The Numbers Game

29th November 2019

When the genie is out of the bottle, it’s not easy to put it back

When I was growing up in the North of England in the 1970s, we were told of a mythical number of British Jews, a number which would always be there. It was 410,000. There had always been 410,000 and there always would be 410,000. These were good times for British Jews. The shuls were full. There were lots of vibrant “provincial” communities, meaning anything outside London. The Board of Deputies, in its infinite wisdom, actually referred to Manchester as a province. Thanks, lads. There was little to no security at shuls or Jewish schools.

No one quite knew where the 410,000 number had come from but it sort of felt about right. Uniquely among European Jewish communities, British Jews had not been decimated by the Holocaust. Most Jews then got married. Most weren’t that Orthodox, so I guess most had 2.4 kids like everybody else. Most got married in shuls (we thought). You could tot up the barmitzvahs and the circumcisions, do the extrapolations and guess the figure. But it was still a guess. Until the official government census forms actually posed the question many years later, we really had absolutely no idea.

And then we got the figure. It was about 280,000. Sure, some didn’t give real answers on the census forms but for the last 30 years or so, the official numbers have barely changed. Once upon a time we used to ask where the 130,000 went but we don’t ask that anymore and to be fair, it’s quite comforting that for the last 30 years since we’ve known the fairly accurate figure, we’ve really done quite well and maintained the community population and its institutions.

Other European countries though have not been so fortunate, not only because they don’t get accurate census figures but because they genuinely have been haemorrhaging Jews.

I lived in France for some years at the beginning of the century. It is illegal in France for the state to divide people according to ethnicity or religion, to ask them those kind of questions they ask here in doctors’ surgeries and certainly to pose the big question on a census form “Are you Jewish?” There’s good reason for this. Vichy France compiled lists of Jews for the Nazis and the Nazis succeeded in rounding up many of them and sending them to Auschwitz.

So like we used to do in the UK, France “feels” its Jewish population. It might surprise Jews in the UK, but Jews are ubiquitous in France. The press and media is full of them. National and regional papers regularly carry articles about the community, they run features about the candidates for the next chief rabbi and the president of CRIF – the country’s BOD equivalent – how the voting blocs are moving and who might transfer votes to whom.

And most of these articles carry a one-liner at the end, a sort of summary so that you get the context. “Il y a environ ….. juifs en France”. “There are about …. Jews in France.“

When I lived there about 20 years ago and worked as a journalist and editor at Agence France Presse, the Reuters of the French world and a massive source for articles in the French media, these articles had a number like our 410,000. In France it was 700,000. It had been 700,000 since the large wave of Jewish immigration into France from North Africa in the 50s and 60s and it took into account the numbers of French Jews who had been killed in the Holocaust.

I must admit that as an “expert” in feeling the presumed 410,000 in the UK, 700,000 in France also seemed about right.

Then, in 2000, the Second Intifada hit Israel and very quickly it spread to French streets. France’s Muslim population is overwhelmingly North African in origin – like its Jews – and therefore Arab. It has a much more profound link to Palestine than British Muslims, most of whom originate from South Asia. For about three years, hardly a day went past without a violent, physical attack on Jewish individuals or Jewish institutions. Antisemitic graffiti was common, people threw petrol bombs at synagogues. The community felt unsafe. Its response was to blame the government.

At that time, France had what it called “cohabitation”, a Gaullist, centre-right president, Jacques Chirac, and a socialist, centre-left government, led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Historically, French Jews had voted Socialist. De Gaulle had “issues” with Jews and the Jews knew it. The right had brought Vichy and collaborated. So had much of the left, but the myth of the Resistant left still held, even for Jews.

Overwhelmingly, the Jewish community felt that the Jospin government was soft on the perpetrators of antisemitic attacks. The government tried to respond, it held meetings and conferences with CRIF. Some in the grassroots community thought that CRIF was too soft with the government, so an organization, right-wing in character, called the Bureau Against Antisemitism was set up to report on antisemitic attacks. Some it called wrong. That also happens to a community at threat. Just because we were paranoid didn’t mean they weren’t out to get us. The government tried by increasing security at community institutions and making the right statements and inviting Jewish leaders for meetings, but Jewish support for the left evaporated. When the election came, Jews overwhelmingly voted for Chirac and rejected Jospin. And then they voted for Sarkozy.

But not only Jewish support for the left evaporated. It “seemed” that Jews started evaporating.

By 2003, French national newspapers were now finishing their articles with the guesstimate of 600,000 Jews not 700,000. Then it went down to 500,000. Now they write 400,000. Still no official census, but you could feel it. Communities closed down in the Northern and Eastern suburbs of Paris, a city that papers at the turn of the 21st century always claimed had “about 350,000 Jews”. Community leaders, teachers and rabbis publicly announced their emigration plans – generally to Israel. Jewish schools where there were once 10 year waiting lists now had to advertise vigorously to attract children. Class sizes noticeably decreased. Aliyah fairs organized by the Jewish Agency were packed. Hebrew language classes started being sold out. The Jewish papers were filled with adverts for containers or for houses and apartments in Israel. And not just in Israel. In London, in Montreal and in California.

Jews went wild on social media, swopping stories of antisemitism and slagging off the left. The posts became more and more Israelo-centric. Some Jews were leaving Paris for Tel Aviv. Lots more had decided to live Tel Aviv while still in Paris.

The only real figures we have for French Jewish emigration is from the Jewish Agency and those are only for those who went to Israel and even at its peak it never hit more than 5,000 a year. The Jewish Agency also doesn’t record those who made Aliyah but couldn’t find jobs and didn’t stay, itself not a small figure. Moreover, we have no figures for those who left – and are still leaving – for the UK, the US and Canada.

I want to stress that while the perception existed in the Jewish community that the Jospin government were perhaps slow to react or perhaps not hard enough on antisemitism, they never sponsored it. They never failed to condemn it. They never failed to work closely with official community organisations. They never accused the community of smearing their PM, or of conspiracy theories. They never set up their own Jewish organization to defend the party leadership from the Jewish community. They were never insulting or disrespectful to the chief rabbi. Clearly, there were French groupuscules on the far left that did all that. And still do that. But the mainstream party of the centre-left, now electorally pretty decimated anyway, never did anything like that.

But the most interesting finding about what happened to the Jews of France is that Chirac got elected with a massive parliamentary majority in 2002 and the Socialists got booted out and Chirac was then succeeded by Sarkozy, the darling of the Jewish community. The left is nowhere politically in France, even today. Sarkozy, then Hollande, then Macron, still talk to the community leaders and attend their dinners. They still patronize Jewish events and strongly condemn antisemitism. And still the Jews leave.

Because at the end of the day, to paraphrase Ben Gurion, it’s not what the antisemites think. It’s what the Jews do. It takes relatively little to create a mindset that home is no longer home. France never had – at least since Vichy – state sponsored antisemitism or a closed door to the leaders and the needs of the Jewish community. It’s an atmosphere, something you hear all the time in shul, at every Friday night meal, and once it’s there, it’s almost impossible to reverse. I heard it in France. I’m seeing it in Britain. It’s not even about who wins the election. It’s about knowing whether the society around you thinks you belong there or not.

That’s why every vote in every safe or marginal constituency has meaning. Not a single vote will be considered wasted because British Jews are counting every one.