When prime minister Ariel Sharon, reacting to anti-Semitic attacks in France, said in summer 2004 that French aliya is "a must and they have to move immediately," the French Jewish establishment, led by CRIF, was embarrassed.
French officials were scandalized; President Jacques Chirac even suggested that Sharon wasn't welcome in France, a spat that ended after Sharon lauded the French government for its vigilance against anti-Semitism.
But to Orthodox, generally rightward-leaning French Jews, who make up 30% of the community, and who fill most of the pool of potential immigrants to Israel, Sharon's call "was aimed at the right place at the right time," said Avi Zana, director in Israel of the French aliya organization AMI.
Since the intifada broke out six years ago, the number of French Jews making aliya to Israel has tripled - from about 1,000 a year before the violence began to 3,000 a year now, the highest figure since the Six Day War. Another 20,000 or so French Jews have made the final decision to immigrate to Israel, and are expected to arrive here in the coming years, said Zana, citing polls conducted for the organization three years ago. France is home to 600,000 Jews, by far Europe's largest Jewish community.
"You can assume that more people are making the decision [to immigrate to Israel] as time goes on," Zana added.
They've made their presence felt in Ashdod's City and Yud Bet neighborhoods, in Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood, in Netanya and Ramat Beit Shemesh. Most are families headed by young professionals and businesspeople, while the older, richer French immigrants buy in Jerusalem's German Colony, Herzliya Pituah and Caesarea, and often divide their time between Israel and France. Some 80% of them are religiously observant, and at least that high a percentage are of North African background.
They are heartfelt Zionists, and typically thought of moving to Israel since their youth. But it was the growth of the Muslim population in France, combined with the rise of Islamic fanaticism among that country's Muslims and the anti-Semitism that intensified with the intifada, that changed aliya from being a radical proposal among French Jews to being a legitimate, even logical one.
Yosef Ben-Zion, 60, who left the largely-Muslim Parisian suburb of Noisy de Sec two years ago and who now lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife and two children, said, "I started to feel that there was a real problem about 10 years ago. I started hearing the Muslim youth say 'sale Juif' as I was on my way to the synagogue. They used to throw rocks over the wall into the synagogue garden, and the police did nothing about it."
The problems in Noisy de Sec didn't begin a year ago with the riots and car-torchings that engulfed the country; Ben-Zion's wife, Simcha, 50, recalls that in the years before they left the suburb, Muslim firebrands "would start preaching in the street - 'Beware of the modern ways, beware of the influence of the Jews.'"
Yosef, who left Tunisia for France with his family around 1960, as North Africa was emerging from French colonial rule, says the Jews used to get along with the Arabs back in Tunisia, and also after they found themselves living next to each other as immigrants in France.
Said Zana: "The younger Muslims who don't have a history of living with Jews are the problem, their parents got along well with Jews. It's unusual - the first generation of Muslim immigrants to France was integrated better than their children."
IN THE commercial circle surrounding the big fountain in Ashdod's City neighborhood, vet- eran immigrant Sabrina Levy, who opened Elle et Lui Cosmetique with her husband Benny some months ago, says relations between Muslims and Jews have changed completely in the Parisian suburb of Orly where she grew up.
"My closest friend, Farida, was a Muslim, we lived in the same building, we went with boys together, we did everything together," recalls Levy, 46, who came to Israel nine years ago. "Now when I go back to visit my family in Orly, I see her covered up from head to toe in a black chador with only her eyes showing. I tried to talk to her but she wouldn't. When we pass and I say hello, she says hello back but she turns her eyes away."
On a bench in front of the beauty parlor, a reunion of the Attal family - Sabrina Levy's maiden name - is taking place. Her two older sisters in Ashdod - Ninette, who has lived in Israel since childhood, and Aimee, who moved here six months ago - have come to see their cousin, Aviva Sicsic, 59, whom they haven't seen in 30 years. Sicsic arrived that same morning from Marseilles to move into her apartment in the City neighborhood. "Here's the key!" she as much as sang, holding it up triumphantly.
Sabrina worries about her sister living in Orly and wishes she and her family would come to Israel. "She tells me her children don't go around with a kippa anymore, that they come home from school at four in the afternoon and don't go out again. She says the Muslims working in the supermarket speak to each other in Arabic and ignore her because she's Jewish. How do they know we're Jewish? I don't know, but they do.
"I know Jews in France who've taken in their mezuzot and nailed them up on the inside. One time all the windows of my family's cars were broken - just my family's. I grew up with Arabs, but now they're taking our place. If Sarkozy doesn't win," Levy said, referring to hard-line Interior Minister Nikolas Sarkozy, the favorite in next April's presidential election, "the Jews have no hope!"
