By David Chivo, Special to the Jewish Sound
What if every family attending Bellevue’s Jewish Day School hastily packed up and left Seattle by year’s end? Would our community take notice?
What if campers attending the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s summer programs begged their parents to stay home, fearing verbal and physical attacks during the morning commute? Would our community be worried?
What if members of our synagogues and patrons of Island Crust Café risked being severely beaten by gangs as they visited these facilities? Would our community be concerned?
These scenarios are not unthinkable situations: They are being lived out by France’s Jewish community right now. In 2014, over 5,000 French Jews will be making aliyah, representing over 1 percent of France’s Jewish population (not counting thousands more leaving for other destinations) to escape the deteriorating conditions facing the French Jewish community. In Seattle terms, those making aliyah is roughly proportional to all of those JDS families leaving our community.
The flight of French Jews comes against the backdrop of a recent ADL study about global anti-Semitism in which France ranked highest among western European countries (37 percent harbor anti-Semitic attitudes), greater than in developing countries such Nigeria (16 percent) and Kenya (35 percent) and nearly double that of Asia — less the Middle East — where the mean is 22 percent. Yet, other statistics about France make the surge in anti-Semitism even more puzzling: It is home to the world’s fifth largest economy and is the wealthiest nation in Europe.
The component ingredients fueling 21st-century French anti-Semitism consist of a particularly noxious, yet contradictory mix. Ultra-right parties such as France’s National Front (which recently finished first in the 2014 EU elections) continually stoke anti-Jewish sentiments; unlikely bedfellows are ultra-left wing parties courting support via the Palestinian cause as well as radical Islam whose adherents have carried out dozens of violent — even fatal — attacks, including the 2012 shooting at a Jewish day school in Toulouse that left a rabbi and three children dead.
Even stranger is the poster-child of French anti-Semitism: The wildly popular Dieudonné, a comedian who initially achieved fame via a duo act with his now-estranged childhood friend, Jewish humorist Elie Semoun. Along with his anti-Semitic slurs for which he has been criminally convicted, Dieudonné’s infamous interpretation of the Nazi salute, coined the “quenelle,” has gone viral throughout France, being gestured by French politicians, media figures, celebrities and athletes.
In contrast, Seattle’s Jewish community is fortunate to be situated in one of the most welcoming and tolerant places in the world. True, we must vigilantly deal with boycott and divestment campaigns, but for the most part our institutions and our community at large does not regularly encounter anti-Semitism. That said, our own margins of safety compel us to draw our attention to Jews in danger and to act on their behalf.
As we enjoy the splendor of life in the Pacific Northwest this summer, we should be mindful of a Jewish community not so unlike ours and the tremendous challenges it presently endures.
Through our voices we can make known to the world the schande facing French Jewry in 2014. Through our support, we can ensure that those who migrate to Israel will have what they need to rebuild their lives. And through actions of our hearts, we can ensure that “never again” is not simply a refrain but our promise to take care of our Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they may be.
David Chivo is the North American director of the Tel Aviv-based Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People.