In the wake of the recent terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, I spent two emotional days in a shaken and grief-stricken Paris.
One of those days was spent at an aliya fair that the Jewish Agency had planned some time before, and which happened to take place on the sidelines of the massive solidarity rally attended by hundreds of thousands of French citizens.
As demonstrators marched by our windows with their “Je Suis Charlie” signs, I was struck by the contrast between the positive atmosphere of the rally, which brought so many people together in a spirit of fraternity, and the mournful tone of the aliya fair, attended by hundreds of Jews feeling deep fear and dismay about their future in France. As I spoke with Jewish leaders and lay people throughout my visit, it became increasingly clear to me that the Jewish Agency must continue its efforts to both encourage and facilitate the rapidly growing French aliya and to strengthen France’s beleaguered Jewish community.
Given how self-evident this conclusion appeared to me in Paris, I was rather surprised on my return to Israel to find that my remarks about encouraging aliya and strengthening the Jewish community had elicited criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
From the Zionist (bordering on post-Zionist) Left, I was called insensitive for inviting Jews to leave France at a time when they, as French patriots, should stand in solidarity with their besieged country.
From the traditional Zionist Right, I was accused of forgetting that my role is to promote aliya, not to strengthen Diaspora communities.
Apparently both sides regard the head of the Jewish Agency as a kind of commissar of the Zionist revolution, responsible for ending the Diaspora and evacuating all Jews to Israel. The difference between them is that where the Left sees me as unwanted, the Right regards me as insufficiently effective. Neither view has anything to do with the reality of French Jews or the role of Israel in modern Jewish life.
To those who think that this is not the time to speak about leaving France, while the country is grieving and consolidating its efforts to fight terror, I say that the desire of French Jews to leave has nothing to do with statements made by any Israeli or Jewish leader. The fact that close to half of French Jews are now considering emigration is a consequence of more than a decade of growing fear, anti-Semitism and estrangement that have led them to feel that France is no longer their home.
The implicit alliance between the forces of radical Islam, traditional right-wing anti-Semitism and the new left-wing anti-Semitism, expressed in the demonization of Israel, has turned Europe as a whole and France in particular into an increasingly uncomfortable place for Jews to live. In a number of articles published in the past year, I made the case that absent a dramatic change in the policies of post-modern and now post-liberal Europe, this century could be the last in two thousand years of European Jewish history.
Israel and the Jewish Agency cannot and must not take credit for this looming exodus. Anti-Semitism is not an ally of Zionism, not only because anti-Semitism is deeply immoral, but also because for every Jew who as a result of hatred and terror decides to leave for Israel, there are many others who decide to distance themselves from anything and everything Jewish.
We should take credit and feel pride, however, for the fact that at least 70 percent of all Jews leaving France are choosing to make aliya rather than settle elsewhere. The language, skills and European citizenship of French Jews open doors to a number of other desirable locations besides the Jewish state. For example, they could make their homes elsewhere in the EU, where the welfare benefits are attractive and they would have access to some of the world’s best universities.
They could leave for Montreal, where they would not have to learn a new language or face the headache of finding good Jewish schools for their children. Or they could settle in the United States or Australia, both undeniably comfortable and appealing places to live.
Whether French Jews choose Israel above these other options depends to a significant degree on us. There are two main factors at work: first, the strength of their Jewish identity and feeling of connection with the Jewish state; and second, how successful Israel is in giving them opportunities to integrate.
Five year ago, at the beginning of my term as chairman, we at the Jewish Agency came to understand that the new aliya of choice calls for a different approach than aliya of rescue. This is why we made strengthening Jewish identity and building connections with Israel the focus of our activities. In France, programs such as Bac, Bleu, Blanc which brings more than a thousand schoolchildren to Israel before their graduation, and Masa, which brings young people to study here – not to mention our many seminars, summer camps and other programs – exist to further the goal that every young Jew and Jewish family should be connected in one way or another to the Jewish state. By bringing down the Chinese wall between the world of aliya and the world of Jewish education, we were able to use more resources, send more emissaries, and create more programs for this purpose. Close cooperation with the Israeli government permitted us to deal successfully with the resulting wave of French immigration, which saw a four-fold increase in the last two years (from 1,800 in 2012 to more than 7,000 in 2014) and which we expect to double again this year.
Regarding the second factor, Israel’s readiness to absorb French olim, there is urgent work to be done. We must prepare to receive tens of thousands of immigrants and provide them with professional, social and other opportunities.
Right now we are working closely on this with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, and the prime minister regards the French aliya as a top priority and is ready to take some out-of-the-box steps to make its landing here a success.
Now I want to address the question of why the Jewish Agency should worry about building strong Jewish communities abroad – after all, what does this have to do with aliya? Even if I accept (which I do not, since I believe our concern should be the fate of all Jews) that the Jewish Agency’s sole aim is to maximize the number of olim, the persistence of the French Jewish community is extremely important.
Without a strong community, Jewish identity will wane and aliya will quickly subside along with it. Today, those coming to Israel from France are almost entirely from the hard core of French Jewry – those who attend Jewish schools or summer camps, or who are actively involved in Israel-related programs. Last year, Jews who left for Israel amounted to more than 1% of the entire community but approximately 4% of this highly identified core. Leaders of Jewish schools have already told me that they lost 5% or more of their students last summer, and that as a result their financial viability is insecure. If this continues for another two or three years, the institutions that promote Jewish identity will disappear, and so will the chances of any significant continued immigration. Even in its narrowest interpretation, then, our mission calls for ensuring that Jewish schools, synagogues and community centers continue to thrive, that our programs will pull those on the periphery of Jewish communal life towards its center.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews may leave France in the coming years. How many of them will make aliya depend both on what we do to strengthen Jewish identity there and on how successfully Israel attracts them to its shores.
There is certainly more work to be done in providing French olim with opportunities and removing barriers to their integration. Yet in these painful and difficult times for the Jewish people, as we face rising anti-Semitism and insecurity around the world, we ought to pause and take pride in the fact that the Jewish state is now a destination of choice for those who could easily live elsewhere. For these new olim, Israel is not a last resort, a place of refuge when no other country will accept them.
Rather, for them aliya is a choice that stems from their view of Israel as the best place to lead a modern and fulfilling Jewish life. This is the true realization of Herzl’s dream, that Israel would be not only be a shelter but a magnet for Jews around the world who want to enjoy everything it has to offer.
May we all be privileged to work to keep it this way.
The writer is chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.