IN HIS Jerusalem office, Zana explains that because of such communal memories as the Dreyfus Affair and the Vichy government of World War II - in which some 80,000 French Jews, or one-third of the community, were killed - the self-identifying Jews of France feel somewhat insecure, and traditionally have been reluctant to express opinions that might cast doubt on their national loyalty - such as the desire to immigrate to Israel.
"France is not like America," he noted. "To love Israel is okay, but to leave France for Israel is politically incorrect."
But between the rise in the Muslim population - now six million out of 60 million French citizens - the outbreak of Muslim animosity against Jews during the intifada, and the increasing religiosity and "communitarism and ghettoization," as Zana put it, of French Jews of North African background, aliya is no longer a taboo subject. "A growing number of people don't want to take a chance on what France is going to be like in another 20 years," he said.
Still, AMI is not warning of "catastrophe" to France's Jewish community, he stresses. "Muslims do not present an existential threat to French Jews," says Zana, predicting that there will always be a substantial Jewish community in the country.
And the French government is doing "everything it can to ensure the security of the Jewish community, and they've done a lot," he adds. Given the memories of Vichy, the French government does not want to appear as being soft on anti-Semitism, especially the violent variety. Furthermore, the fear of Muslims is widespread in France, so measures against Muslim militancy go down well with the population at large. "This puts pressure on the Arabs. They know that if they act up, they will get their comeuppance from the French," said Zana.
However, with hundreds of violent anti-Semitic incidents a year, and Muslims becoming such a large demographic and therefore political force, there is a "new reality" for France's Jews, he says. The young, rowdy Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities torched some 15,000 cars in the riots of a year ago. Even among liberal French Jews, says Zana, the notion of aliya as a solution to anti-Semitism is no longer derided as paranoiac.
Yet there are no calls being made for mass aliya, for the evacuation of the French Jewish community, as Sharon urged. AMI's slogan, he notes, is, "Aliya: An individual decision, a collective responsibility." In all, the immigrants say they are happy to be away from the threat of anti-Semitism, and that they love Israel - but that they don't mesh so well with Israelis or the Israeli way of life.
"When I used to come here on vacation, I would hear people screaming in the street, and I would wonder: 'Where am I?' Now I just let it slide off my back," said Hanna Levy in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Her husband, Zvi, a chiropodist, complains about the Israeli health care bureaucracy.
"Israel is calm, we're not afraid here. But the Israeli head is like this," says Eliezer Cohen, an electrician and ulpan student in Ashdod's City neighborhood, tapping a stone wall. "You arrange for a workman to come to your apartment at a certain hour, and you pay him half the amount, and he doesn't show up."
"My son was in a public school, but there was fighting and noise, and no respect for the teacher, and my children are not like that. My son loves Torah, so now he is in a haredi school," said Yosef Ben-Zion in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
IN ALBERT IMMOBILIERE (Real Estate Agency) in Ashdod's City neighborhood, owned by new French immigrant Albert Sicsic (no relation to Aviva), Jennifer Ben-David, 24, who came to Israel from Paris at age 12, says, "It's better to live here than in France, but it's easier to make money there. When Jews compete against Jews, it doesn't work."
She credits her IDF service for her acculturation. "Serving in the army is what makes you a real Israeli. If you try to act like a Frenchman in the army, being polite, sitting down for coffee, they'll eat you alive."
Sicsic, who lived in the St. Tropez area where, he says, there is little anti-Semitism, says he came here early last year strictly "because of [Zionist] ideology. Now I have less ideology. But everything in Israel is good. You have problems with Israelis at first, but then you get used to them."
In her office at the ulpan, Zehava Segal, who has been running adult education in Ashdod for the last 28 years, and thus has a basis on which to compare the French immigrants to those from other countries, describes the French as being relatively "spoiled."
"They are immigrants by choice, they had a good life back in France, and they come from a democratic country, so they have high demands," Segal says. "With the Russians you said, 'Go there,' and they went and said, 'Thank you,' but not the French.
"They say, 'How can you send me to an ulpan all the way over there, I want to study near where I live. The bus fare is expensive. We want to start at nine in the morning, not eight. This is not what they told us in France.' Finally you have to tell them that either they study where they're told or they don't study at all," she continued.
At the Home City real estate agency, Ya'acov, an agent, says that compared to other clients, the French who come looking for apartments "want to see a lot of apartments before they decide. They are very demanding." When asked, though, how they are when it's time to negotiate price, Ya'acov replied, "A lot easier than Israelis."
The immigrants' biggest problem is learning Hebrew, which is especially hard in Ashdod because so many of the city's residents are of North African background and thus speak French, so the immigrants can function well here in their mother tongue.
