Let’s Talk About Jews in France

Between Us

Here are three ways to Make It Yours this week:

Stay, or go?

The horrific terror attacks and murders in Paris last week at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher have sent a shudder throughout the world, causing hand wringing, soul searching and plenty of blame to go around. First, we mourn the innocent victims – click here to see a letter we sent to a French Jewish leader. We then call it for what it is: yet another horrific Islamic fundamentalist terror attack.

For some, this incident is seen as something new and bold in its attack on the values of freedom of expression. For Jews, it is nothing new. For Jews, it is part of an ongoing struggle betweenfundamentalism and freedom; between totalitarianism and democracy. For Israel, it is more of the same, for she knows all too well the costs of terror and the true intent of those who perpetrate terror on its citizens.

What is particularly interesting to me is the spate of articles on whether now is the time for French Jews to see what they’re up against and to finally make the decision to make aliyah.

Two French proverbs help to clarify the positions: “Chacun sent le mieux ou le soulier le blesse” (No one knows where the shoe pinches, but he who wears it).

Some have reacted strongly to suggestions that large numbers of French Jews make aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the head of the European Jewish Association, said that aliyahis not the answer to everything, even if it is an important policy for the state of Israel. “Anyone familiar with the European reality knows that a call to aliyah is not the solution for anti-Semitic terror,” he said. Others agreed, saying that it is for the Jews of France to decide their futures, not for others to tell them what to do.

Il n’est pire aveugle que celui qui ne veut pas voir” (There are none so blind as they who will not see).

“This particular tragedy is a very tragic and powerful reminder for Europe that the time is running out for them – not for European Jews,” said Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “If France and the other Western nations will not fight quickly and strongly for reestablishing the civilization of liberal nations, Europe is in danger,” he said. “The exodus of Jews, as many times in the past, is the first harbinger, a warning of where it goes.

Two other thoughtful voices weighed in as well. Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel, said that Jews from France would be welcome in Israel but that it was important that their choice be “born out of a positive Jewish identity, out of Zionism, and not because of anti-Semitism.” And just the other night, at a Gathering of Solidarity and Remembrance organized by AJC at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, Gerard Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States said, “We want the Jews of France to remain in France. If they want to make aliyah, they should do so because they want to, not because they feel they must.”

I am not a French Jew, and do not presume to tell them what to do with their lives. My grandparents decided in and around 1905 to leave Czarist Russia for the United States. I can only imagine what they were thinking, but am most grateful they made such brave decisions, along with millions of others — the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of so many of us.

French Jews – or for that matter – all of European Jewry, will decide what is best for them. They know “where the shoe pinches.” They know the risks and the rewards. Our role is to help support them and their decisions. Our role is to provide for choices by helping to build infrastructure and support systems should they stay, and the mechanism to make aliyah should they go. The Federation system has been in touch with the Jewish community in France and await their answer as to what they feel is needed. Meanwhile, through our annual unrestricted campaign, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is a major investor in two overseas partners — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Our partners work every day to support the choices of European Jewry. And we help make it possible for there to be choices.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-era, there wasn’t any such choice. It contains the famous descriptions of the Burning Bush, Moses’ self-doubt about his abilities to confront Pharaoh and the beginning of Moses’ demands to “Let my people go“, along with a listing of (most of) the Ten Plagues. While Moses was sent by God to deliver the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage, his mission was far more complex.

In addition to repeatedly pleading with Pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves, Moses was preparing them to become a new nation. The latter proved to be far more difficult. This portion focuses on the stubbornness and pride of a Pharaohic despot while introducing us to the challenges of rebuilding after destruction. Sound familiar? Recent world events remind us that removing tyrants is only the beginning of a far more difficult rebuilding process. Moses’ moment of self-doubt humanizes the most revered of our Jewish leaders. His strength was not only in confronting Pharaoh, for he is portrayed as an agent of God. His strength was revealed later in confronting both his people and God, with an eye toward the ultimate goals of receiving Torah and reaching the Promised Land. He was our greatest teacher because he taught us how to be free — and to make choices.

Steven A. Rakitt, Chief Executive Officer  
[email protected]