French Jews feel that by serving in the IDF they are taking the security of the Jewish people into their own hands, according to new immigrant Anouck Amsellem.
Amsellem, 20, made aliya from Marseilles, together with her fiancé in 2014, and both enlisted in the IDF. After participating in a MASA program, Amsellem began her service in the Lotar counter-terrorism unit.
Last week, the Defense Ministry announced that the largest number of foreign volunteers to the IDF have come from France – for the second year in a row. While the security situations in both Israel and France are perilous, Amsellem says the IDF helps eradicate a sense of helplessness felt by French Jews in their country of origin.
On a more personal level, she adds that serving in the army is a good way to integrate into society.
“I came to Israel because I saw my future here, and I think it’s best to make the move when you’re young and you can study here.”
She says after her first year she knew little Hebrew and had no Israeli friends. Her time in the army has changed that.
“It wasn’t simple. At the beginning I felt a bit alone and separate from the Israelis but after a few months I began to connect to people and now, after eight months in the IDF, I can really say I have made lifelong Israeli friends.”
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Some opt for national service instead of army service – an alternative offered mainly to religious women who receive exemption for the IDF.
“I think the army can distance people from religion,” Annaelle Dabi, 20, says, explaining why she felt national service was more suitable for her.” Dabi made aliya from Paris a year and half ago and is volunteering at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
“The army is hard and you’re alone in Israel and I think it’s harder to keep Shabbat there,” she says, adding that a poor level of Hebrew limits the range of jobs an immigrant can do in the army.
She is highly positive about her experience of national service, saying it has taught her a lot about life in general.
“When you get here, your Hebrew is still weak – it’s scary that you have patients’ lives in your hands. So you have to learn the language fast,” she says. Witnessing patients struggle with their various conditions put life in perspective for her. “From each patient you learn something else.”
Many female immigrants, like Dabi, come to Israel alone, and NGO Shlomit operates a program called Shilat to help them adjust to their new lives in the country through national service. This year some 90 French female immigrants are doing national service through Shilat, and Shlomit is currently in the process of bringing over an additional 120 to Israel.
The NGO provides the girls with French-speaking program coordinators, offers partially subsidized accommodation to those who qualify for it, and classes to help the immigrants with their studies further along the line.
“Our aim is to enable every youth who has exemption from the IDF to volunteer in national service,” explains director Osnat Tzadok.
“Through the absorption of the immigrants into the national service framework, we support and enable them to integrate into Israel and to be an equal part of Israeli society through their undertaking of significant roles.
“I believe that through giving, people get back,” Tzadok says, stressing that the first couple of years of aliya are crucial in determining whether immigrants stay or go. “It’s a challenging time for new lone immigrants so we try to give them the support they need to help them start their lives here in a positive way.”
She adds that the program helps them improve their level of Hebrew and exposes them to the Israeli culture and mentality, as well as presenting them with the opportunity to make connections that could help them professionally.
Dabi even found love at the start of her service. Her now-boyfriend, a soldier, was in a car accident and brought to Ichilov Hospital where Dabi was volunteering with Magen David Adom. “He offered to help me learn Hebrew and gave me his number,” she smiles.
Dabi is not surprised by the high turnout of French immigrants in the army.
“The French are very Zionist. We feel we have to contribute,” she says, emphasizing that even when living in France, they live through every war Israel has, feeling the conflict keenly.
She notes that further than feeling solidarity with Israel, her daily life in France changed during times of conflict. She attended a Jewish school and used to go home for lunch.
But during Israeli conflicts, students were instructed not to leave the school premises, “because Arabs waited outside the school waiting to attack us.”
Dabi says she felt anti-Semitism on a daily basis in France, and was spat on once while walking down the ChampsÉlysées wearing a Star of David around her neck.
“Yes, we were also spat on – on our way to school,” chimes in Johanna Arrouas, 21, who also attended a Jewish school in Paris. Arrouas is also in the Shilat program and became fast friends with Dabi during her time volunteering at Tel HaShomer.
Arrouas notes, however, that she lived in a Paris suburb and generally didn’t feel anti-Semitism.
She decided she wanted to make aliya at an early age. Her Jewish education and a visit to historic Jewish sites in Poland, strengthened her Jewish identity. French Jewish students take a school trip to Israel when they are 18.
“They aim to show you the big picture of Israel, and encourage you to make aliya – and it works,” the two girls laugh. Arrouas considered serving in the army, but ultimately decided that the best way for her to contribute to the state was though national service.
A sense of adventure and freedom led Dan Markowicz, 22, from Toulouse to Israel.
After finishing high school in France he struggled to find work and the French army refused him as he hadn’t completed his studies.
“I feel more free in Israel, because there is no anti-Semitism, and it’s safer here than in France,” he says.
After completing Hebrew classes at Kibbutz Ulpan in the North, he followed in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather, by joining a combat unit.
“Since I was a kid I wanted to be a soldier and to protect Israel,” he says. Markowicz currently serves in the Paratroopers Brigade and plans to build the rest of his life in Israel. “I love the people, I love kibbutz life, my adoptive family, the way of life,” he gushes.
But the picture isn’t all rosy.
According to QUALITA, the umbrella organization of NGOs supporting French immigrants, many drop out of the army. QUALITA spokesperson Ephraim Zenou says that while the data regarding the high number of French immigrants in the IDF is encouraging, he predicts the figure will drop in the coming years.
“It depends on the action taken by the state,” he says, asserting that there is not enough support provided to ensure smooth integration of the immigrants.
He explains that while programs such as Mahal address the needs of tourists and lone soldiers, younger immigrants who come with their parents are not offered the same frameworks.
“Kids who didn’t necessarily decide to move here on their own accord, have to first deal with high school problems and then they’re suddenly asked to serve in the army, which they wouldn’t have had to do in France,” he stresses.
He also points out that the number of female French immigrants coming to Israel at IDF recruitment age is double the number of their male counterparts, which he attributes to a lack of preparatory programs for men.
He says 60 percent of French immigrants from Netanya – the city that absorbs the largest number of French immigrants – don’t complete their army service.
“This means there is not enough preparation,” he says.
“We tell them to make aliya, but there’s not enough strategy for what comes after.”
QUALITA is busy working on a comprehensive, longterm plan to aid absorption of French immigrants, which it will soon present to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.
“French immigrants encounter bureaucracy and difficulties in finding work that fit the skills they acquired in France; 30% of French immigrants return to their country of origin within their first three years in Israel,” he says, stressing that a plan of action is needed urgently, as thousands more French Jews prepare to move to Israel.
Zenou says while the QUALITA plan is geared toward French immigrants, it can also be adapted for other populations.
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