Will Jews flee Belgium and France for Quebec?
Part 1 of a 2-part series
MONTREAL — The number of anti-Semitic incidents has increased greatly in France and Belgium in recent months, and the alarming rise in Judeophobia in those countries has forced many Jewish families in those countries to seriously consider the ultimate choice: leave their native country and rebuild a new life in a more welcoming land.
This gloomy situation has been noticeably worse since the recent outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas.
In France and Belgium, several large demonstrations of support for the Palestinian people have degenerated into anti-Semitic violence.
In France, this seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and Hamas has inflamed existing tensions and anti-Jewish hatred in several areas of Paris and other French cities. Anti-Jewish slogans, attacks against Jews wearing kippot, Jewish businesses vandalized or burned, synagogues attacked by extremely violent pro-Palestinian demonstrators have created a poisonous atmosphere that can only accelerate the departure of Jewish families to safer countries.
The situation is just as untenable for the Jews of Belgium.
Read Part 2 of this series: Francophone Jewish immigrants face challenges
“If a Jew wearing a kippah walks, day or night, along the Rue Neuve in Brussels, the largest pedestrian shopping street in the city, the probability that he will be physically assaulted by anti-Semitic thugs is very high,” Joel Rubenstein, president of the Belgian league against anti-Semitism and former president of the Comité de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique, the official representative body of the approximately 40,000 Jews in Belgium, told The CJN in an interview.
Are Canada, and Quebec in particular as a francophone province, among the preferred destinations for these immigrants? Is the institutional Jewish community in Montreal ready to welcome new Jewish families immigrating from France and Belgium and help them integrate into their new society?
This two-part report will try to examine these questions.
The CJN sought the points of view of community leaders in Montreal, Paris and Brussels who are very familiar with this issue. Some French Jews who have lived in Quebec for a few years also spoke about their immigration experience.
Today, there is “a profound malaise” in the 500,000-strong Jewish community of France, said Roger Cukierman, president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), the official umbrella group for the Jews of France.
The first destination for Jews who leave France is Israel.
Immigration of French Jews to Israel had grown by 70 per cent in 2013 after a period of calm in previous years, and the trend has continued in 2014. According to Jewish Agency statistics, 854 French people made aliyah in January and February, compared with 274 in the same period last year – an increase of 312 per cent.
Other destinations chosen by French Jews are the United States, Canada and Australia.
Cukierman said Jews are leaving France for three main reasons: a weak economy, renewed anti-Semitism, and the difficulty for Orthodox Jews in pursuing advanced studies in France – because of similar requests from other students as the Muslim population has increased, French universities have largely stopped accommodating any such requests, including from observant Jewish students when the date of an exam falls on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday.
“French Jews who don’t make aliyah mostly leave for the United States, Canada or Australia. The French have always considered Canada a land of prosperity that has a future,” Cukierman said in an interview.
“French Jews who choose Quebec are privileged on two counts: they are francophone and they will find a dynamic, prosperous and remarkably well-organized Jewish community in Montreal.”
A study undertaken in 2013 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights that looked at Jewish communities in eight of the 28 members of the EU – those eight included about 90 per cent of European Jews – found that 40 per cent of Belgian Jews are thinking about leaving their homeland soon.
According to physician Maurice Sosnowski, president of the Comité de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique, the appalling attack at the end of May by a French jihadist on the Jewish museum of Brussels, in which four innocent people died, will certainly convince many Jewish Belgian families to immigrate to a country that’s safer for their children.
Quebec, “for linguistic and cultural reasons,” is undeniably “a very attractive destination” for young, francophone Belgian Jews, said Sosnowski, a noted specialist in neurophysiology and a professor in the faculty of medicine at the Free University of Belgium.
“I am among the many Belgians who greatly admire your country, Canada, a marvellous land of freedom and opportunity,” Sosnowski told The CJN.
“I often tell my young assistants that they should go to Canada to work. If I were younger, I would go to live in Canada without the least hesitation. For me, Canada is a perfect combination of European spirit and American possibilities for success. It’s a good marriage.”
Victor Goldbloom – a distinguished Jewish community leader in Montreal, who was a cabinet minister in Robert Bourassa’s Liberal governments in the early ’70s, a former commissioner of official languages of Canada and former president of the Quebec arm of Canadian Jewish Congress – was president of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) in the early 2000s.
In 2008, JIAS merged with Jewish Family Services and Jewish Employment Montreal to form Federation CJA’s Agence Ometz.
In 2002, Goldbloom chaired a working committee set up by JIAS to promote the immigration of Jews from Argentina and France. At the time, Argentina was facing a very serious economic crisis and France was experiencing a large increase in anti-Semitism, exacerbated by the second Palestinian intifadah.
Montreal Jewish community leaders were counting on the settlement of new Argentine and French Jewish immigrants to slow the demographic decline of the city’s Jewish population, Goldbloom recalled in an interview.
Highly respected in Quebec society as well as the Jewish community, Goldbloom’s judicious advice is greatly appreciated by many. He strongly recommends that Ometz leaders continue to follow up on the program promoting immigration to Montreal in the Jewish community of France and, if possible, in the francophone Jewish community of Belgium as well.
“We absolutely must extend a hand to the members of the French Jewish community, who today live in great anxiety. We must tell the French Jews: ‘Aliyah should be your first choice. But, if you don’t want to settle in Israel, you have the world before you. We strongly encourage you to choose Quebec,’” Goldbloom said.
“We must again promote the remarkable Montreal Jewish community in France, while taking all the necessary steps not to embarrass or offend French Jewish community leaders. We must also encourage francophone Belgian Jews who want to emigrate to choose Montreal if they want to ensure a more promising future for their children.”
Translated from the French by Carolan Halpern. Next week, we’ll look at Montreal Federation CJA’s position on francophone Jewish immigration to Quebec from Europe.