The promise for Israel of the 11th Aliya

French Jewry’s accelerating exodus is painful, promising and irreversible.

A woman hangs signs reading (from L to R) "I am Charlie", "I am police officer", "I am mourning" and "I am Jewish" while paying tribute to victims of a kosher deli siege in Paris (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman hangs signs reading (from L to R) "I am Charlie", "I am police officer", "I am mourning" and "I am Jewish" while paying tribute to victims of a kosher deli siege in Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The day former French prime minister Leon Blum was trucked from Dachau to the Austrian Alps, his life still hung in the balance – as did those of the other distinguished prisoners around him. These has-beens ranged from the former chancellor of Austria to the former commanders of the German army, the Greek army and Danish intelligence.
Yet the war ended three weeks later, and at 71, a triumphant Blum was back in Paris – where he emerged as an emblem of French Jewry’s tormented past and resilient future. A popular politician and resourceful statesman, he negotiated a huge US loan for France’s reconstruction, also returning for a third and last stint at France’s helm.
It had been 155 years since France became the first European country to abolish all anti-Jewish laws, 51 years since it framed Alfred Dreyfus and less than half a decade since it saw nearly a quarter of its Jews whisked east to their deaths. Along with Blum, some 250,000 Jews survived the Nazi horror – a figure that has since more than doubled, as a tolerant, prosperous and stable France attracted North African Jews and gradually became European Jewry’s gravity center.
Seventy years later, the era that began when Blum emerged from his captivity is drawing to a close.
The attack in Paris last week on a kosher supermarket, and those before it on the Jewish Museum in Brussels and the Otzar Hatorah School in Toulouse, underscore a security crisis checkered by hundreds of small-scale anti-Semitic incidents.
Such non-fatal attacks make the headlines only when they become as dramatic as last July’s rampage through Jewish-owned shops in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, or last month’s robbery and rape in Creteil, where the burglars told their victims, a young couple: “You’re Jews, you must have money.”
The bottom line of all this is a steadily growing emigration that now seems irreversible. While some opt for French-speaking Montreal, the US and Australia, the main destination – for social, cultural, geographic and economic reasons – is Israel.
Quebec's sizable Muslim population, some 220,000, makes many French Jews suspect their children’s Canadian future might not be much better than their French past. At the same time, English-speaking destinations are also less appealing than the Jewish state, where one in four Israeli Jews, like four in five French Jews, is of North African background; and where French Jews frequently have relatives.
Then there is geography. Israel is closer than America, not to mention Australia. The four-hour Paris-Tel Aviv flight allows a gradual immigration, whereby business owners relocate their families while they commute on weekends and continue to run their French businesses during the week. There are scores of doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers who have already done this, and their numbers might now grow.
Paradoxically, immigration to Israel began accelerating following the second intifada’s outbreak last decade, which saw a rise in Muslim harassment of French Jews. Between 2002 and 2007, there was an annual inflow of some 2,000 French Jews. This decade, after a slowdown, the trend resumed in earnest.
The Jewish Agency reports that in 2013, Israel absorbed 6,000 French Jews; last year, 7,086 French Jews moved to Israel. Observers now expect 15,000 arrivals this year.
While the scope, pace and duration of this trend are anyone’s guess, there are simple indications from the field, ranging from realtors’ reports of growing French demand for housing in Netanya, Ashdod and Jerusalem to teachers’ reports of growing demand for Hebrew courses in Paris. An immigration information fair held last week in Paris, of the sort the Jewish Agency holds routinely and which had been planned well before last week’s violence, was flooded with 1,000 Jews.
The French situation is part of a broader European picture that stretches from Kiev to London. In the East, nationalist instability seems endemic, and is now coupled with economic failure underscored by collapsing currencies. In the West, growing social tensions between Muslim immigrants and indigenous Christians are making a growing number of Jews feel increasingly insecure.
Indeed, a survey quoted this week by The Independent reported that a majority of British Jews fear they have no future in the UK. The rise of nationalist parties from Greece to Sweden, whose focus is anti-Muslim but whose subconscious is suspected to be anti-Semitic, only adds to European Jews’ growing sense of discomfort.
