French New Immigrants Departing from Paris for Israel.
(photo credit: FLICKR/THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)
This week for the first time, the Jewish Agency held its annual board of governors meeting in Paris. In a statement beforehand, agency chairman Natan Sharansky said: “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.”
France’s Jews are in need of all the solidarity they can get. The murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris 10 years ago, the anti-Semitic attacks in Toulouse six years later and at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in the capital last year have left the Jewish community of France – at about 500,000 the single largest in Europe – feeling unstable and insecure. The wave of terrorist attacks that swept across Paris last November that left 130 dead and more than 100 wounded has only strengthened this feeling.
Francis Ben-Hanni, who arrived in Israel this week on a flight arranged by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told The Jerusalem Post’s Jack Brook that his children – Liat, 10, and Sarit, six – suffer from recurring nightmares. His son, Avram, had to wear a baseball cap on the street to cover the kippa underneath.
Daniel Ben-Haim, head of the agency’s office in France, told Post senior features editor Steve Linde earlier this week that “there is a general sense of fear that definitely affects the daily life of all French citizens, especially Jews.”
The threat of Islamist terrorist attacks is only part of the problem. The French economy has been in an extended slump. For the first time since the Second World War it recorded three consecutive years of zero growth. In 2014, even as the euro zone as a whole began to recover, French economic stagnation continued.
Unemployment is up from 9.8 percent in 2012 to 10.2% today, and the European Commission expects only “limited” job creation this year and next. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. Since 1978, French economic growth has clocked in at an average rate of 0.45%; unemployment hasn’t fallen below 7% in over 30 years.
Next year, France is expected to have a jobless rate above the euro-zone average for the first time since 2007. One of the problems is that firms remain wary of taking on permanent workers under France’s rigid labor code. And reform has been stymied by France’s ruling Socialist Party.
True, the leaders of the Fifth Republic have demonstrated in word and deed that they are committed to the protection of Jewish property and life. But French society – particularly those positioned on the Left – are too quick to see terrorism as a reaction to legitimate gripes.
Unsurprisingly, many French Jews are contemplating leaving. A survey conducted last year by Étude IFOP found that more than 40% of France’s Jews are considering immigration to Israel. According to a survey by the Israel Project released in 2004, only 26% of French Jews were contemplating emigration.
In the same year, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon caused a stink when he urged French Jews to make aliya.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised few when he made similar comments in January 2015. This week Sharansky said outright that due to Arab immigration and deep-seated anti-Semitism, the Jews of France have no future in their country.
Israel has much to offer, not just as a refuge for scared Jews but as a place where Jews can thrive and realize their potential. The dynamic Israeli economy arguably offers more opportunities for talented Jews than France’s troubled business sector.
Culturally, Jews can pursue a wide range of activities – from Jewish film and art to music and drama – unavailable in France. Families can bring up their children in an atmosphere of security. A Jew can live a fulfilling, visibly Jewish life without feeling constant hostility.
However, Israel needs to do more to encourage French Jews, many of whom have undergone an Israelization process even if they continue to live in France.
Professional accreditation in Israel of French doctors, pharmacists, and technicians should be made easier so as to make the transition smoother. Packages similar to the ones offered to immigrants from the former Soviet Union should be offered. And the prohibitively high housing costs should be made more affordable by giving special incentives to French immigrants to go to places in the periphery, such as Yeroham and Sderot.
Israel should also seriously reconsider its decision to close the Israeli Consulate in Marseille. France’s Jews are looking for an exit. Israel should facilitate it.