What happened to aliyah from France?

Four years ago, French Jews topped the list of immigrants to Israel and many more were expected to come. Why has that failed to happen?

A young French immigrant on arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport (photo credit: JAFI)
A young French immigrant on arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport
(photo credit: JAFI)
Some 8,000 French Jews made aliyah (ascent or immigration) to Israel in 2015, the largest number from any Western country in a single year since the Jewish state’s creation.
Their departure from France was sparked by two bloody episodes: the killing in 2012 of three pupils and a teacher by an Islamist gunman at a Jewish school in southern France, and the shooting dead in January 2015 of four Jews in an attack, also by an Islamist militant, against a kosher supermarket in the Paris area.
Israeli leaders subsequently predicted that a huge number of of the half-million strong French Jewish community, third largest in the world after Israel and the United States, would follow. Diaspora Affairs and Education Minister Naftali Bennett told the Israeli cabinet as late as December 9, 2018 that 200,000 French Jews were now ready to come to Israel.
But when the 2018 statistics for aliyah to Israel were published a few days later, they showed that annual immigration from France had dropped for the third year running and stood at 2,660 (after registering 3,500 in 2017 and 5,000 in 2016.) The total number of immigrants in 2018 was close to 30,000, with Russians and Ukrainians making up half the number.
“There are definitely not 200,000 French Jews waiting to make aliyah today since there are certainly not 200,000 Jews in France, who are in contact with the Jewish community,” said Daniel Benhaim, 45, outgoing head of the Jewish Agency in France, which organizes immigration to Israel. Specialists consider that one-third of French Jews have close ties to the community, one-third “feel Jewish” but have nearly no community ties and another third have no ties whatsoever with Judaism. The last two groups have very high intermarriage rates into France’s mostly secular society.
“The 200,000 figure has (internal Israeli) political motives,” Benhaim told The Jerusalem Report in an interview in his Paris office. He did not go into details but implied that the politically hard-right Bennett was making a pitch for the votes of those immigrants from France already in Israel, where general elections will be held on April 9.
However, the figure initially turned up in a French government-ordered survey conducted in 2015.
The overwhelming majority of immigrants from France were born in, or are the children of, Jews born in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, France’s former North African territories. Hundreds of thousands of these Sephardi Jews fled or were chased from those Muslim Arab countries when they became independent from France in the 1950s and 1960s. They now outnumber Ashkenazi Jews in France by about 75 percent to 25 percent. Their often hurried flight to France, Israel, Canada and elsewhere under threat or amid violence occurred several decades ago but remains seared in their memories. Many are extremely hostile to Arabs in general, especially since antisemitic acts in France are overwhelmingly the work of Muslim Arab immigrants to the country. Bennett’s tough stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and his pledges to help French Jewish immigrants, appeals to them, as do the policies of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We consider today that between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews could make their aliyah from France in the next decade,” says Benhaim.
So what happened after the initial rush to Israel?
Arye Kandel, head of Qualita, an Israeli non-governmental organization devoted to helping immigrants from France, broke down the 200,000 figure in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
In the survey, he said, “French Jews were then asked whether they saw their future in France or abroad, and 51 percent of those questioned replied that they saw their future outside France. The breakdown was that eight percent said they wanted to leave France to go elsewhere than Israel, while 30 percent said they wanted to go to Israel and 13 percent said they were seriously considering going to Israel,” Kandel told The Report.
“It’s true that no new study on the issue has been conducted or published since then, but if you speak to people among the 150,000 Jews who make up the core of the organized Jewish community in the Paris area, you will not find anyone to say that the situation has improved. At best, the situation has stabilized,” he says.
The Jewish Agency’s Benhaim also sees things as having calmed down. In 2015, “there was a specific climate in France, which led many people to consider in a very concrete fashion their possible move to Israel with the feeling that it was increasingly difficult to be a Jew in France.
“Today, however, French Jews feel that the situation is less oppressive than it was in the past and there is less a feeling that they should accelerate their departure to Israel,” he says.
The change is often attributed to two later major Islamist terror attacks in France directed against the public in general, which led many Jews to feel they were no longer specially singled out. These were the November 2015 shootings at a Paris concert hall and outdoor cafés and restaurants, which killed 130 people, and the July 2016 rampage of a truck along the boardwalk of the Riviera city of Nice, which killed 86 people.
“This is, of course, subjective since there are still hundreds of antisemitic incidents in France each year,” says Benhaim. There were 385 incidents during the first nine months of 2018, two-thirds of which were threats and the other third were physical attacks on persons or property, a 69 percent rise compared to the same period the year before. But the figures are less than half what they were in the early 2000s when the al-Aqsa intifada broke out in Israel and the Palestinian territories, sparking copycat actions by young French Muslims in France. There are about six million Muslims in France, where they outnumber Jews more than 10-1.
