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What Happened Today: March 17, 2023
Macron faces a vote of no confidence; Palestinian speaker goes off script at Jewish high school; The hypocrisies of Janet Yellen
The Big Story
France was in parliamentary crisis on Friday, as members of a center-left alliance, as well as Marine Le Pen’s right-wing populists, filed no-confidence motions against President Emmanuel Macron after he announced his intention to use his executive privilege to ram through pension reform without a vote in the lower house of parliament. Many lawmakers are strictly opposed to raising the retirement age to 64 from 62, as is the majority of France, which has spent months protesting the move that Macron says is necessary to save France’s extensive pension system without raising taxes or adding to the national debt. A successful no-confidence vote in Macron would destroy the bill, but it requires 27 members of the Les Républicains party, whose leader supports the reforms, to vote against Macron. Since 1958 there has only been one successful no-confidence vote in France.
Some analysts say Macron’s hard-line stance on the reforms will only add fuel to the fire of Le Pen’s populist right movement. Bruno Palier, a political scientist at French university Sciences Po, says that the reform will most negatively affect the lower middle class, which is already struggling to keep up with inflation and the rising cost of living: “This resentment is not going to disappear. It’s going to morph into something different. It’ll just wait for voting ballots to manifest itself again.”
In The Back Pages: Israel’s French New Wave
→ At the heavily Jewish Bloomfield Hills High School outside Detroit on Tuesday, invited guest speaker and Palestinian American activist Huwaida Arraf went off script during a “diversity assembly,” referring to Zionists as “occupiers” running an “apartheid state” while accusing Israel of “genocide” in Gaza. A co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, a group the FBI has investigated for its links to terrorists, Arraf has stated publicly that she believes violence is a key component of liberation movements. A spokesperson for the school gave a half-baked apology about Arraf going “outside of our agreed upon parameters” and revealed, ironically, that the school developed its diversity event in concert with the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” initiative to “creat[e] equity, awareness and space for all students.”
→ In an incredible attempt to raise awareness about mental health issues in the wake of his own father’s suicide, Australian surfer Blake Johnston obliterated the endurance record for surfing on Thursday, staying out in the Sydney waters for 40 hours straight (with small allowed breaks) while riding 700 waves. After dealing with a jellyfish swarm and the ever-present risk of a shark attack, Johnston said, “I push myself to the limits with my adventures and to prove to myself that I’m worthy and can get through hard times, and that’s when my lessons are learnt.” Hang ten, brother. Hang ten.
→ Pushing the limits of our tenuous reality in Venezuela, supporters of authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro are now using synthesized deepfakes to try and bolster support for his tragic policies. At least two stories on the YouTube channel House of News have been found to be fabricated, with digital English-speaking presenters giving a veneer of legitimacy to support stories about a supposed tourism boom and to paint Maduro’s opposition as corrupt. The videos were created with technology provided by Synthesia, a British AI company, which banned the Venezuelan “client” as soon as it was informed of the fakes. But the company, which produces 10,000 videos per year for various clients, including Britain’s National Health Service, has been implicated in similar cases before, leading to questions over how technology this powerful can be regulated.
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→ Video of the Day:
Speaking before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen suggested that the U.S. government is primarily concerned with the security of deposits if they affect systemically significant banks. Sen. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma grilled Yellen on the Treasury’s policy vis-à-vis “uninsured” depositors at community banks—that is, depositors with more than $250,000 in their account—and whether they would get the same treatment as the account holders of Silicon Valley Bank who have had their large deposits backstopped by the Treasury. “A bank only gets that treatment if a majority of the FDIC board, a supermajority, a supermajority of the Fed board, and I, in consultation with the president, determine that the failure to protect uninsured depositors would create systemic risk and significant economic and financial consequences,” Yellen said. The entire exchange is worth watching.
