This past summer, I traveled to Paris with a colleague after the Abravanel Synagogue, a prominent synagogue in the center of Paris, was attacked by an angry mob in July. We went to stand in solidarity with the congregation and to carry prayers from their friends in the United States. What we saw deeply disturbed us. We stepped into Paris and saw a Jewish community under siege. We saw hatred of Jews expressing itself in a violent form. The police instructed us not to wear our yarmulkes on the streets of Paris, as it was considered dangerous and incendiary behavior to openly dress as Jews. At that time we were horrified to learn that some French Jews were afraid to post on social media for fear that that information could be used to track and assault them. During our stay in Paris, we experienced, ever so briefly, what a French Jew feels every day — a sense of constant danger simply for being Jewish.
Since then, we’ve stayed in touch with our friends in Paris. This very proud Jewish community has been asking for our help to leave France. One of my friends, one of the most respected Jews in France (whose name I will not mention so that he can maintain good relations with the French government), wrote to me just two days before the attack on Charlie Hebdo. He expressed extraordinary concern for the safety of French Jewry and said that he feared a mass slaughter was coming.
When I speak with Jews in France today, I feel the return of a grave danger to Jews that has arisen too often in Europe. My father ran from the Nazis and, as a toddler, hid in the ditches of the French countryside to escape deportation and almost certain death. More recently, we remember the brutal killing of Ilan Halimi, the son of Jewish Moroccan immigrants, in January 2006. At that time, the French ambassador to the United States spoke in my synagogue and assured us that such an attack did not represent the French people. However, during my recent visit to France, people mentioned Ilan Halimi’s name as a turning point for the Jews of France and as a harbinger of the tension that followed.
We must work toward saving France’s Jews before it is too late. Many French Jews are moving to Israel; more than 7,000 Jews from France have moved there this past year. Yet Israel’s existence as a refuge does not absolve the rest of the world from doing whatever is possible to save the Jews of France. Jews should not be forced to move to Israel to be safe. For some Jews, Israel is not an attractive option. (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.)
For several reasons, Americans have an obligation to answer this call. For one, as a superpower, the United States carries a certain moral authority. If we take a leadership role in protecting French Jewry, it will send a message to European countries that we do not have patience for their excuses about being unable to provide proper protection for their Jewish citizens.
Furthermore, the United States must not make the same mistakes it has made in the past. Many Jews were denied entry into this country during the darkest days of World War II and were eventually murdered in Europe. In 1939, for example, the United States turned away the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany, only to have them return to Europe where many perished in the Holocaust. Faced with a chance today to save a group of Jews that has asked for our help, we should welcome them as quickly and as warmly as we can.
The American Jewish community must make it a priority to help Jews in France — and other European communities facing resurgent anti-Semitism. We should use existing immigration law to bring French Jews to the United States on a case-by-case basis. For example, in addition to student visas, we should be exploring H-1B visas for highly skilled workers, J-1 visas for people with medical training and E-B5 visas for people able to invest money in the United States. A rabbinical school in the Bronx, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is already doing this: The school is actively recruiting French students. The rest of the Jewish community should immediately follow suit and invest more resources into helping French Jews come to the United States.
But to the extent that existing legal avenues do not provide the answer for many of France’s endangered Jews, policymakers must step in to fill the void. First, Congress should reauthorize the Lautenberg amendment, which was passed in 1989 to help Jews emigrate from the former Soviet Union to the United States, with updates to address the current crisis. Other possibilities of legislative reform are being explored by the National Capital Jewish Law Center, which I founded in 2013. Leadership on this issue must begin with President Obama, but it should be a bipartisan effort as well.
The heinous acts against Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket may lead to a dramatic shift in how France confronts the growing problem of terrorism. The people of France are strong and resilient, and have rallied to the defense of their Jewish citizens. It is certainly the fervent prayer of Jews around the world that this strong support remains in place. But the Jews of France, who know their country best, are voting with their feet. They have called upon us for help, and we in the United States must answer their call.