WASHINGTON — Canada may be a better answer than Israel as the safest of harbours in the event of a spiking Jewish exodus from France, a prominent American rabbi said Wednesday.
Citing direct contact with potential Jewish émigrés who say they are reluctant to trade the uncertainties of France for the complications of Israel, Washington-based Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is calling on both Canada and the U.S. to open immigration channels denied to an earlier generation of refugees at the onset of the Second World War.
“Many French Jews are leaving for Israel. But others who want out are telling me clearly they want to go elsewhere,” said Herzfeld, head of Washington’s Ohev Sholom National Synagogue and founder of the National Capital Jewish Law Centre.
“The U.S. should open its doors. But so too should Canada — and French Canada, in particular, which is in many ways a more natural destination and a much more attractive option to many French Jews seeking safety.”
Herzfeld wrote Tuesday in the Washington Post calling for a U.S. response to “imperiled European Jews,” citing ongoing dialogue within the American and French Jewish diasporas on alternatives to Israel.
“They might not know Hebrew; maybe they don’t want to move to another place where terrorism is a daily concern; or maybe they are not Zionists at all,” Herzfeld wrote.
Whatever the reason, Canada and the U.S. bear “the responsibility of history” to extend a welcome now, Herzfeld told the Toronto Star in an interview Wednesday as he readied for a trip to Israel for an annual mission that will include meetings with newly arrived French immigrants.
The rabbi is braced for at least some objection to his efforts upon arrival in Israel, where “making aliya” — Hebrew for the spiritual ascension represented by Jewish immigration to Israel — is embraced both as a birthright and an important demographic counterweight against Palestinian population growth.
Year-end statistics released by Israel days before the attacks in Paris showed 2014 to be a “year of record-breaking aliya” led by a surge to nearly 7,000 immigrants from France, twice the number in 2013. Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver told the Jerusalem Post the flow from France was expected to rise to 10,000 in 2015.
But as anxieties deepen in the wake of last week’s Paris attacks, which including the killing of four Jewish hostages in the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, some now fear a tipping point leading to record levels of Jewish immigration to Israel and elsewhere.
French sensitivities over the safety of the country’s 2,000-year-old Jewish minority, believed to number some 550,000 today, run deep. And they ran deeper on the weekend when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to convene a team of ministers with the goal of increasing Jewish immigration from France saying, “The State of Israel is not just the place to which you turn in prayer. The State of Israel is also your home.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls remained insistent that the country’s Jewish population is an inherent part of French identity, saying, “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
No foreign governments, including Canada and the U.S., are likely to openly intervene amid such heightened sensitivities. Rabbi Herzfeld, who is pledging a lobbying campaign in DC, is calling on Jewish organizations in North America to take direct action regardless.
“We’d like to see the organized Jewish communities in North America set up a task force, both to take calls from French Jews looking to move to North America and at the same time work on finding schools and businesses willing to sponsor visa applications,” Herzfeld told the Toronto Star.
The “historic burden” Herzfeld describes includes the tragedy of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner laden with 915 refugees who fled Nazi persecution in May 1939, only to be turned away by Cuba, the United States and, finally, Canada.
With no safe harbour in North America, the ship docked a month later in Antwerp, Belgium, where most of its Jewish passengers fanned out among several countries soon to be overrun by the German war machine.
Some 254 of those passengers ultimately perished under Nazi occupation, mostly in the death camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor, according to recent findings by U.S. Holocaust Museum Researchers Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller.
“We cannot ignore the mistakes of history,” said Herzfeld, regardless of how one assesses the level of danger that exists today.
“Israel is an attractive option for many, but it’s not for everyone. It shouldn’t be the only place in the world where Jews can be safe. There should be other countries as well.”