by Steve Israel
The French Jewish community is a fascinating study, because its complexion has been almost totallly changed in the last generation. French Jewry - the first Jewish community in the world to be formally emancipated at the time of the French Revoultion, and received as citizens under Napoleon Bonaparte - was a largely Ashkenazi community with a small admixture of old Sephardi families from Spain who had been well integrated in French society. As such, despite the famous Dreyfus affair that transformed Herzl into a Zionist and brought about the official foundation of the Zionist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, French Jewry had stood largely on the side, mildly supportive of Zionism, but in passive mode.
The Shoah (Holocaust) and World War II changed the fortunes of the French community for ever. Of the approximately 300,000 Jews who lived in France on the eve of World War II, not all were French citizens by birth and over a third were annihilated by the Nazi's after their invasion of France, with the active cooperation of the Vichy regime in the "unoccupied" zone of France. That part of French Jewry which survived was reinforced in the immediate post war years by some 80,000 Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who moved to Western Europe and settled in France.
However, a major change occured in the mid 1950s to mid 1960s when tens of thousands of Jews from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco left northern Africa and relocated in France. Most were French speakers who felt that France would provide a natural home for them as the situation in their native lands grew extremely difficult with the rise of Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism. Many of the new arrivals had relatives who went to Israel. Some of the new French immigrants had themselves tried life in Israel and had found it wanting. Altogether, about 300,000 northern African Jews are estimated to have resettled in France, changing the make-up of the community totally.
The newcomers were at first Eastern European Jews and, later, Sephardi Jews who formed their own congregations, and were more traditional in orientation than many of the other Jews in the receiving community. The family and community ties of the newcomers with the immigrants to Israel created a closer relationship between French Jewry and Israel, although the difficult circumstances encountered by most of the immigrants to Israel made for a certain critical stance on the part of the new French Jews.
During the Second World War, France had proved that much of its population harboured anti-semitic feelings, sometimes very strongly indeed. That situation has persisted to the present day, with occasional anti-semitic outbreaks causing understandable anxiety within the French Jewish community. The presence of a large Moslem community and the legacy of the New Left have also contributed since the late 1960s to a feeling of fragility in certain circles that has translated into an impetus towards Aliyah.
The recent rise of the extreme French right under Jean Marie Le Pen should be viewed in this context, despite the fact that this accounts for almost 15% of the electoral vote.
An additional push to Aliyah has come from a widespread religious revival over the last few years, which has brought large numbers of religious Jews (including many "ba'alei teshuva" - newly religious Jews) to Israel, many of these being second generation immigrants to France whose parents hailed from the Maghreb - North Africa. All in all, over 30,000 French Jews have made Aliyah since the foundation of the State of Israel.