→ The International Atomic Energy Agency is reporting the disappearance of 10 drums of uranium ore concentrate from a site in Libya, totaling 2.5 tons. The inspection was delayed by a year because of the “security situation” in the area, which, it’s crucial to remember, was created by a NATO intervention in the North African state that led to the downfall of brutal leader Muammar Gaddafi but also created a violent free-for-all reminiscent of postwar Iraq.
→ Touted as one of the future stars of the league, Memphis Grizzlies’ 23-year-old point guard Ja Morant was featured in what might become the most expensive post in Instagram history: a live video he posted of himself in March holding a gun at a Denver-area strip club called Shotgun Willie’s. Once on track to earn $233 million on his upcoming contract extension, Morant was suspended following the incident, which may mean he loses his spot on the All-NBA team that would trigger his full extension payout, leading to a loss of $39 million in earnings. Morant says he’s learned from his mistakes and realizes now “what I have to lose.”
→ As the banking crisis continued on Thursday, several of the United States’ largest banks stepped up to deposit $30 billion in struggling First Republic Bank. Yet even with the collective effort to shore up FRB’s liquidity, the bank’s stock was down another 33% on Friday, which is a great reason to go have a Guinness or three, or ten, on this most consequential St. Patrick’s Day.
→ Chart of the Day:
The United States has the unfortunate distinction of being the leader in maternal mortality in the developed world, only behind the developing countries of China, India, and Brazil in 2020. New CDC data from 2021 show that the United States has reached a decades-high number of 33 deaths per 100,000 live births, the most since 1965. Most of the deaths are attributable to cardiovascular issues, like blood clots, and high blood pressure, which some doctors say is just part of an ongoing American trend toward higher obesity rates and heart health generally. The women most affected were Black or Hispanic and/or more than 40 years old.
Bring in the Lampstand and Light Its Lamps (2022)
An album by b. tweel
A new friend hands me his latest release—an album mixing acoustic and electronic recordings with the found sounds of his family, their lives picked up by mics he’s left lying around the house. What unfolds across b. tweel’s lush and layered Bring in the Lampstand and Light Its Lamps is less an ambient or electronic record than an invitation to listen, to hear the musicality of domestic cross talk. It helps that b. Tweel’s family’s cross talk includes two kids who play strings (violin and cello), a baby who coos in near chorus, and a wife who can be heard doting on her new son and talking with “Bubbe,” her mother. The musical foundation of the album, meanwhile, comes from b. tweel’s compositions, which cut and layer guitar, piano, electronic instruments, and toys (“Please choose an activity,” a battery-powered robot sings) into a harmonious cacophony. “Anybody Home,” the album’s opener, showcases the emotive power of this approach, layering a newborn’s cries atop the voices of b. tweel’s wife and children, all draped across a pretty piano line. This latest by b. tweel, the artistic name of Benjamin Tweel (who also creates music as Build Buildings), makes the case—or, perhaps, offers a reminder—that the noises of the home, with its hurried mornings and harried evenings, might amount to our greatest compositions.
TODAY IN TABLET:
Happy Erev Birthday by Courtney Hazlett
Why my family starts celebrating the night before
Punk Dog’s Body by David Meir Grossman
The debut from Model/Actriz is a punishing, addictive punk record—with inspiration from Broadway
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This story was originally published in Tablet, October 2022
Israel’s French New Wave
The growing and distinctly western Mediterranean olim are a boon to Israel but a dark omen for the future of France
The rumblings of Jewish history take many forms, and in this case the form was a disk of lemon filling, the dough brittle, meringue slightly browned. I was at Gagou de Paris. Across the street was the rival patisserie L’Artisan. I was called jeune homme by a manager graciously rounding down, and heard French at three of the four outdoor tables adjacent to mine. But hurrying by us on the sidewalk were the familiar capotes, the e-bikes, the skinny jeans on Arab teens, the religious girls with hair wrapped like African queens—it was Jerusalem.
