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The exodus: Why are French Jews moving to Israel?

Photo: Michel Euler/AP/Press Association Images

For DG #18, which comes out at the start of June, we interviewed people whose lives were affected by the terror attacks in Paris and Copenhagen in January and February respectively. Amongst others, we spoke to Joachim Roncin, the art director who originally created the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan and logo, and Lars Vilks, the controversial Swedish artist who’s living under police protection following the latest attempt on his life in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, we couldn’t squeeze all of our interviews onto the printed page, so we’ll share a few bits and pieces here on the blog.

We wanted a historical perspective on Binyamin Netanyahu’s regular calls for European Jews to migrate to Israel at a time of rising anti-Semitism, so we spoke to Professor Colin Shindler, author of several books on Israeli history. His latest book, The Rise of the Israeli Right, will be published this summer. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat with him:

With an election around the corner was this Netanyahu the politician more than Netanyahu the Zionist calling for Jewish migration to Israel?
CS: I think it’s both. He was playing the advocate of Zionism but he was also aware that it played well to the Israeli electorate. He’s the leader of a coalition of the centre-right and the far-right and this was their mantra, that all Jews must come to Israel, even though the historical reality is that relatively few American Jews and Jews in the West have emigrated to Israel. Most were from eastern Europe and the Arab world.

Aren’t Jews statistically more safe in France than Israel?
CS: I think there’s some truth to that, but while there are lots of problems in Israel you don’t have Jews feeling victimised for being Jewish. In the diaspora Jews are victims to anti-Semitic incidents and that doesn’t happen in Israel.

What’s the origin of aliyah and the law of return?
CS: Israel fought a war of independence in 1948 and there was essentially a ceasefire armistice in 1949. So from the spring of 1949 onwards there was a great desire to get on with the business of state building and kibbutz galuyot, the ‘ingathering of the exiles’, was a big part of that. That’s what Zionism was about and Jews from all over the world moved to Israel in their tens of thousands. The notion of ‘right of return’ was part of this state-building. There were even statements from Menachem Begin [leader of the Zionist militant group Irgun and the sixth prime minister of Israel] that Jews in the diaspora should get a vote in Israeli elections. That was the kind of feeling there was, and the law of the right of return came out of that. I don’t think it has the same veracity today as it did during the halcyon days of Israel, when the state was being built up from nothing. It had a greater meaning in 1950.

Do Israeli governments actively try to manage the state’s relationship with the diaspora?
CS: There’s the Jewish Agency, which is almost an unofficial ministry for dealing with relations with the diaspora. At the moment Natan Sharansky runs it; he was a former leading refusenik in the Soviet Union and indeed a dissident and a friend of [Soviet dissident] Andrei Sakharov. In the 1950s [David, first prime minister of Israel] Ben-Gurion realised that the entire Jewish diaspora was not going to emigrate to Israel and he began to see it as a hinterland that could be utilised to support Israel politically, and help raise funds for Israel. Diaspora Jews did identify with the state of Israel and the majority still do today.

Are there diplomatic implications of Israeli officials telling citizens of a friendly country they’re unsafe?
CS: The relationship between the Israeli government and European/US governments are already at a low point. I don’t think it’s going to make a bad situation worse.

Does the rapidly rising number of French Jews emigrating to Israel mean that they are unsafe?
CS: I think last year was around 7,000 [7,231 according to the Jewish Agency, compared to 3,295 in 2013] and they believe it’ll rise to around 10,000 in 2015. What happened at the kosher supermarket in January is not an isolated incident, it’s part of a continuum that goes back some way in France, for example Toulouse [where a gunman shot dead a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in March 2012]. The Paris incident was clearly shocking for French Jews. The gunman knew it was a Friday morning so the shop was busy with people preparing for the sabbath.

Is it unsafe to be Jewish in Europe today?
CS: I think it’s less safe, but not unsafe. Different countries have different traditions; Britain, for example, is different to France. All in all, it doesn’t bode well for the future.

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