Some 50,000 French Jews asked the Jewish Agency for information about immigrating to Israel in 2014, and the Jewish Agency is holding two information seminars a day in France, whereas a year ago it held only one a month, Natan Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

Interviewed in his Jerusalem office, the Jewish Agency chairman said that while it is difficult for many “Israelis to accept any compliment for themselves” and while they may find it hard to believe, “this is the first year that there are more immigrants from the free world.”

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While critics counter that there is no reason to be proud of the recent increases in immigration, which in the cases of the largest sources of immigrants – France and Ukraine – stem from a combination of anti-Semitism and economic factors, Sharansky said that French Jews have a choice of where to move, and they have overwhelmingly chosen to come here.

Anti-Semitism may drive emigration from Europe, but other factors impel those who leave to come here, he said.

“They have a choice, to stay in France, where there is the biggest welfare basket ever,” to travel to other European Union nations or to immigrate to Montreal, where there are few cultural adjustments to make and which was until recently their primary destination, he said. According to Sharansky, “the overwhelming majority” of Jewish émigrés from France, possibly up to 70 percent, choose to go to Israel.

“So [Theodor] Herzl was right, Israel will be a magnet.”

“When the Jewish Agency emissaries ask them why they want to go to Israel, they say they want to live in a Jewish state. People don’t understand how the status of Israel is changing in the minds of people,” Sharansky said, adding that previously, when Jews had the choice, “overwhelmingly they didn’t go to Israel. The second and third aliya from Russia, for every Jew who went to Palestine, 20 Jews went to America.”

“Here you have for the first time, a clear thing,” he said. “There is a massive exodus from a community in the free world, which has all the doors open to them, and they are choosing Israel.”

Most of those who have come from France have had some connection with the Jewish community and tradition, however defined, he said, reiterating the Jewish Agency’s strategy of promoting Jewish identity abroad as a means of facilitating immigration down the line.

Of some 600,000 French Jews, “hundreds of thousands” of them are now contemplating leaving the country, he added.

“Right now, everyday the Jewish Agency is organizing two evening [meetings] for 200 people to give them basic information about aliya. A year ago we had one meeting a month, then we had one a week, and now we have two evenings every day. Fifty thousand people have asked for information this year, and I’m speaking about the area of Paris.”

According to a 2013 study of European Jewry by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, up to a third of the Jews in several countries are mulling emigration.

France, followed by Ukraine, led the pack in terms of numbers of immigrants to Israel in 2014, the Jewish Agency announced at the end of December.

Immigration overall increased by 32%, the group said, in what Sharansky termed “a year of record-breaking aliya.”

Over the past year, Israel has made several moves in an effort to make itself more attractive to immigrants and to facilitate the immigration process.

Last April, the Jewish Agency announced that it would double the number of French speakers employed in its Israeli call center and increase the number of emissaries in France.

The government recently announced planned reforms aimed at taming the byzantine bureaucracy involved in integrating accredited members of white-collar professionals into the labor market, while the Interior Ministry has relaxed several bureaucratic requirements in the aliya process for residents of Ukrainian cities occupied by Moscow-backed separatists.

Emigration from Ukraine has increased significantly since the Russian annexation of Crimea and the start of the civil war in eastern Ukraine, which has engulfed cities such as Donetsk, Sharansky’s hometown, in brutal fighting.

Some 1,310 Jews have come to Israel from Donetsk and Luhansk, the central population centers of the rebel-held territory, between January and November – an increase of 1,000% over the same period in 2013, according to the Jewish Agency.

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