Ra'anana's French revolution

Olim from France comprise the fastest growing immigrant community in the city today.

french olim 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
french olim 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Miriam Haddad, 42, sits at a desk in the rear of her bookshop, Le Guetteur de Lune. The small shop is lavishly stocked with French fiction and nonfiction, along with an enormous array of DVDs of French films. A French song lilts softly from a CD player; photographs, knick-knacks and colorful works of mosaic art cover all portions of walls not lined with bookshelves. The place is a serene oasis in the midst of a hot, noisy city. Haddad greets a woman and her two children who have come to browse. They converse animatedly in French as the soft Parisian melody plays in the background. Somewhere in Paris? No, somewhere in Ra'anana. Le Guetteur de Lune reposes at the end of a small plaza on Rehov Ahuza, Ra'anana's downtown commercial center. Formerly an optician in Paris, Haddad immigrated to Israel three years ago with her husband and children - "from strong Zionist feelings" and settled in Ra'anana "because of the good schools and good education for our children." The bookstore, opened 14 months ago, has become a focal point for the area's French immigrant community. Haddad attributes its success to the fact that she tries to give her customers "a little taste of Paris." Haddad is not alone. A few blocks away is a highly acclaimed French bistro/restaurant owned and operated by a Paris-educated French chef, and a French bakery offering crepes and authentic French bread. Strolling along Rehov Ahuza, one might conclude that French is steadily replacing English as the city's second language, after Hebrew. In fact, the French comprise the fastest growing immigrant community in Ra'anana today. According to Lydia Weitzman, the municipality's international relations coordinator, 123 French immigrants settled in Ra'anana in 2003;166 in 2004; 164 in 2005; and 120 new olim have arrived from France in the summer of 2006. Why are they coming to Ra'anana? After many years of French aliya, which has spiked significantly during the past six years, Ra'anana has acquired a reputation among Jews in France as a highly livable, congenial and cosmopolitan city, strategically situated in the center of the country and happily located near the Mediterranean. The city's services for immigrants - notably absorption and education - are said to be of a high quality. For families with children, education is a major draw. They are choosing Ra'anana for the special absorption programs in the city's schools, particularly Hebrew instruction in ulpans, and the many adult absorption and education programs. Perhaps the major reason has been the city's receptiveness. While the French, like all immigrant groups, have met with varying degrees of acceptance elsewhere in Israel, Ra'anana's municipal government has been receiving them with open arms, and residents have accorded them a very warm welcome. On August 16, Ra'anana received more than 50 new arrivals from France, part of a total of 650 who arrived in Israel that day, at the height of the war in Lebanon. The Ra'anana-bound olim were met at the airport by deputy mayors Uzi Cohen and Tzipi Dolfin. Each new arrival received a welcome kit that included essential information in French about their new hometown, along with a welcome letter from Mayor Nahum Hofree. Ra'anana's citizens - especially the town's Anglo contingent - have also reacted positively. A lot of the enthusiasm revolves around French cuisine and the recent addition of a creperie and several French bakeries to the city's already cosmopolitan landscape. The opening in 2003 of the Carrousel, a kosher restaurant on Rambam, was heralded by rave reviews. Home owners also say that the French influx is raising city real estate values. The French immigrant community is surprisingly diverse. While no one family can be deemed "representative," the five-member Cohen-Ronnet family - one year in Ra'anana - are illustrative of the challenges and opportunities French olim are facing. Says Husband and father Philippe, 46, "Most French Jews making aliya these days are religious. We are not." He adds that with two-thirds of the Jewish community in France originating from North Africa, the majority of French olim are Sephardic. What is left of the older, Ashkenazi component after the Holocaust is more assimilated and less driven by Jewish identity, thus contributing relatively few immigrants to Israel. He is Ashkenazi and his wife, Elsie, is Sephardic. The Cohen-Ronnets began to talk seriously about making aliya in 2000. Despite the start of the second intifada and the beginning of accelerated attacks on Jews, Philippe insists that French anti-Semitism had nothing to do with their decision to emigrate. "France is not an anti-Semitic country," he says. "While the general environment is not so good for Jews and there are anti-Semitic people like everywhere else in the world, Jews are in all walks of life and at every level of society." Part of a slowly building wave of immigration from France, this family - along with hundreds of others - are changing Ra'anana and Israel. The new immigrants from France are enriching this country with new skills and ideas, while strengthening it with their strong commitment to Zionism. Why are French Jews leaving France? Ask people outside the French immigrant community why the Jews are leaving their country, and the usual answer is that they are making aliya to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Ask the French olim themselves, however, and the responses become more diverse and complex. Many recent arrivals say in no uncertain terms that it was primarily anti-Semitism that brought them from France to Israel. Others acknowledge that while anti-Semitism has increased in