Should I stay or should I go? French Jews and the prospect of aliya

Aliya from France remains high, but has failed to live up to the numbers Israeli officials expected following terrorist attacks on Jewish targets.

March 5, 2017 06:22
french aliya

Largest French aliya flight of the summer lands in Israel, July 20, 2016. (photo credit: TAMARA ZIEVE)

“WE’D LIKE to give you a Ferrari sports car and the keys to a seaside villa on your arrival in Israel – but that’s not what’s going to happen.”

Ouriel Gottleib is an envoy of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) whose job in Paris is to tell prospective emigrants from France what awaits them in the Jewish state.

Immigration to Israel from France neared 8,000 in 2015, the most from any country for the second year running. It fell to around 5,000 in 2016, quite possibly in large part because French Jews are feeling more secure after authorities posted armed troops outside synagogues, schools and other potential Jewish targets.

Opinion polls indicate anti-Jewish feelings are still high among those French youths of Muslim Arab origin responsible for hostile acts against Jews, but the deterrent presence of troops has seen the number of anti-Jewish incidentsts drop by a whopping 75 percent in 2016.

Despite the decline, the aliya rate in 2016 is still triple that of years that preceded the highs recorded since 2013.
226 Ukrainian immigrants arrive on IFCJ aliya flight in December 2014

This year’s intake of French olim (immigrants) was a little lower than the 5,500 who arrived from Ukraine, while aliya from Russia was up around 10 percent to around 6,500 according to end-of-year data published by the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry.

On a cold December evening, Gottleib, himself a former immigrant from France, faces some 30 prospective olim who have come to the closely guarded offices of the Jewish Agency in Paris for their first briefing on the long road to possible aliya – literally ascension – to Israel.

Such meetings are held regularly, and about 10,000 people attended them in 2016. “Many of them will not make aliya in the end,” says Daniel Benhaim, head of the Jewish Agency in France. “But these 10,000 people often represent entire families so we will have been in contact with tens of thousands of people altogether. We expect perhaps 50,000 Jews to move to Israel from France over the next decade.”

There are about half a million Jews in France, the world’s third-largest Jewish community after Israel and the United States.

Contrary to the long-held popular belief that the Jewish Agency paints too rosy a picture, Gottleib pulls no punches at his briefing to the prospective immigrants.

“Unless you are involved in a hi-tech profession, you will find that salaries are lower in Israel than in France, working hours are longer and social welfare benefits cannot match those you have here. Housing is very expensive in Israel, whether you buy or rent. Cars can cost twice as much as in France, and the health system will not mollycoddle you in the way to which you are accustomed,” he says. “Also, forget about France’s five weeks of annual holiday.

“In the case of a married couple, maybe only one of you now works and the other one tends to the home. In Israel, it is likely that to make ends meet both of you will have to work. And if both members of your couple are not equally motivated to come to Israel, your couplehood itself could be in jeopardy if you run into economic or other difficulties on the spot.

“If your children are very young, they will integrate quickly, easily and very happily in Israel. However, if you have adolescent children, it will be very difficult for them to adapt if they are not also convinced that they want to change their lives, especially if they are not ready to abandon the friends and the lifestyle they have in France.” he says.

“The Jewish Agency has always told people of the inevitable possible difficulties of moving to Israel,” Laurene Mamou, agency spokeswoman for France, tells The Jerusalem Report. “But, it is true that since the start of the major increase in aliya from France in 2012-2013, we have made a special effort to insist on being very clear and open from the start about the hurdles involved so as to reduce the number of people who might be disappointed,” she says.

Benhaim says that in the last three years, fewer than 5 percent of French olim turn back annually. Before the recent boost in aliya, Israeli officials had said privately that the number returning to France within five years varied from 10 to 30 percent.

