South Africa, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Mexico, Poland and Scotland, all of whom have declined the option of living in Israel. In my book, anyone who tells Cathy she doesn’t belong in Israel because she’s a Jew, is an anti-Semite. But I apply the same label to anyone who tells Uncle Adam that as a Jew he doesn’t belong in France, or says the same thing to any of my relatives elsewhere in the Diaspora. “Go back to Israel” was a message I heard occasionally growing up, both from Zionist emissaries promoting immigration and from rightwing anti-Semites hostile to my anti-apartheid views, which they somehow mistook to be uniquely Jewish. Unlike Herzl and, by extension, Sharon, I can’t accept that fighting anti-Semitism in France is futile, because I believe that a Jew’s place is anywhere he or she chooses to live.

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