French Jews contemplating aliya should take the initiative, and the Israeli government should provide them with the benefits once afforded Soviet immigrants, according to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
“I believe many French Jews are planning to leave,” Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors gathering in Paris from Sunday to Tuesday.
“My message is that we are here to help you, we are here to support you, but you need to take the initiative! It’s a mutual effort.”
Sharansky noted that according to a survey conducted last year by Étude IFOP, more than 40 percent of France’s estimated half a million Jews are considering immigration to Israel.
“Last year we saw an increase in French aliya to 8,000, but there is a slowdown now. The reasons why people have decided to leave are still there, and in fact, we have 9,000 new aliya files opened recently,” he said. “We have increased our operation in France, and we can process 15,000 olim a year. That’s not a problem. The problem is to provide solutions to those who are looking for apartments and jobs.”
In this regard, Sharansky urged the Israeli government to reinstate its program of benefits and incentives offered to Soviet Jews.
“We believe that the government must restore projects for olim that existed for immigrants from the Soviet Union,” Sharansky said. “At that time, there were special mortgages, special rights, and special incentives to go to places in the periphery such as Hadera and Sderot.”
Sharansky said he was looking forward to the Board of Governors meeting, which would be attended by 218 board members, Jewish leaders from France and around the world, two Israeli cabinet ministers – Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant – and the French minister of state for relations with parliament, Jean-Marie Le Guen.
“We decided eight months ago that our Board of Governors meeting will be in Paris, in solidarity with French Jews and as a result of all that is happening in Europe, with a rise in anti-Semitism,” he said. “It will be the biggest meeting of Jewish leaders in Paris, maybe ever, at least in the history that I know.”
He later issued a statement saying: “This gathering of hundreds of Jewish leaders from around the world is the single greatest expression of the Jewish people’s solidarity with French Jewry.”
He added: “The Jewish Agency will continue to assist any French Jew who wishes to make his or her home in Israel while simultaneously doing everything in our power to ensure that Jewish life in France grows even stronger and more secure.”
Daniel Ben-Haim, director of the agency’s delegation in France, said that he is concerned about the general situation in France.
“France itself is undergoing a kind of economic and identity crisis; there are many discussions on national identity, both in the country and Europe, about the place of Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition,” he told the Post in an interview from Paris.
“For over a month, there have been many anti-government demonstrations and strikes.
Jews as citizens of the state are both influenced by these factors and in addition, they have been affected by a steady rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks over the past decade.”
Since the murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris 10 years ago, and the anti-Semitic attacks in Toulouse six years later and at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in the capital last year, Ben-Haim said there has been “a prevalent feeling of instability and insecurity” among French Jews.
Since November 2015, a wave of fatal terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe has enhanced this feeling, he added.
“There is a general sense of fear that definitely affects the daily life of all French citizens, especially Jews,” he said.
Ben-Haim praised the French government and security forces for taking swift and strong action to combat terrorism, but voiced uncertainty about the future of French Jewry.
“The government has made clear to the country’s Jews that it wants them to feel safe and to stay,” he said.
“French security forces have been posted outside every Jewish institution, and there are many such institutions.
There is a great motivation to fight terrorism, but I’m not sure they have all the right tools. For example, even though France has been in what is termed ‘an emergency situation’ since 2015, which allows the security forces much more freedom, the question is what happens when this ends?” He said although most Jews feel uncomfortable about the security situation and anti-Semitism, they were not quite ready to leave yet.
“Especially now, during the Euro soccer competition, when there are many visitors and games in different places, there is an awareness of the possibility of renewed terrorism and its potential to disrupt our lives,” he said.
“For the country’s Jews, however, there is still a large gap between the desire to make aliya and actually doing it.
The Jewish Agency and the government of Israel are both working on bridging this gap by working on the whole issue of absorption.
We need to provide realistic solutions for housing, jobs and education in Israel.”
Ben-Haim predicted that there would be a new wave of aliya in the not-too-distant future.
“I don’t feel we’ve reached the peak, and we have to look at the bigger picture. In 2017, we will have presidential elections here. Like those in the US, they will be a defining moment for the nation and the Jewish community.
“There will be a new president, but more important than his or her identity will be whether he or she will contribute to stability and what the role of the extreme Right will be. All these things – including the economic slowdown, the political instability, the security situation, and the rise of anti-Semitism, could all contribute to an upsurge in aliya.”
Participants at the threeday Board of Governors meeting will learn about Jewish Agency activities in Paris, interact with French Jewish youth, receive a security briefing from the Jewish communal security service, and learn about the most pressing issues facing the community. The event will draw to a close with the European finals of the 2016 International Bible Competition for Adults, hosted jointly by the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and the World Zionist Organization, the agency said in a statement.