The Jewish Exodus From France”Ž
On January 26, possibly for the first time ever since the end of World War Two, explicit anti-semitic slogans were shouted during a large scale political demonstration in Paris. The incident was just a further indication that French Jews are not as secure today as they used to be a few years ago. Indeed, many French Jews have concluded they have no future in their country, and are leaving for Israel or North America.
In 2013, more than 20,000 people formally applied to the Jewish Agency in Paris for aliyah – emigration to Israel – and more than 3,000 completed the emigration process during the same year: twice as much as in 2012. France is now the first country of origin for aliyah, ahead of the United States.
No less relevant is the rise of people considering emigrating to Israel. In 2012, about sixty people in France used to attend weekly aliyah-focused information workshops. Throughout 2013, average attendance soared to 150 people per week. In December, it peaked out at 500 people per week.
No such data is available about French Jewish emigration to North America. There is no doubt, however, that it is on the rise. Maurizio Molinari recently wrote in an article published by the Italian daily La Stampa :
“Every Saturday at around 12pm on the sidewalks of the Upper West Side you can hear French being spoken. It’s coming from groups of people who are coming out of the synagogues on 75th, 78th and 84th streets, where increasing numbers of French Jews are appearing each week. They’re families with kids, young people, teachers and executives. The consulate on Fifth Avenue hasn’t estimated the exact numbers of this phenomenon but it’s definitely increasing. In the “Manhattan Day School” the teachers are showing the daughter of a family around, who just arrived with very few days warning.”
As a matter of fact, the non-Jewish French are considering emigration too. According to recent polls, up to one third of the French at large and one half of the French youth say they are ready to expatriate permanently. One reason is economic gloom – 11% of all working age French and 25% of the working age French under 25 are unemployed – along with the feeling that dynamic individuals cannot make it in France’s rigidified and overtaxed society. Another reason is concern about non-European immigration and the gradual erosion of France’s national character and national culture. Naturally, the more the French at large think about emigrating, or engage into expatriation, the more Jews are likely to do the same.
How far will it go? Is this the beginning of a new mass migration within the Jewish world, twenty years after the mass migration of most Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel, Western Europe, and North America? Will the French Jews transform Israel and American Jewry the way Soviet Jews did?
It is usually assumed, in the absence of any government sponsored or supervised census in religious matters, that about half a million Jews live currently in France. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the French Jewish community is now the third largest one in the world by size, after Israel (6 million) and the United States (from 5 to 7.5 million, depending on sources), and the largest on the European continent. Two European Jews out of three are assumed to be French, or at least two out of four if one is to include the Russian and Ukrainian in the sum total.
It is also assumed by many demographers that French Jewry dropped from about 600,000 or even 700,000 souls in the 1970s and 1980s to its current size (the Virtual Jewish Library points to 480,000 souls), and that this negative trend is not likely to be reversed. Decline is ascribed to such factors as ageing, assimilation and intermarriage, a low birthrate – and emigration.
However, these numbers are based on data provided by the French Jewish organizations: synagogues, schools, community centers, Jewish federations. Reliable statistics from other sources point to a strikingly different, and more optimistic, picture. Since 1994, according to various polls and investigations conducted by organizations unrelated to the Jewish community, the proportion of the citizens and residents of France that describe themselves as Jewish has not changed. However, the global French population (overseas territories included) grew during the same period from 57.6 million in 1994 to 65.5 million in 2013 -so much so that the Jewish population writ large may actually have grown by ten percent, from 576,000 to 655,000.
One reason for the discrepancy between Jewish organization statistics about Jews and global statistics about Jews is that the former deal chiefly with an inner circle of traditional or semi-traditional Jews that keep formal links with Jewish institutions, while the latter may include an outer circle of “m”Žarranos”: persons of Jewish origin, more often than not with imperfect halachic credentials, who nevertheless are concerned about Jewish issues and are willing, given the vibrancy of the inner community, to return to Judaism in one way or another.
Whatever the figures, the Jewish emigration potential from France is very important. The Israeli political leadership is taking steps to turn this potential into an asset. Laws and regulations are being revised or scrapped in order to help French professionals or students assimilate. And a Francophone caucus was created a few weeks ago at the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Michel Gurfinkiel is a French journalist and writer. Editor Emeritus of Valeurs Actuelles, France’s leading conservative magazine, he contributes to many American media outlets, from Commentary Magazine to PJMedia. The president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a political think-tank in Paris, since 2003, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum since 2012, he sits on the Board of Governors of Consistoire, the Union of French synagogues, since 1990.