Exodus: Migration of Jews Out of France Begins

Some fifty years ago, a mass migration transformed Judaism in France and in other countries of Western Europe. Algeria, a French colony in North Africa, was granted independence in 1962. Over one million French residents -- European settlers and natives that had opted for French citizenship and culture -- had no choice but to flee across the Mediterranean to the mother country, and ten percent of them were Jewish. Overnight, the Jewish community in Metropolitan France grew from 300,000 to over 400,000 souls.

Two more countries in North Africa had been French protectorates until the 1950s: Morocco to the west of Algeria; Tunisia to the east. Upon acceding to independence, the local governments in Rabat and Tunis guaranteed full equality to their Jewish minorities. But it soon became apparent that this was an empty promise, and that all non-Muslims, including Jews, had to go.

The exodus accelerated after the grisly circumstances of Algerian independence. Many Moroccan and Tunisian Jews fled to Israel. Some went to the French-speaking province of Quebec, in Canada. The rest -- some 200,000 Jews -- came to France. In addition, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees came from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran. All in all, the French Jewish community reached a peak of 700,000 in the 1970s.

Quantity may translate into quality. The sudden growth of a Jewish population allowed for a remarkable Jewish cultural and religious revival in France that compared with the parallel blooming of Judaism in North America and Israel.

Now, a reversal is taking place. Today Jews are migrating out of France, and this is occurring in increasingly larger numbers.

This migration starts within France, as a mere change of locations. In Greater Paris, middle-class Jewish families are deserting neighborhoods that have been engulfed by more recent immigrants from Africa and the Near East. These new immigrant populations have proven prone to violence, and as radical Muslims, many entertain negative views about Jews and Judaism. Harassment, arson, and assault are frequent. There have been several murders. Even the liberal-minded Imam Hassan Chalghoumi of Drancy, who advocates friendly relations with Christians and Jews, was threatened and assaulted.

“I did not leave Morocco for France to be confronted by Morocco again in France,” a Casablanca-born Jewish physician confided to me. He is selling his apartment in an increasingly Muslim-populated area of southeastern Paris to move to the local “Promised Land,” the West End of Paris. This area consists of the 16th and 17th districts, as well as the adjacent boroughs of Levallois, Puteaux, Neuilly, and Boulogne. These places are more expensive. But they are still solidly white and Christian, and thus, under the present conditions, deemed to be safer.

However, everybody cannot afford to move West, especially Orthodox Jewish families with many children. And even those who settled for other safer areas are not sure about the future. They wonder whether classic anti-Semitism is not back with a vengeance all over Europe, after several decades of post-Holocaust toleration. The fact that campaigns to make kosher slaughter and even circumcision illegal are gaining ground in several countries, and were even endorsed at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, is seen as particularly ominous.

So French Jews are looking beyond the West End. Registration with the Jewish Agency for emigration to Israel is soaring. Students are enrolling in Israeli or American universities. Families are buying apartments in Israel, or houses in Florida. Young professionals are looking for opportunities in the Israeli Silicon Valley, in London, even in Shanghai.

For quite a long time, many Israelis were skeptical about a large-scale immigration wave away from France ever occurring. The consensus was that French Jews talk a lot about immigrating, they buy apartments for vacationing, but at the end of the day very few of them stay abroad. Now, Jewish migration out of France is a proven reality (in fact, this goes for migration in general: many non-Jewish French are considering emigrating as well). From an Israeli perspective, the questions now are whether emigrants will go to Israel or to another place, and what the numbers really are.