There are really two issues at play here: do French Jews have an obligation toward France that requires them to stay despite the danger, and if they do leave should they go to Israel. After all, Jews have been living in France for over 1,000 years, even if the vast majority of the current Jewish population are new arrivals from North Africa. One would think that to pick up and leave might represent a sort of ungratefulness.
In a very strict sense, there is only one country that a Jew has an obligation to die for: Israel. It is brought down in the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative code of Jewish law, that a Jew must even fight on the Sabbath to defend Israel. However, Jews throughout history have fought in the armies of the countries they have lived in, proudly. For example, Jews represent the third largest religious group in the United States Army. Jews involved in the defense of their host country are also afforded certain leniencies in Jewish law in order to offer their services.
This relationship, however, is conditional. Our obligation toward the countries we live in only exist when said country protects the life and liberty of the Jews who live in it. The Babylonian Talmud in the Tractate of Ketubot (110b-111 a) relates a story where the Jews and non-Jews make certain agreements with one another. Jews took the oath not to go back to Israel before the Messiah comes and not to rebel against their host nations while non-Jews are not supposed to overly oppress the Jews. This is similar to Rousseau's concept of the Social Contract: so long as our host country protects our life and liberty, we have a reciprocal obligation toward that country. That relationship is severed when Jewish lives are endangered.
There have been many violent anti-Semitic incidents in France. It would appear that the French government is either unwilling or unable to protect its Jewish citizens, though I hope this is not true. If this is the case, then the Social Contract has been severed. Jews have a responsibility toward themselves and their families first and foremost. If it is the case that Jewish lives are in danger, they should leave.
As for going to Israel, I can spend much time discussing all of the positive reasons for going to Israel from a religious and cultural standpoint as well as its newfound economic growth. Basically, if a person has a choice they should live in Israel, but there are reasons so many Jews do not. Here and now is not the place to discuss it.
Question: After the recent tragedy in France, many people are saying that Jews there should leave and move to Israel. Is there a value to staying in France and trying to improve the situation, or do Jews have an obligation to leave rather than put themselves in danger?
Jews do not have an obligation to leave France and move to Israel to save their lives. France is not the FSU or an Arab country in which the government systematically harasses, threatens and physically and psychologically harms Jews. The current French government is neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Israel. In fact, the opposite is true, especially in comparison with the governments of other European countries. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has Jewish roots and has publicly expressed his pride in them. It would appear that this would actually be a good time for French Jews to actively engage the French national government and local government officials in launching a significant joint effort to enhance the security of French Jewry.
The Toulouse tragedy was a horrific act of brutality, as were the murders of the three non-Jewish soldiers. Without diminishing the problems posed by the unique situation that faces the Jews in France, with its large Muslim population, we must keep in mind that Jews could be targeted for acts of terror anywhere in the world, including Israel and the USA. In fact, being in Israel is not a guarantee of safety and security – witness the rocket attacks on the cities in the south that threaten the lives of one million people, nearly twice the Jewish population of all of France. And, the missile threat from the north, while not active at this moment, is real.
If the Jews in France were under the same kind of threat the Jews of the FSU faced in the second half of the 20th century, then world-wide Jewry would be under an obligation to try to rescue them, since this would be a matter of pidyon sh’vuyyim, redeeming captives. This, however, is not the case. It is, therefore, up to the French Jews to determine what, in their eyes, are the proportions of the threat to their well-being. Many French Jews have purchased homes in Israel that they can use when they visit and that stand ready to receive them, should the situation in their country badly deteriorate. At this point in time, French Jews should decide to move to Israel not because of the threat to their well being, but because Israel can offer them the kind of Jewish life experience they cannot get in the Diaspora. Jewish young people should be taught about the amazing opportunities in Israel, as well as about the challenges the country faces after over 60 years of existence.
There are efforts going on in France right now to mobilize French Jews to become stronger advocates for Israel. This project includes lobbying the government on Israel’s behalf and becoming more vocal in the media. Should these efforts succeed, the continuing presence of Jews in France would actually be to Israel’s benefit. Let us pray that this program is successful.
Rabbi Joel Rembaum
The recent murders in France are tragic. They testify to the persistence of antisemitism in our world, and the increasing incidence of antisemitic events throughout Europe. My heart goes out to the families of the victims and to their communities. Healing, to the extent that it is possible, will take time.
Your question implies several others. Let me try to address the various layers that I see in your query.
Your opening line suggests that living in France, by definition, poses an immediate danger to Jews. Antisemitism seems to be a fact of life in France as this quote from The Guardian asserts: “Like a sore that never completely heals, antisemitism erupts in France, which has the biggest Jewish community in Europe, with depressing regularity.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/06/john-galliano-antisemitism-marais Unlike the latest murderous attack, these events are seldom violent. Would that serve as the impetus for an entire community to move?
You also seem to suggest that this may be a communal decision rather than an individual one. Certainly every individual bears a responsibility to “care carefully for your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:9), which in this instance would mean that anyone who feels it is no longer safe to live in a certain place should move to a safer location. Any person who looks at the political and social situation in which they live and determines that it cannot be safe, ought to leave. But this is a decision to be made by each individual and in each neighborhood. Does this latest event, or all of the events together, mean that all of France is unsafe? Does it mean that there is no possibility of a governmental or a societal effort to improve the situation?
I am not well versed on the particulars of the situation in France, so I cannot offer answers to these speculative questions. Before outsiders, myself included, make proclamations on the future viability of communal Jewish life in France, a close and reasoned study should be made.
If Jews decide to leave, as individuals or as a community, should they move to Israel? Perhaps, but there may also be reasons that any individual might choose to move instead to the United States or to join their fate with Jewish communities in other corners of the globe. There is no clear religious obligation that states that every Jew should relocate to Israel at this particular time or under a particular set of circumstances (such as when they face persecution elsewhere).