"Ashdod was always known as Little Paris," Segal notes. "When I wanted to learn Hebrew, people would tell me, 'What do you need to study Hebrew for, everybody in town speaks French.'"
Given the generally high standard of living they enjoyed in France, many of the immigrants become disappointed at the job opportunities for them here, says Segal. Many also are put off by the religious polarization in Israel. The immigrants tend overwhelmingly to be "traditionally" religious, and they went to Orthodox Jewish day schools in France. Often they enroll their children in haredi schools in Israel, thinking they will be like the schools they know back home, and are unpleasantly surprised. "They're not happy with the haredi schools or the secular schools," says Segal.
"I'm not haredi, I'm not secular, I'm a Jew" - this is a phrase one hears often from the French immigrants. In Ramat Beit Shemesh, Hanna Levy notes that her children go to Beit Ya'acov haredi schools. "They came home and told me that a secular Jew is a goy, and I said, 'What are you talking about?'"
SINCE AMI got up and going early last year, the organization has helped about 30% of the immigrant families with money (an average of $5,000 per family during the first year in Israel, with lesser amounts going to families who still need assistance after the initial year). Of the several hundred families AMI keeps tabs on, Zana says the organization knows of only three who have gone back to France.
Segal, however, says that among the hundreds of French students at the Ashdod ulpanim, "not a few of them have gone back." And Sabrina Levy, whose clientele at the beauty parlor is about 70% French, is especially well-situated to learn what immigrants, or at least those who sit in her chairs, really think about the new life they've started.
"When they're in my shop they talk about the problems of aliya, how it's hard to find work, how Israelis don't know how to speak politely, they're too temperamental, they're angry all the time," said Levy. "A lot of them have gone back, and a lot are thinking about going back - because they can't find work, or the children here are too wild, or because the teenage boys don't want to do three years in the army." In France there is no military conscription.
Her husband, Benny, adds that many teenage French immigrants have such difficulties with Hebrew, and with adjusting to the relatively anarchic Israeli classroom, that "a lot of them drop out of school at 15 or 16. They get into fights with groups of Israeli boys on the beachfront. It's happened a lot."
Hundreds of immigrants with businesses they cannot run by computer and telephone fly back to France on Sunday or Monday, work during the week, then fly back to Israel on Thursday for the weekend. "Often they'll alternate - one week in France, then one week in Israel," says Zana, noting that this is referred to as "Boeing aliya."
"I know an anaesthesiologist who takes the four-hour flight to Paris, gets off the plane and goes to the hospital, works a double shift and sleeps at the hospital - he doesn't even have a home there," says Zana, explaining that with all the frequent flyer credit these Boeing olim build up, it pays for them to keep their jobs in France rather than start over in Israel - especially when French wages are much higher than the Israeli standard, and more especially when the commuter gets paid in Euros.
Another way French immigrants overcome the language barrier to employment is by taking jobs at French-language call centers and providing services to French customers. These call centers are typically owned by veteran French immigrants who moved their business to Israel, where they can pay lower wages than they did in France.
The number of French haredim moving to Israel has gone down, Zana notes, due to the sharp decreases in welfare, especially child allowances, that have gone into effect here in recent years.
"The French welfare state is very generous, so the men who spend their days in kollel [married men's yeshiva] can get by better there than they can here," he explained.
French immigrants have a reputation for being anti-Arab, especially considering the circumstances in which they came here. Zana says the immigrants are actually less rightwing than those who came in previous decades. "You used to find a lot of French immigrants living in Kiryat Arba, for instance, but now you won't find any Kahanists among them. About the only immigrants who move to the settlements are the haredim, who go to places like Modi'in Elite and Betar Elite," he says.
Yet Hanna Levy says the immigrants' reputation is earned. "Yes, the majority of them hate Arabs, but this is partly a 'davkaresponse' to all the anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian information being spread by the French media," she said. Levy's brother was killed in an Arab terror attack in Antwerp in 1980, she says, but while she hated Arabs afterward, her attitudes have softened with time. "Just like there are good Israelis and bad Israelis, there are good Arabs and bad Arabs."
If not for the increase in France's Muslim population and the spread of Islamic anti-Semitism in that country, there wouldn't have been such a wave of French aliya. And for all their practical difficulties, they say they are most happy to be living in the Jewish state.
Living in the large French immigrant community makes them feel doubly at home. "There are Arabs here too, but this is our country," says Veronique Cohen at the ulpan in Ashdod. Remembering the catcalls of "sale Juif," and her fear of letting her children leave the house, she mused, "A France without Muslims - that would be a dream."