Love thy French brother

Eleven hundred olim from France chose to establish themselves in Jerusalem in 2015, and almost 1,000 in 2016, according to the municipality’s new immigrant administration.

Macarons (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
In a famous TV comedy show of the ’70s, one of the sketches depicts the fate of every wave of olim to the Holy Land since the creation of the State of Israel. One after another, immigrants from different countries make aliya, full of idealistic expectations for their new life, only to find that the veterans – who may have preceded them by only a few years – disregard and disdain them, even expressing outright resentment.
The humorous way this is depicted doesn’t hide the harsh and unpleasant reality: Newcomers are highly appreciated as part of the Zionist dream, but not necessarily in the tangible reality.
Immigrants from France, who have been arriving here in large numbers for the last few years, experience – just like all other olim – the same problems, including quite a lot of prejudice toward them and their way of life.
Concerned that Israelis’ image of French olim might not be a positive one, Dialogia, an association founded and directed by Max Benhamou, who made aliya from France many years ago, recently conducted a survey to find out.
At a recent press conference to present the survey, Prof. Shmuel Trigano, who directed it for Dialogia in conjunction with the Rushinek Research Institute, says that the survey does not focus on Israelis’ judgment of French olim but on the symptoms, the points that could reveal how Israelis see the olim.
The survey results showed that in the eyes of veteran Israelis, French olim stay apart from everything happening here.
“There are roughly two kinds of olim from France,” says Dr. Thierry Maarek, a dental surgeon born in Paris who made aliya a few years ago and who works exclusively with olim from France. Those who make aliya “out of Zionism and/or religion, or out of fear from what they experience as a rise in antisemitism in France... the latter are not Zionists; they do not come here with idealistic aims, to become part of Israeli society. They simply run away, in most cases, in order to safeguard their money.”
“Regarding the larger part of the French olim who made aliya in recent years,” continues Maarek, “I can say that what characterizes them the most is the fact that they live among themselves, in a somewhat closed society, with very reduced interaction with the society around them. They follow the political life in France; most of them would hardly know the names of, or recognize, our MKs. They have very little contact with Israeli society. I would say that in their minds, they are still there, in France.”
Eleven hundred olim from France chose to establish themselves in Jerusalem in 2015, and almost 1,000 in 2016, according to the municipality’s new immigrant administration. The staff includes volunteers and employees, and a few of them speak French and are themselves veteran olim. Since 2015, more underprivileged families have arrived, contrary to the image of French Jews being rich.
Problems in their integration here are not rare, though the recent case of the woman, a French olah, who allegedly killed her young children and committed suicide, remains very rare. But that case has shaken the French community in the city, especially in the Baka neighborhood, where many French immigrants live.
According to Moshe, an oleh who arrived here four years ago, “People here understand that it certainly didn’t happen because of the decision of that family to make aliya. Nevertheless, it happened here, and it has raised lots of fears and anxiety among the small French community. They ask themselves how far the fragility of being an immigrant affects existing problems.”
Still, the growing number of French patisseries and coffee shops serving French pastries and imported French products indicates that despite all the problems, olim from France – like other groups of olim in years past – are slowly but surely finding their place here.
“In most of the cases, they form a community around a synagogue, and that’s how they get along, while still remaining safely inside their own habits and customs,” says Maarek.
However, he adds, “The young generation is a totally different story. They learn Hebrew quickly, make friends with locals and find their place in being Israeli. Unlike their parents, they are not cut off from the social environment, and, of course, they go to the army."
“Here again, the IDF is the best way to become an Israeli.”