Another reason why the number of incidents has dropped is that tens of thousands of less well-off Jews who lived in rough areas of French cities alongside large Muslim populations have moved to safer areas, sometimes with community help. The French Army also fanned out massively to protect Jewish schools and other premises in 2015 with armed troops, who patrolled outside and even resided many months on school grounds and in synagogues.
“There has always been a ‘natural aliyah’ from Western countries with around 1,800 olim (immigrants) a year from France. These figures really took off from 2013 to 2016 when nearly 24,000 Jews came from France to Israel,” says Benhaim. More than 50,000 French Jews have made aliyah since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2002 and parallel anti-Jewish violence in France. Several thousand other French Jews left in the same period for the United States, Canada and Britain.
“These were exceptional figures, which were reached under exceptional circumstances (Islamist terror acts) and we are now coming back to more “natural” aliyah figures,” he says. “We estimate that aliyah will stabilize around 2,500-3,000 a year, which is far from the record years of 2014-2015 but which will still be 30-40 percent more than what it was before those record years,” Benhaim says.
Kandal of the Qualita immigrant-aide group in Jerusalem says many more Jews would move, if Israel improved the economic conditions for them.
He continues that people aged 16-30 got plenty of state help but less well-off families with children could not make ends meet. Integration “packages” for French immigrants were far less generous than those for Russian newcomers, who also suffer from economic difficulties, he says. Many Russian Jews are housed virtually for free in immigrant absorption centers for their first year in Israel, an option not generally open to the French. Work training programs are also specially tailored for them.
“If the state helped no one, we would not say anything, but the state does a lot more for the Russians and the Americans than it does for the French. If Israel really wants aliyah from France, then it has to organize solutions that will allow the French, especially those from the very lower middle class and blue collar areas around Paris, to come,” Kandel says.
The Jewish Agency says aid is awarded according to the needs of each specific community.
Benhaim acknowledges that upping stakes is difficult: “When you are in mid-life at 40-45 years old and you already have a well-established social and economic position as well as family stability, the decision to make aliyah is one which is full of tension and responsibility, and carrying it out is very complicated,” he says. “Yes, it is difficult professionally and economically, but most olim also say that they have a great feeling of freedom and well-being once they are here. ‘This is what we always wanted for our children,’ is what they tell us.”
One niche group are pensioners who await retirement in France before coming to Israel, where their French state pensions are untaxed for their first 10 years in the country. This can be the case for people who fear that they will not be able to find jobs in Israel where they will earn as much as in France, in part because their Hebrew is not good enough, and they want to maintain their standard of living.
Some buy apartments in affluent areas of north Tel Aviv where there are relatively large numbers of French Jews, who meet in cafés on Ben Yehuda Street in winter and on nearby Gordon Beach, nicknamed “La plage des Français” (the French Beach), in the summer. Often, they purchase properties before their retirement and come regularly for holidays before retiring, then shuttle between France and Israel every six months or so afterwards.
Claude Bloch made aliyah to Jerusalem with his wife Chantal in 1988, when he was 49, before the anti-Jewish violence, and was motivated by Zionist and religious reasons.
He owned a firm in the Paris area, which produced electronic and electrical components and which employs up to 80 people.
Instead of trying to start anew, Bloch, like hundreds of French professionals – lawyers, doctors, dentists – decided to commute. French Jews call it “l’aliyah Boeing.”
 “I would fly to Paris every Monday morning and come back every Thursday night,” he told The Report. The flight is four and a half hours long.
Soon, he traveled one week in two and did so for decades, only slowing down the rhythm in the very last few years.
“But I never spent Shabbat away from home. That is very important. If anyone wants to imitate this rhythm of work, they must have the money to pay for such trips because, otherwise, they end up spending periods of two or three weeks at a time in France. This led to catastrophic family situations with divorces and rudderless families, where the wife loses control of her children who sometimes turn to drink or drugs. Such a problem exists here among some French families.
I very much advise against this sort of life, unless the father is certain to be home regularly. It’s a lifestyle suited, alas, only for the well-off.”
His experience was apparently successful since two of his sons are engineers, his daughter is a biologist and his third son is a rabbi and mohel (circumciser).
Bloch, who lost his father in the Shoah and was himself vice-president of his synagogue in France, deeply cares about others and created the “National Center for French Students” (CNEF) to help French-Jewish students, who arrive in Israel without their parents. “We look after them and arrange for them to have connections with families who invite them for Shabbat dinners. We also distribute about 100,000 euros (115,000 dollars), which we raise annually for scholarships.”