recent years, the phenomenon has been due largely to the intifada and emanates mainly from young Muslim immigrant men, mostly from North Africa and poorly integrated into French culture and society. Many French olim claim that fervent Zionism and a strong attachment to Israel have impelled them to leave France and establish new roots here. Others appear to be hedging their bets, making what has come to be known as "Airbus aliya," in which the family's wife and children live in Israel, while the husband keeps his job in France and commutes between the countries. While the reasons for making aliya vary from one family to the next, no one disputes the assertion that being Jewish in France has become more difficult during the past six years. With a tradition of anti-Semitism that dates back to Medieval times and the Crusades, France became a virtual icon of anti-Semitism in the 19th century with the Dreyfus trial - often said to have been Theodor Herzl's inspiration for the creation of modern political Zionism - and the mass round-up of Jews by the Vichy government during World War II. French intellectuals are unabashedly anti-Israel, and the French government has often displayed a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian bias since Israel's resounding success in the 1967 Six Day War. With the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, French Jews began to note a sharp increase in anti-Semitism with incidents and violent attacks unlike anything seen since the 1940s. Many of these incidents have been perpetrated by Muslim immigrants. France's National Consultative Committee on Human Rights reported a sixfold surge in acts of violence against Jewish people, property and institutions from 2001 to 2002. In 2003, a popular Jewish DJ was brutally murdered in Paris, apparently by a radical Muslim youth organization. This was followed in 2004 by incidents. For example, a Jewish school bus was set on fire in Strasbourg; a concert by an Israeli singer in Macon was repeatedly interrupted by shouts of "Death to the Jews"; a 14-year-old boy wearing a kippa was beaten near the entrance to a Paris Metro station, with bystanders refusing to intervene; a female Jewish teacher was knocked down, beaten and trampled in central Paris; a University of Saint-Antoine medical school class was interrupted by four men shouting anti-Semitic threats and beating a Jewish student, while the class and professor looked on in silence; and a 12-year-old girl leaving a Jewish school was beaten by two men who carved a swastika into her face with a box cutter. Synagogues were torched, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, and Jewish institutions were vandalized, damaged or destroyed. The number and virulence of these violent attacks have indeed been reflected in the number of Jews leaving France for Israel: 11,148 between 2000 and 2005, with a 35-year high of 3,300 Jewish immigrants in 2005. While statistics for 2006 are unavailable, every indication suggests another banner year for French immigration to Israel, despite the recent war in Lebanon. On July 25, at the height of the war, no fewer than 650 Jews arrived from France - 500 from Paris and 150 from Marseille - marking the largest number of immigrants to arrive in a single day from France since 1971. Much of the impetus to leave France for new lives in Israel has come as the result of deep internal soul-searching among French Jews. Many of them have concluded that there is simply no future for them in France. As Simon Kohana, president of the largely Sephardic Jewish Citizens Forum said recently, "We have begun to ask ourselves if we can even stay in France. Are we really French citizens? We have the feeling that we are a people apart." At the same time, however, critics charge that much of the motivation to leave France can be attributed to a concerted effort by the Israeli government to lure French Jews to Israel. With Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union having apparently dried up for the moment and the long dreamt-of influx of immigrants from English-speaking countries yet to materialize, Israel is looking to France's Jewish community - the second largest in Europe - to provide a fertile source of "warm bodies" to settle here and add weight to the demographic balance of Jews and Arabs. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon angered the French government in 2004 by urging French Jews to immigrate to Israel for their own safety, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently reminded French Jews of the anti-Semitism in their country and urged them to send their children to Israel. Jewish Agency president Sallai Meridor said last April that Israel has a "national duty" to bring French Jews to Israel for their safety and security as the Agency stepped up its activities in France. Yet not all French Jews are heeding the call to aliya or feel particularly receptive to the Israeli government's efforts to induce them to emigrate. "France is not an anti-Semitic country," said Roger Cukierman, president of an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in France, in April 2005. "Out of a population of about 600,000, some 2,400 people making aliya is not very many, in spite of all the talk about leaving." Other community leaders accuse the Jewish Agency of playing on French Jews' fears of anti-Semitism while knowing that there will simply not be enough jobs or employment opportunities waiting when they arrive in Israel. Finally, many left-wing French Jews accuse the Jewish Agency of focusing their efforts on religious families while ignoring the secular members of the community, a charge that Meridor denies. While the debate over why French Jews are leaving France may not be resolved any time soon, one thing remains certain: French Jews are leaving in steadily rising numbers, and most of them are coming to Israel.