Because the condition of Jews is a barometer of events anywhere, and because Israel has always been a barometer of Jewish life in other places, in Israel you can sense events far away. Even without ever watching the news this year, for example, you’d notice unusual numbers of Ukrainians around, and young Russian speakers with fashionable sneakers just off the plane from Sheremetyevo, bewildered and traveling light, and you’d know that something fateful is happening in and around the Russian Federation.
In the same vein, what does it mean that when I walk down a short stretch of Bethlehem Road in south Jerusalem, near my own street, I now pass the new butcher shop Le Charolais, and then the even newer bakery Delices de Paris, before reaching the restaurant Rendez-Vous? Discussing French affairs through cuisine is a cliché, yes, but the altered gastronomical landscape of the neighborhood is hard to miss. And what about the families erupting from Sephardic synagogues around here on Shabbat by the dozens, shouting arrête Ayala! and viens Eitan! Or the fact that of the kids in my son’s kindergarten last year, a quarter had parents recently arrived from Paris or Marseilles? I would never claim to understand the soul of a culture whose language I don’t speak, or of a place where I’ve never lived. But even through the limited lens of this city, it’s clear that something is happening, and that it’s linked to the increasingly unsettled feeling of Jewish life in these times.
At Le Charolais, under a few sides of beef hanging elegantly from hooks and by shelves stocked with imported preserves, I met Avraham Haim, 61, who spoke to me while dismembering red slabs with an enormous knife. Haim, who has a beard and a black kippah, trained at Potel et Chabot, the 200-year-old Paris caterer. This butcher shop, which opened three years ago, serves many French customers who are professionals, he said, people who are used to high standards from home and can pay. “The people who come here know what they want,” he said. He came to Jerusalem 15 years ago and commutes from the neighborhood of Har Homa, which is now heavily French. When I asked why he moved to Israel, he said it was because his wife wanted to. When I asked why French Jews were moving in general, he mentioned the fear of violence, the sense that the country no longer seems itself: “It isn’t France anymore, it’s Muslim.” I asked if he thought Jews had a future in France. He paused with his knife. “I am not a prophet,” he said.
Down the street, the chef at Rendez-Vous had a different take. Yoni Markezana, 34, grew up in Marseilles, son of a father with old family roots in the city and a mother from Algeria. The new arrivals in Israel are overwhelmingly of North African extraction, as France’s Jewish community, estimated at about 440,000, mostly hails from the old colonial possessions of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The same is true of French Muslims. “We came with them, and I grew up with them,” Markezana said of the Muslims of Marseilles. His parents moved the family to Israel when Yoni was 14. The move was due not to fear, but to Zionism. “It was their dream,” he said.
I asked about concerns of violence committed by Muslim radicals, the kind of events that make the international news. He sees this as a more pressing concern in Paris than in Marseilles. “People say there are lots of Arabs in France, but ...,” he grinned, and gestured around at the city. More than a third of Jerusalem’s residents are Arab Muslims. If you’re fleeing a threat from radical Islam in Europe, where you’ve already fled from your ancestral home in Muslim North Africa, does it really make sense to choose the heart of the Arab Middle East?
There have always been French Jews in Israel, but the sense in recent years is that a “wave” of immigration is under way, and that this population has assumed a critical mass that didn’t exist before. It’s not quite the Russian wave, which brought a million people to Israel in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed; since 1972, the first year for which the Absorption Ministry has records, the number of arrivals from France is a tenth of that number—106,775. But of those, a remarkable 41,860 have come in just the last 10 years.
As a result, the French have assumed a solid shape in the shared imagination of the Israeli public—not the older clichés of de Gaulle or Yves Montand, but that of a traditional Jew, less European than Mediterranean, Casablanca via Paris, God-fearing, life-loving, right-leaning, the imprint of a Star of David necklace sunburned onto the chest after too many hours at the beach. The beach at Netanya, of course, because with all due respect to Jerusalem, it’s Netanya, on the coast north of Tel Aviv, that’s seen as the holy city of the French. On a recent afternoon in a local playground there, nearly all of the young families seemed to be Francophone. A municipal spokeswoman told me with impressive precision that 16,602 French immigrants have moved in since 2002, and estimated the number of Francophone residents at about double that, just over 10% of the population. Netanya is in fact “the Riviera of Israel,” according to the jingle that plays while you’re on hold on the phone with city hall, though I have not heard this anywhere else.
