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LA STAMPA

In New York, Signs Of A Quiet Exodus Of Jews From France

Last March's killings at a Jewish elementary school in Toulouse shocked many, but French Jews have been feeling less secure for years. Some leave, though security isn't the only reason.

Orthodox Jews at home in NYC
Orthodox Jews at home in NYC
Maurizio Molinari

NEW YORK - 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.

Meanwhile, Alessia Lefebure, director of the “Alliance Program” between Columbia University in NYC and “Sciences Po” in Paris, speaks of “a notable number of Parisian Jewish teachers who want to teach here.” To understand what’s happening, we have to go to the Jewish Centre on 86th Street where, in March 2012, the Jewish New Yorkers urged their French counterparts to commemorate the victims of the shooting in the “Ozar Hatorah” school in Toulouse, where the jihadist Mohammed Merah killed a rabbi and three children.

Leading the ceremony was Zachary, 29, a transport manager from Strasbourg. “If New York is full of French Jews- he explains- it’s because in 2002, in connection with the second Palestinian Intifada, a season of physical aggression began towards us from the Arabs that still hasn’t stopped. It just brought the conflict from the Middle East onto our streets.”

More than 80% of the almost 600,000 French Jews -- France is the second highest community, apart from the US, outside of Israel -- come from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Sephardic families who had spent centuries in coexistance with Muslims were forced to leave the Maghreb because of Arabic pogroms in the 1950s and ‘60s and found in France an accord between monotheistic faiths. “The symptoms of Muslim intolerance against us began before 2002- adds Daniel, a French bank worker in Manhattan- but the second Intifada made the atmosphere asphyxiating”. “The killing of Ilan Halimi, 23, in February 2006 was the first shock. Then others followed suit,” explains David, father of two, from the Parisian suburb of Les Lilas. “When I was a school boy, 20% of the residents were Jewish, now there’s almost none of them still there.”

Moving away from France follows a path that Noam Ohana, manager of the BeaconLight Capital, describes as this: “We moved from the suburbs of Paris to the centre, to the 16th arrondissement, where there are more kosher restaurants than in Manhattan, after that the next step is Israel or New York.” Ohana’s theory that appears in his book “From Sciences Po to Tzahal (Israeli Defense Forces)”, is that the French Jews leave for reasons that include, but are not limited to, intolerance but also reasons that encourage people to leave the upper middle class, or better opportunities in respect to a society that no longer allows them to think big.” In other words: it’s France who has become weak.

What Zachary, Daniel, David and Noam have in common is that they all attended the public schools, formed by the “secular state” and they have realized that in the past 5-6 years it has changed because of the rampant religious controversies.

On mobile phones, some people have saved images of the Marseillaise singing throughout the “Stade de France” in August 2001, when a France-Algeria soccer match, friendly match meant to establish brotherhood between the two nations, broke down into pitch invasions and riots. They look at the event again and again, more and more incredulous for the “intolerance towards our nation.” David's sister was attacked in Nice by some Arabs. "Episodes that occur continuously in the streets or in the subway - adds Aharon, a designer in a start-up - they force you to walk with your head down, put a hat on to conceal the kippah." The response from the police is to "often not classify the attacks as anti-Semitism but as robberies or violence" which conceals the true extent of the phenomenon.

Political sympathies are halfway between right and left. Ohana knows that from within Hollande’s Socialists "there is a determination to ensure greater security for the Jews," but whether they can be convinced to go back to France, there are many who are cautious: "They can not control the aspirations of people, Jewish or not, who want to go elsewhere to pursue their dreams." Aharon is more concrete: "Finding a job in a corporation in France for practising orthodox Jews is impossible but in New York, you do not even need to explain it. Everyone knows that on Yom Kippur, on religious holidays, or on Saturdays we do not work." The result is that Paris has become a city that Jews leave quietly but continuously, carrying on their traditions and symbols elsewhere. Like the jerseys of the “Menorah FC" who play in Harlem, they’re helping to shape the identity of a France, where Muslims increase whilst Jews decrease.

There are nearly 600,000 French Jews, accounting for the third-highest Jewish population in the world after the U.S. and Israel. More than 80% of Jews in France come from backgrounds in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria -- Sephardic families who had spent centuries in peaceful coexistance with Muslims until they were forced to leave the Maghreb because of Arabic pogroms in the 1950s and 1960s.

A turning point

The anti-Semitic torture and killing of Ilan Halimi, 23, in February 2006 was "the first shock," recalled David, father of two, from the Parisian suburb of Les Lilas. "Then others followed....When I was a school boy, 20% of the residents were Jewish, now there’s almost none of them still there.”

Moving away from France follows a path that Noam Ohana, the manager of BeaconLight Capital, describes in his book: “From Sciences Po to Tzahal (Israeli Defense Forces).” He says French Jews move from the provinces to the center of Paris, then to the 16th arrondissement (neighborhood), "where there are more kosher restaurants than Manhattan" -- After that, "the next step is Israel or New York.”

Ohana says that French Jews actually leave for a variety of reasons that include, but are not limited to, intolerance. "There are other motivations...to pursue better opportunities in respect to a society that no longer allows them to think big.” In other words: it’s France itself that has become weak.

What most New York transplants have in common is that they attended the public schools, formed by the “secular state,” but they have realized that in the past 5-6 years that it has changed because of the rampant religious controversies.

Aharon, a designer in a start-up says the tension "forces you to walk with your head down, put a hat on to conceal the kippah." He says police too often classify attacks as simple robberies or assaults, rather than hate crimes, underplaying the extent of anti-Semitism.

Aharon is more concrete: "Finding a job in a corporation in France for a practicing Orthodox Jew is impossible, but in New York, you do not even need to explain it. Everyone knows that on Yom Kippur, on religious holidays, or on Saturdays we do not work."

The result is that Paris is now a place that Jews are quietly, but steadily leaving, helping to change the identity of France where the number of Muslims continues to grow.

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