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French Jews panelBy BERNIE BELLAN
An interesting discussion about the situation of the Jewish population of France took place Wednesday evening, December 6th, at the River Heights Community Centre. Once again, as seems to be the case so often these days, the discussion was organized jointly by Winnipeg Friends of Israel and Bridges for Peace.


The evening was billed as “The alarming reality for the Jews of France”. The evening began with an overview of the situation for French Jews as provided by Peter Fast, Deputy National Director of Bridges for Peace. Prior to his remarks Fast screened a film that depicted the stark facts that confront so many French Jews these days, including the absolute intimidation anyone who wears religious garb faces on a constant basis. With frequent attacks on Jews, including their murder – as happened in the case of a young French Jew by a gang of Muslims in 2006 ; an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 by a Muslim extremist; and an attack in a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2016 - again, by Muslim extremists, there has been a marked increase in the emigration of French Jews to Israel.
French JewsAccording to Fast, between 2002-2015 there were more anti-Semitic attacks in France than any other European country (a total of 4,192 incidents in France during those years). France does have the highest Jewish population of any European country (465,000 in 2014), followed by the United Kingdom (270,000), but until quite recently (when Germany welcomed a million Syrian refugees), it also had the largest Muslim population by far (4.7 million in 2016) of any European country.
During his remarks Fast noted that anti-Semitism in France has taken on quite a different complexion over the years. Whereas in the 20th century it was confined largely to right-wing elements within the population, also within much of the Catholic Church, beginning with the second intifada, which started in 2000, anti-Semitism became much more closely associated with Muslims and with the radical left. Interestingly, as Fast noted, most French Jews and French Muslims have roots in North Africa, but not much else in common.
As a result of the dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in France, a great many French Jews either actively immigrated to Israel or prepared plans to do so if events were to worsen even more. In a graph that he showed on screen, Fast pointed to the dramatic increase in the number of Jews who moved to Israel between 2012-2016 as evidence of the degree to which French Jews live in fear. (What Fast didn’t note, however, and which I discovered later on, was that, according to a Times of Israel article, some 15-20% of French Jews who have immigrated to Israel within the past five years have returned to France. It seems that the lack of employment opportunities is the principal driver of that reverse migration.)
Yet, with no sign that anti-Semitism in France will be abating, Fast claimed that “Israel is bracing for a mass aliyah of French Jews”.
“Hundreds of thousands will want to get out,” he predicted, with most of them headed to four communities for the most part: Netanya, Carmiel, Tel Aviv, and Eilat.
Following Fast’s introductory remarks, we heard from three Jewish women, all of whom lived in France: Rena Secter-Elbaze, Sophie Gaulin-Budniak, and Laura Ainouche.
Rena Secter-Elbaze, who grew up in Winnipeg and lived in Israel for a time before moving to France in 1986, where she met her husband Daniel Elbaze and completed a PhD in communications, returned to Canada with her family in 2007. She is now the Director of Engagement and Education for Congregation Shaarey Zedek, having served in a variety of roles for various Jewish organizations since returning to Winnipeg.
For Secter-Elbaze, living in Nice was somewhat removed from the more tense atmosphere that was felt by Jews living in other parts of the country, particularly Jews in Paris. “In the 1980s anti-Semitism came from the extreme right,” she said, as exemplified by Jean-Marie Le-Pen, (leader of the National Front until he was succeeded by his much less abrasive daughter, Maron).
“It (anti-Semitism) was not so much from the Arab population” in the 80s and 90s, Secter-Elbaze noted. In 1987, however, with the outbreak of the first intifada, “things began to change,” she noted.
“A lot of pseudo-intellectuals from the Arab community began inciting young Arabs against not just Jews, but the French in general,” Secter-Elbaze explained.
Then, in the 2000s, a series of riots broke out in a number of French cities, she noted, culminating in the burning of over 2,000 cars in 2005. (Later, during a discussion among the three panelists, it was pointed out that a large part of the reason for young Arabs rioting was that they were largely confined to certain geographic areas of the major French cities, where they suffered from very high degrees of unemployment. Interestingly, the Arab populations in France, by and large, do not live in inner cities, which is typically the case for underclass populations in North America; rather, they live in suburbs.)
