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Safe in Israel, French Jews Fear for Family Members They Left Behind

November 11, 2005
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“Everyone in the family was worried about our security when we moved to Israel last year,” says Lionel Levi, who made aliyah from the suburbs of Paris, “and now here in Netanya we’re all worried about the family we left behind in France.” “I call my son every night in the 19th district of Paris,” says Valerie Boutboub, who moved to Netanya three months ago. “The Arab kids burned cars near his apartment, but he hasn’t had any trouble himself.”

Boutboub made aliyah from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb in the troubled northern department of Seine Saint Denis.

“They’ve been burning cars all over my old neighborhood,” she says. “It makes me sick. I think I left for Israel just in time.”

Levi and his wife Annie were sitting at one table at the Kapulsky Cafe on the main square of this seaside city north of Tel Aviv, long a favorite residence for francophone Jews, especially those of North African origin.

Boutboub and two friends were at another table. All around them the conversation was in French, and it focused on one subject: the rioting across France over the past two weeks by North African and black African Muslim youths who live in housing projects in working-class suburbs.

Thousands of cars and buses have been torched and stores, schools, day-care centers and sports centers have been set ablaze.

Small bands of youths have used stones, Molotov cocktails, bird shot and even live ammunition to battle riot police and firemen, often coordinating their guerilla-style battle tactics by cell phone.

Several deaths have been reported, including two youths electrocuted when they hid in a high voltage power station — allegedly from police pursuing them, though police deny that — the incident that set off the rioting.

In contrast to the wave of anti-Semitic violence in and around Paris that began with the Palestinian intifada in late 2000 and slowed only last year, there have been few incidents of violence reported against Jewish institutions in the current riots.

In one, youths reportedly entered a synagogue in Sarcelles, north of Paris, but left without damaging anything.

The youths say they’re furious with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who had threatened to use Karsher, a cleaning spray, “to clean up the housing projects and get rid of the delinquents.”

About 3,000 Jews move from France to Israel each year, one of the highest rates of Jewish immigration from any single country.

They argue over the reasons for the rioting and what the French government should do about it, but they agree on one thing: They’re happy they left for Israel.

“The Arab kids say they’re rioting because France deliberately keeps them poor,” Boutboub says, “but I think these kids simply don’t want to work. Many North African Arabs have succeeded in integrating in France. When I came to France from Tunisia with my parents in 1965, we lived in maids’ quarters. My kids all studied and have good jobs.”

Boutboub says she was so fed up with the general lack of security in France that in the last general election she voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, who in the past has been accused of anti-Semitism.

“Jews don’t want to talk about this, but I think a number of them actually voted for Le Pen,” she says. “And now I hope Sarkozy will continue taking a tough stance, because if he gives up, the government could fall apart and people will feel totally unsafe.”

But not everyone agrees on that last point.

“I think Sarkozy was wrong to talk publicly about using cleaning spray on the Arab kids,” says Boutbout’s friend Marie Belhassen, who moved to Israel in May. “I feel badly for the parents of these kids. We also were poor when we moved to France from Tunisia. They moved to France from North Africa at the same time the Jews did, and they worked hard, but something went wrong. Maybe they had too many kids.”

“The French government doesn’t know what to do about the situation of ‘les beurs’ ” — French-born Arab kids — “or the rioting,” says Martine Hayot, who made aliyah a year ago. “We’re all following the declarations on French television here in Israel, and they don’t make us feel safe about our families there. I’m afraid for my mother in the 19th district. She saw cars burning outside her apartment. I call her every day.”

Hayot says her children always played with Muslim kids, and never had trouble.

“Once I was insulted by two older boys not from the neighborhood, and the local Arab kids immediately helped me,” she says. “But there are a lot of delinquents, and Sarkozy is right to crack down on them.”

“Local government officials should have seen this coming, but they’re out of touch with the kids,” counters Levi, sipping a Perrier in the Netanya sunshine.

Levi, who moved to Netanya with his wife and two young daughters a year and a half ago, ran a championship girls handball team and a sports club in Bondy, north of Paris, but ran afoul of the mayor.

“I worked closely with North African Arab adults and the kids,” he says. “We had good ideas about involving the kids, so they fired us.”

Levi says the housing projects are controlled by gang leaders, who traffic in drugs and stolen goods.

“The French are afraid. They don’t want to know the truth about their own suburbs. They protect their jobs and their vacation time. I think the French officials and the people will close their eyes and pretend the violence isn’t there until it smacks them in the face” — like now.

“Not all the North African Arabs in France are hoodlums,” says Levi’s wife, Annie. “We had close Arab friends in Bondy, people who were successful and had good jobs. They put their kids in private schools; they didn’t want them hanging out with the delinquents. I think they’re already paying for this. They probably already had their cars burned. And now the French will vote for the National Front.”

Many people wonder if the rioting will push more French Jews to make aliyah.

“I think this is going to wake people up,” says Claude Ben David, who made aliyah with his wife and children 14 years ago and now owns Chez Claude, a Netanya falafel restaurant. “In the past week all our French customers have been talking about this. They say Sarkozy said out loud what everyone is thinking. We hear people saying they’re afraid. Of course, we think everyone should move to Israel.”

For many adults, the problem is how to find work in Israel, a concern that can override fears of remaining in Paris.

Jose Hayot had Arab employees in his kosher butcher shop in Paris’ 19th district, and says they worked in mutual respect.

“They would be furious with the delinquency they saw around us, but they knew they could do nothing,” he says.

Hayot says he expects his brother may sell the shop and move to Netanya, where the two could open a butcher shop together.

Hayot’s daughter Laura, 19, made aliyah Wednesday.

“I was afraid in Paris for the first time,” she says. “I think I got out just in time.”

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