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(photo credit: Courtesy of AMI [file])
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"Oh la la!" has been heard a lot throughout Israel in recent months - a result of increased French immigration this past year. French aliya has been on a steady incline since 2000, when there were 1,000 new immigrants to the country. By the end of 2005, the Jewish Agency expects figures to reach 3,500.
A recent survey completed by Aliya et Meilleure Integration (AMI), the French organization that supports immigration, revealed that about 30,000 French citizens have declared their intention to make aliya in the coming few years.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad confirms these statistics. She says that the Interior Ministry started cooperating with the Jerusalem-based AMI group in August, "making it easy for all the new French olim to come."
While French may be heard widely on the streets of Tel Aviv, the Jewish Agency and l'Union des Israeliens originaires de France, d'Afrique du Nord et des Pays Francophones (UNIFAN) report that most are in fact moving to Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Netanya, Ashdod, and Modi'in. However, in one new south Tel Aviv apartment project, French citizens have bought about 100 of some 250 homes already sold.
"If a Jew is planning to switch neighborhoods and move from one side of Paris to the other, some are just choosing to move to Israel instead," says Jewish Agency spokesperson Michael Jankelowitz.
"They are not only olim but many tourists coming to Israel to see their families and buy real estate," says Jankelowitz, noting that the Jewish Agency has named aliya from North America, the UK, and France among its priorities.
"The French don't need to make aliya," he adds, explaining that they can also go to the the US, Montreal, and Quebec City if they wanted to. Most of the French Jews are immigrating to Israel, he says, because of their connection to the Jewish people.
Aliya for the majority of French Jews may be easier than for other nationalities, as many have family firmly planted here. Today, most of the French Jews arriving are in middle aged, religiously observant, and have four or five children. "They want to think about the future of their children," adds Jankelowitz.
There are about a half million Jews in France, half of them living in Paris. Of the 30,000 who say that they will leave France, some are waiting for their children to finish school, while others are waiting to finish job contracts or sell their houses.
AMI's director Avi Zana says that French Jews take their time making aliya. Rather than emigrate in haste, they often wait until they have a decent job in Israel before making the switchover. Some companies are following the example of Advancia, that moved its call center offices to Jerusalem, where it now employs 120 olim who work with France in their native tongue, reports Zana.
Zana estimates that one-third of the Jews are above average in wealth in France, and many keep their professions in France and fly to Israel for long weekends.
Many sources point to a rise in anti-Semitism as the reason for the exodus, but when questioning the large French-Jewish statistics holders such as the Jewish Agency and AMI, they admitted that anti-Semitism is not the direct cause. The Jewish Agency calls it "the situation," alluding to anti-Semitic undercurrents. AMI's Zana agrees that there is "something anti-Semitic" in the wind.
Ruth Abrahami, who heads UNIFAN - the French-speaking equivalent of the AACI (Association for Americans and Canadians Living in Israel) - says that the French are looking to Zion and are coming simply because they want to.
Ilan Shouraki, 42, a ba'al tshuva (newly religious) for 10 years, was one of those looking to return to the Promised Land with his wife and children. Unlike many of those who plan the move carefully, his was a snap decision. Three years ago, in June, he and his wife decided to make aliya, and they were in Ra'anana by October.
Today, Shouraki has no trouble finding work in his profession as a party producer for weddings, birthdays, and bar mitzvas.
Though he confirmed that outright anti-Semitism is not what caused him to make the big leap, anti-Israel propaganda pervaded the French media, always painting the Palestinians in a good light when it came to reporting about Israel. It was ultimately something more sinister that pervaded the decadent French society, showing Shouraki how paradoxical it was to be a religious Jew and living in France.
Many point to increasing Muslim extremism as the cause of Jewish woes in France and elsewhere. Shouraki believes otherwise. "The Muslim problem is the consequence and we [Jews] are our problems to ourselves," he comments.
The father of four children is expecting three grandchildren in the coming months, and is proud to recount how his 14-year-old violin player son has performed for such personalities Rabbi Meir Lau and singer David De'Or.
Unlike in America where there are many varieties of Judaism, the French, explains Zana, have remained more traditional over the years, as many of them came from North Africa and brought their preserved customs with them.
Shouraki says that French Jewry does not suffer the secular-Orthodox divide that exists in Israel, and thinks that the special French Jewish attitude of acceptance is something that Israel can learn from.
Helene Bar-Chechet, a receptionist at the Institut Francais, a French cultural institute and library in Tel Aviv, immigrated alone to Israel 13 years ago at age 25. She did not come because of anti-Semitism and had heard only in the news that there was a recent rise in French aliya.
Bar-Chechet lives in Ashdod. "There are lots of French who live there," she says.
Marrying an Israeli native also helped her make a better transition. Did she make the right choice? "I wouldn't have stayed for 13 years if it wasn't good," she says.
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