Yet, for the most part, Secter-Elbaze said that she “felt fairly comfortable in Nice”, even as anti-Semitism was spiraling upward in cities such as Paris and Marseille. It was when she tried to organize an “Israel week” at the campus of the university at which she taught in Nice in the early 2000s though, that Secter-Elbaze realized that things had changed markedly for Jews everywhere in France.
“I was told that it’s okay to” advocate on behalf of Israel “in private, but not in public,” she observed. At the same time, she could see that “anti-Semitism was now coming largely from the left. At public rallies people were screaming ‘death to the Jews’,” Secter-Elbaze noted.
As well, “when I came to Nice I didn’t see Muslim women wearing head coverings,” she said, but by the time she left France, it was so much more common.
All the same, Secter-Elbaze said that “we didn’t leave France (in 2007) because of anti-Semitism, but now that I’m here, I’m happy to be here.”
Sophie Gaulin-Budniak is the publisher and editor of La Liberté, Winnipeg’s French language newspaper. She first came to Winnipeg as a student in 2003, but when her student visa expired, she was forced to return to France. She came back to Winnipeg in 2006 and began working for La Liberté, becoming its publisher and editor in 2009.
For Gaulin-Budniak, coming to Winnipeg was less about anti-Semitic pressures than it was because she “fell in love with Winnipeg.”
In France, she said, “people are rushing all the time; they’re always honking at you.” That’s not the case in Winnipeg, she insisted.
Yet, there were noticeable changes in attitudes toward Jews in France that made her feel much less comfortable there. “I had a Magen David that I never felt safe to wear in France,” Gaulin-Budniak observed.
Still, growing up in France, she had “many Muslim friends,” Gaulin-Budniak noted. What she didn’t like was that in the last few years she lived in France, “I was being enticed to hate Muslims.”
“The Muslim community is not anti-Zionist,” Gaulin-Budniak stated, “but radical Muslims are.”
 A pivotal moment in her life – and in the lives of other French Jews occurred in 2006, however, with the brutal murder of a young French Jew by the name of Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a Muslim group known as the “Gang of Barbarians”. “For the first time in my life I felt physically sick” over the idea that Jews were in danger, Gaulin-Budniak said.
Yet, she assigned much of the blame for resentments among young Muslims to past policies of French governments, which “bear a sense of responsibility for having confined the Muslim community into separate compartments.”
The fact that French Muslims have grown to identify Jews as being dominant in such areas as the media is truly ironic, Gaulin-Budniak suggested, because “if there is one country in the world where the media is not controlled by Jews, it’s France, where the conflict (between Israelis and Palestinians) is constantly portrayed as one between ‘David and Goliath’, she explained. “That’s exactly what the Nazis did” in attempting to depict Jews as powerful.
For Laura Ainouche, coming to Canada with her young family was not so much a decision to move to Canada as it was to get out of France.
“We just wanted to leave France (six years ago),” she explained. “My husband and I said, ‘We are not safe in France’.”
“My mother cried and said ‘Don’t leave us’,” Ainouche said (and as she told her story she herself broke down and began crying).
“We had good jobs there,” she explained, “but we are safe here. I don’t want to have a family where it’s not safe.”
Later in the discussion Rena Secter-Elbaze noted that, last year, on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, Mel Lazareck and Ken Zaifman actually went to France to try and make the case for some members of the French Jewish community to come to Winnipeg – just as Evelyn Hecht had done successfully with some members of Argentina’s Jewish community in the early 1990s. when she was the Federation’s Community Relations Director. According to Secter-Elbaze, the Jewish Federation even went to the trouble of running a large ad in a major French Jewish newspaper trumpeting the attractiveness of Winnipeg to French Jews.
Apparently though, although there were some exploratory visits by some French Jews here, so far none have taken the step of moving to Winnipeg. In a subdequent conversation that  I had with Shelley Faintuch, outgoing Community Relations Director for the Jewish Federation, Shelley explained that it might take years for an individual or family in France to make the move to Winnipeg. They might have to wind up or sell a business, and sell a home,  Shelley noted. She suggested it is too early to assess the results of the Federation’s foray into France lst year.According to an article in the Canadian Jewish News, however, some 200 French Jews have moved to Montreal in the past couple of years.