Gottlieb’s audience listens intently. Most appear to be in the 30 to 60 age range. About half of the men wear kippot. Others prefer baseball caps to avoid anti-Semitic harassment on the streets. According to their dress, most seem to be blue-collar or lower-middle class. Track shoes and blue jeans are the norm; few jackets or ties are visible. Many women wear head coverings and longish skirts denoting Orthodox custom.

Nearly all seem to be Sephardi Jews, and for the oldest, aliya will be the second time in their lives they are uprooting themselves.

About 80 percent of France’s Jews once lived in the country’s former North African territories, having arrived there centuries before the Arab influx from the Arabian Peninsula.

WHEN ALGERIA, Tunisia and Morocco became independent from France from 1956 to 1962, life became increasingly difficult for local Jews who left by the hundreds of thousands.

In Algeria, this occurred virtually overnight when a million French nationals, including more than 100,000 Jews, came to France within a period of only a few short weeks in July 1962 as violence wracked the country. Most arrived penniless with only a couple of suitcases.

Annie Bouaniche, a recently retired publicity firm executive, left Algeria as a girl and is moving to Israel’s coastal city of Ashdod in just a few days.

“Israel has always been in our hearts, but my husband and I are only moving there now because of the trauma of already being uprooted from our homes in Algeria, in 1962, when we were not even in our teens,” she told The Report shortly before her departure.

A year earlier, Bouaniche had attended information sessions such as those organized by the Jewish Agency.

Like Bouaniche, most of the prospective olim being briefed by Gottleib are Orthodox Jews – “traditionalists” in Bouaniche’s definition. “We’re not ultra-Orthodox.”

Maurice B., 39, who also left for Israel in December 2016, lived in Bagnolet, a rough east Paris suburb. “Life there is no longer possible for our three kids. Over the past 10 years, Arabs have arrived in large numbers and now make up half the population. Delinquency is rife and I don’t want my children to grow up there and feel threatened,” he says.

Born in France of parents from Tunisia, he and his family are moving to Netanya, on the Israeli coast north of Tel Aviv, “because much of the population there are French speakers.” His livelihood is installing alarm systems, and like a considerable number of other French olim, he plans to engage in “Boeing aliya,” working in France and making the four-hour flight to Israel every 10 days or so.

Bouaniche lives in St. Brice, a peaceful, crime-free cottage community in the distant Paris suburbs. Still, she echoes Maurice B., “France is no longer what it was. General insecurity is too high. You can live here as a Jew but it’s much harder than before.”

Her brother-in-law and his family already live in Ashdod. Her own brother owns an apartment there and plans to move to Israel soon. “Yes, Israel is a country at war,” she says, “but I feel at home there. It’s very dear to me. I’m not afraid. It’s in the hands of God. If I were afraid I would not go.

“We love Ashdod. It’s an open city with large avenues, different-style neighborhoods, magnificent parks and a beautiful town hall,” she says. She and her husband plan to learn Hebrew and do unpaid volunteer work there.

“Each of us has three grown children from an earlier marriage and we hope they will all follow us to Israel with our grandchildren. They are all pretty religious,” she says.

Sociologists generally say France’s Jews break up broadly into three circles based on religiosity and attachment to Israel.

The first are religious, feel closest to Israel and have family there. They holiday in Israel, send their children to Jewish day schools and listen to Jewish radio stations – one of which openly encourages recruitment for Israel’s tough Border Police force. Callers to such stations speak of “our Jerusalem,” our “Judea and Samaria” and “our prime minister” when referring to Benjamin Netanyahu.

A second circle consists of people who may not attend synagogue but “feel” Jewish though their group is sometimes marked by intermarriage. About half of French Jews marry non-Jews, which is especially easy and accepted in a country whose official doctrine is that of “laicité” (secularity) and where only 4 percent of the majority Catholic population go to church at least once a month.

The third circle is viewed as feeling no connection to the community. Many Ashkenazim belong to this group, which has given rise to a joke among Sephardim the punchline of which is: “Are you Jewish or Ashkenazi?”

