PARIS (JTA) — On their 40th wedding anniversary, Avital and Natan Sharansky went sightseeing in the City of Light.
But the Sharanskys didn’t follow the trail of countless couples who come here to kiss at the Eiffel Tower or slip so-called love locks on bridges over the River Seine. Theirs was an itinerary that demonstrated a different kind of commitment.
“Avital is taking me to see all the places where she organized protest rallies for my release,” Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told JTA in an interview Thursday at his organization’s Paris headquarters.
There were about a dozen such places. To Sharansky, French Jewry’s strong mobilization on his behalf 25 years ago symbolizes both what Israel stands to gain and what Europe stands to lose as French immigration to Israel reaches record levels.
Home to Europe’s largest Jewish population of 500,000, France surpassed the United States last year to become the world’s second-largest source of Jewish immigration to Israel, with 3,263 emigrants making aliyah — second only to Russia. This year, 5,000 French Jewish immigrants are expected in Israel, well over double the 1,917 that made the move in 2012.
Such figures should be music to the ears of Sharansky, 67, a former Israeli Cabinet minister who spent nine years in a Soviet prison for his attempts to immigrate to Israel and has led the Jewish Agency — the organization principally responsible for facilitating global aliyah — for four.
Yet his happiness over his organization’s success is mixed with sadness over the vulnerability it reflects in a robust community that many fear is nearing extinction. Some, including Sharansky, believe French aliyah heralds the end of Jewish life in Europe.
“Something historic is happening,” Sharansky said. “It may be the beginning of the end of European Jewry.”
It is an observation that brings no joy to Sharansky, himself a Europe-born mathematician and chess prodigy who has revolutionized the Jewish Agency by expanding its traditional focus on aliyah to include strengthening Diaspora Jewish identity — a move he said was merely “contextualizing” aliyah but which critics feared would de-emphasize it.
“I think it’s a tragedy for Europe,” he said. “What is happening in France, the strongest of Europe’s Jewish communities, reflects processes taking place elsewhere in Europe. I keep asking people if Jews have a future in Europe.”
Sharansky was cheerful in his encounters with soon-to-be Israelis like Oury Chouchana, a 36-year-old lawyer who is preparing to leave next week to study Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem — the same Hebrew immersion program where Avital Sharansky studied 40 years ago.
“It may interest you to hear that Etzion is a serious, serious shidduch scene,” said Sharansky, using the Hebrew term for a marriage match.
The mixed blessings of French aliyah were apparent at a sendoff ceremony Wednesday for several hundred emigrants at the Synagogue des Tournelles. The ceremony took place a few days after the Le Monde newspaper published an emotional plea against aliyah by the well-known Jewish author and activist Marek Halter.
“Will you cede to those seeking our disappearance? Will you leave this home of ours to jihadists and the National Front?” he wrote, referencing the rising far-right party that many French Jews believe has anti-Semitic undertones.
Halter’s piece was a rare call to arms in a community whose leaders are encouraging French Jews to leave. At the sendoff, Richard Prasquier, a former head of the CRIF French Jewish umbrella group and current president of the Jewish National Fund branch in France, shared his “intense pride” in his daughter’s successful aliyah and encouraged the new immigrants to “take away with you our culture and plant it in Israel.”
Joel Mergui, the president of the French Consistoire, the community organ responsible for religious services, spoke at the sendoff of his own “mix of joy and pain” at the fact that three of his four children live 2,000 miles away from him in Israel.
French Jewry is “unique in how leaders don’t perceive aliyah as a threat that could weaken their communities, but as the first installment in building that community’s new future in Israel,” Sharansky told JTA.
This is “remarkable,” he added, “and could never come from federation heads in the United States, where community leaders are committed to ensuring a Jewish future in America.”
At the sendoff ceremony, Lionel Berros, a religious Jew who will immigrate in two weeks, was feeling a more personal version of the mix of melancholy and joy Sharansky described.
“When I was a child, I could leave home wearing my kippah,” said Berros, who is moving with his wife and daughter to Netanya. “Now I wear a baseball cap and my daughter leaves home only to go to school. I don’t want her to grow up like that. So I am sad to leave, but also happy.”
Like many French Jewish parents, Berros is never at ease when his daughter is at school — not since the 2012 murder of a rabbi and three children by a Muslim extremist at a Jewish school in Toulouse. The attack was one of 614 anti-Semitic incidents documented that year by the community’s SPCJ security unit. Of those attacks, 14 percent happened within 10 days of the Toulouse murders.
Sensitive to this sentiment, community leaders have made no secret of their concern for the community’s future.
In a recent interview about anti-Semitism levels, CRIF President Roger Cukierman described French Jews as trapped between the National Front party, which beat all other parties in the May elections for the European Parliament, a steady increase in violent hate crimes by Muslims, and secularist initiatives to ban kosher slaughter and circumcision.
“Behind the figures,” Cukierman said in reference to anti-Semitic attacks, “there is a difficult climate.”