The French “wave,” like any migration, is a complicated affair, a mix of push and pull factors that are hard to predict, or even understand. Arie Abitbol tries nonetheless, because this is his job as the official in charge of Western Europe at the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for aliya. This word, meaning “ascent,” is the lovely Zionist term for Jewish immigration, granting nobility to an experience that often involves an ignoble mix of humiliation and alienation. Immigrants are thus olim, “ascenders.” Abitbol moved to Israel from Morocco when he was 18.
Since Israel’s founding, Abitbol said, French Jews have come to Israel at a rate of about 1,500 a year, with a momentary peak of 7,000 in the euphoria that followed the Six-Day War of 1967. After that, things went back to normal until the early years of this century, with the outbreak of the Palestinian terror wave known as the Second Intifada. That violence, he said, “began to mix the Middle East story with the story of the Jews in France, and turned French Jews into those perceived as responsible for the situation in Israel.” That perception exacerbated what scholars of immigration call “push factors,” a cold academic term that can mean practical fears about economic stability or health, and also thousands of frightening personal experiences ranging from petty vandalism to murder. It’s these factors, Abitbol said, that have decided and will continue to decide how many Jews move here. “We have tried plans and incentives, but the truth is that these hardly affect the level of aliya,” he said. Looking at Israeli immigration numbers thus offers a kind of recent history of France.
Tension in the neighborhoods where French Jews and Muslims had lived in close proximity built up to the 2006 incident mentioned in nearly every conversation with French immigrants: The killing of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped and tortured for more than three weeks by a group of young Muslims calling themselves the “Gang of Barbarians.” His body was found by a road on the outskirts of Paris, French authorities denied at first that hatred of Jews had anything to do with it, and immigration numbers more than doubled the following year.
They subsided when Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 and did his best to calm Jewish concerns, but in 2012, Mohammed Merah drove his motorcycle to a Jewish school in Toulouse and murdered a rabbi, Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arie, 6, and Gabriel, 3, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsonego. (In separate attacks, Merah also killed three French soldiers, one of them, like the killer, a French Muslim of North African descent.) The numbers at the Jewish Agency went up again. In 2015, when another Muslim gunman murdered four people at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris—this was just after different Muslim gunmen murdered 12 people at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and before others killed 130 people at the Bataclan theater and across Paris one night later the same year—the numbers reached the historic peak after the Six-Day War. When a poll published in January 2016 asked Jewish respondents if they were considering moving to Israel, 40% said yes.
Most of those people haven’t, though, despite other crimes like the murder by a French Muslim of 65-year-old Sarah Halimi in 2017, and the murder of 34-year-old Eyal Haddad by another French Muslim, his roommate in a Paris suburb, in August of this year. But the annual numbers remain far above the old average of 1,500: Last year, 3,568 assumed Israeli citizenship. (That’s just slightly lower than the 4,038 who came from the United States, where the Jewish community is 12 times larger.)
Of those coming, Abitbol said, roughly a third are retirees, a third are families with children, and a third are unmarried young people. Most are of North African descent, and range from traditionally observant to stringently Orthodox. Immigration in 2022 is very different than it was even a decade or two ago—social media and cheap flights make aliya a less binary decision than it once was, and some people move back and forth, meaning that it’s sometimes hard to know exactly who’s living where. But it’s clear that the ludicrously high cost of living in Israel and the declining value of the euro against the shekel have made things harder, and the Jewish Agency estimates that between 6% and 8% of immigrants return to France. Yoni Markezana, the chef at Rendez-Vous, for example, said the economics were forcing him to seriously consider a return to Marseilles. The bottom line is that despite the Israeli impression of a dramatic human wave, the vast majority of French Jews are not lining up at the El Al counter. But at the same time, the past decade has seen more French Jews move here than in any other since the founding of the state.