“Over the past three years, we’ve seen steady aliya by members of the first two groups,” says Benhaim. “It’s possible that most of those from the first group have already left France, but in the second group we’ve seen people who are not religious, whose children do not attend Jewish schools, but who do have a consciousness of being Jewish. They sometimes leave because they are attracted by Israel as the ‘start-up nation.’ Until 2012, few French Jews went to Tel Aviv [where many hi-tech industries are based] but since then, Tel Aviv has become the second pole of attraction for French Jews after Netanya,” he says.

“The third circle is made up of people who, if they emigrate, go somewhere other than Israel,” he says.

THERE ARE also a further estimated half million people in France with a Jewish connection, but who are not recognized as Jews by the rabbinate, usually because their mothers are not Jewish. This group, however, is eligible for immigration to Israel under the “Law of Return” pursuant to which a single Jewish grandparent is sufficient to become an Israeli citizen.

“There are many people in France who grew up as Jews, who lived as Jews and who discovered later on in life that their mothers were not Jewish,” explains Benhaim. “These people have a ‘Jewish conscience’ and want to go live in Israel like their neighbors and their cousins. These people genuinely regard themselves as Jews,” he says.

“The main reason French Jews make aliya is that they are generally very attached to Israel to begin with,” Benhaim says. “But it is true that in France, in general, there is an identity crisis among the whole population related to the place of Islam and the role of the country‘s Judeo-Christian society,” he says.

Benhaim, 43, was also born in France of parents from Morocco. A member of the religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, he made his own aliya in 1991 and began working for the Jewish Agency after studying economics and business administration at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. He has been in charge of the Jewish Agency in France since 2014.

Benhaim says the mass aliya from France of the past few years was obviously given a boost by anti-Semitic incidents ‒ more than 800 each in 2014 and 2015, including 98 acts of direct physical violence in 2015 and 108 the previous year, according to official figures. Other incidents include vandalism, hate mail and graffiti. The 75 percent decline in the number of such acts in 2016 is largely attributed to heightened security measures.

Benhaim says the fact that recent major Islamic terrorist actions were aimed at the French public in general, such as the November 13, 2015 Paris shootings that killed 130 people, or the truck rampage in Nice on July 14, 2016 that killed 86 people, have in an odd way soothed Jewish anxieties. “The Jews saw that everyone was a target, not only them,” he says.

These attacks also provoked a reinforcement of French patriotic feelings including within the leadership of the French Jewish community. “They wanted to demonstrate their loyalty to the French Republic,” says Benhaim.

France’s Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia and CRIF, the elected umbrella body for French Jewry, were prominent in calling for French national unity after the attacks.

Benhaim does not mince words when asked about one of the most vexatious issues facing prospective olim: the complaints from many French-Jewish doctors, pharmacists and other professionals of protectionist barriers to keep out competitors. They point to the examinations possibly requiring extra years of schooling that are part of being licensed to practice in Israel.

“Yes, Israel wants all Jews to come and live in Israel,” he says. “It is one of the founding principles of the State of Israel and remains so. But that does not mean the Israeli government can do things as it did in 1950.

“We know French-Jewish doctors expect us to lay out a red carpet for them, but we live in a society that has developed its codes and rules. In France, a few years ago, when the government wanted to reform and open up the professions of notary public and pharmacists, the notaries and the pharmacists took to the streets to demonstrate and the government backed down. Well, Israeli pharmacists have the same protective measures.”

He said Israel has simplified the rules for dentists, but he believes the main deterrent facing these professionals is that “they will never earn as much in Israel as they do in France,” Benhaim says.

He can understand the dilemma. “Aliya is a difficult decision to take. When you’re 18, it’s relatively simple, but when you’re 40 and you have a family and an established place in society and are doing well economically, it’s exceptionally difficult,” he says.

“Nonetheless,” he says, “we believe there is a bright future for aliya from France but we know very well that not every French Jew will come to Israel despite the fact that Israel sees every Jew in the world as a potential Israeli.”

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