One of the new arrivals in 2015 was Anaël Malet, a graduate of both the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, and now a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University and a sharp observer of the changing world of French Jewry. In a recent article for Mosaic, she noted that Jews are being squeezed not only by radical Islam but also by the government’s response to that problem—a more aggressive secularism, or laïcité, a founding principle of the French state that is often indistinguishable from simple intolerance of religious difference.
When she was a child in Champigny-sur-Marne near Paris in the 1990s and early aughts, for example, her public school offered an alternative lunch for kids like her who couldn’t eat pork. But because of the increased laïcité, such meals came to be seen as an unacceptable surrender to religious exceptionalism and are no longer available. There is more open resentment of special dispensations to Jewish university students, like granting them different dates to write exams that fall on religious holidays. Employees who deliver public services aren’t allowed to openly display religious symbols, meaning, for example, that a bus driver wearing a kippah would be breaking the law.
Amid these changes, it makes sense that emigration has become more widely discussed, she said, if by no means universally adopted. But Israel isn’t the only option. Some move within France, to places that are safer or have larger Jewish communities. People of more means may well prefer the United States, which happens to be true of nearly every Jewish migration wave from any country since the dawn of Zionism. “If you have more money and prospects, New York might be more attractive,” Malet said. If you’re in Manhattan and looking for an illustration of this point, attend Shabbat services at the West Side Sephardic Synagogue on 76th Street. But the position of Jews in the United States also appears far less solid than it did a decade ago, with more naked hostility from empowered segments of both the left and the right.
Malet describes her own move as not particularly ideological. She had a few uncles in Israel, and a cousin who’d come the year before she did, and when she was offered a university scholarship she came. Then she stayed. I have more than one friend with a similar story. Kids drift over, then parents come. There’s a social logic in play: At some elusive moment in a movement of people, the center of gravity shifts.
At Vice Versa, a French bookstore in downtown Jerusalem, the staff has noticed the shift in both the number and the genre of the books crossing the counter. The number of new customers is slowly ticking up, Nathalie Hirschsprung, the proprietor, told me, many of them are young parents, and the children’s section is doing particularly well. These new arrivals want to integrate, but also want their kids to read French. “If you ask why they came, they may tell you terrible things about antisemitism,” she said, “but they remain attached to France and to French culture.”
Unlike most of the recent arrivals, Hirschsprung is secular and of Ashkenazi descent, with a different French story. Her grandmother was sent to Auschwitz via the French internment camp of Drancy, and two of her uncles were sent there directly. She came to Israel first as a cultural representative of the French Foreign Ministry, and eventually decided to stay. Because most of today’s new olim are traditional Sephardic Jews, there’s demand for prayer books and religious texts in French translation, and though Vice Versa does sell Jewish philosophy, Hirschsprung leaves the sale of prayer books to Galia Books, another French shop in an ultra-Orthodox part of town. Most of her shelves are dedicated to secular literature.
For 74 shekels, for example, you can buy the bestseller Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. In this satire of modern France from 2015 we meet the character of Myriam, a university student who exists as an object of sexual attention for the miserable narrator, Francois, but who also demonstrates that whatever the actual size of the Jewish exodus, it is important enough to have assumed a place in an important political novel by one of the country’s most famous writers.
As an Islamist political party rises to dominance in the rudderless France of the novel, a distraught Myriam tells the narrator that her parents have sold their home in Paris and are leaving for Tel Aviv. They sense that something bad is coming. She’s going with them temporarily, over the summer vacation, but will be back. “I don’t speak a word of Hebrew,” she says. “France is my home.” Over the next few months, however, the frequency of her emails decreases, and so does the number of smileys and heart emojis. She stops calling him “dearest.” She meets someone else. She’s not coming back.