This of course does not mean that more than a million Jews, split roughly evenly between Eastern and Western Europe, are about to leave, nor that more than 2,000 years of European Jewish history are about to end.
What it does mean is that a decade after Israel’s last great immigration wave subsided, a new one is under way – and its promise for the Jewish state is in some respects even greater than the wave that preceded it.
The french immigration marks the 11th Aliya.
There were five great immigrations here prior to Israel’s establishment, and five after it. What began in the 1880s with bourgeois families that established private farms, followed by revolutionary individuals like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and then by small-time shopkeepers from Poland, was reinvented after the Nazi rise to power. The previous immigrations’ tens of thousands were now hundreds of thousands, and for the first time in Zionist history, immigrants brought capital.
There were five main immigrations following Israel’s establishment: The Holocaust survivors who arrived until the early 1950s; the Muslim lands’ Jews who arrived mostly during the 1950s; a post-’67 Russian and Western wave; the Ethiopian journeys of 1984- 1991; and the post-Soviet wave that arrived mainly in the 1990s.
The unfolding French immigration is different from all of them. Unlike the German immigration of the 1930s, it is happening despite, rather than because of, the country of origin’s government and elite. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s statement last week, that France without Jews would not be France, was as sincere as it was tragic.
Yet like the German immigration, and unlike the immigrations from the Middle East, Ethiopia and postwar Europe, French Jews are arriving with some capital, comprised of many professionals and entrepreneurs who are ready to join the middle class and in some cases, the upper class.
One such example, well-known by now to all Israelis, is 37-year-old Michael Golan (originally Boukobza) who was involved in several telecom ventures in France before moving here at age 29 and establishing cellphone operator Golan Telecom. Though the privately held company’s sales and profits remain unknown, its founder’s heavily accented but perfectly worded Hebrew sales pitch, “Don’t be suckers,” is well-known to all of Israel’s radio listeners – 600,000 of whom are now his customers. There will be more Michael Golan types here in the coming years.
Like the post-Soviet immigration, the 11th Aliya arrives with professions, but unlike the so-called Russian immigration and the German one before it, the French immigrants are mostly traditional.
This will have political repercussions, as they can on the whole be expected to feel more at home on the Israeli Right. Then again, before it makes a political impact, this immigration will have to number at least a 100,000 – a figure which for now remains distant, even if it might reach there by the end of the decade.
What will be impacted more immediately is the economy. The 11th Aliya is bringing with it entrepreneurs like Golan, small-business owners, doctors, engineers and accountants, who will buy housing, cars, furniture, clothing and food – all of which will invigorate retail sales and at the same time, pressure the housing market.
This impact is obvious, and Israel has seen it in the wake of the Russian immigration, but it will be weaker this time around since the 11th Aliya’s numbers are much smaller.
This immigration’s uniqueness will be in the ties it will help build between Israel and Europe. France’s proximity, its thirst for technological innovation and its departing Jews’ familiarity with its culture are already turning the immigrants into agents of a new interface.
Nearly a fifth of recent years’ immigrants are engineers, and many others bring MBAs. They have largely been absorbed by Israel’s bottomless hi-tech sector, where there is plenty of room for thousands more programmers and executives, whose attraction to the local start-up scene is professional and unrelated to France’s political situation.
For the local companies, at the same time, the new arrivals bring a special added value, as Israelis’ foreign orientation has always been American. The new recruits carry in their pockets the key to France, and through it, to Germany and other neighboring countries.
This is priceless for local firms and their partners overseas, and is likely to result in French-Israeli cooperation on a scale not seen here since the big arms deals of the 1950 and ’60s.
This may cast the 11th Aliya as the one that built an economic bridge between its land of origin and the Jewish state. But even more uniquely, this immigration comes amid farewell pangs that accompanied no previous immigration during the Zionist enterprise’s 135 years.
Renowned filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s cry, “Let’s not give Hitler this posthumous victory,” is apparently being ignored. The resistance veteran and creator of Shoah, the thorough documentary that may commemorate the Holocaust for the ages, finds himself at 90 surveying the crumbling of his postwar dream.
What Jews like him and Blum tried to redo as a prologue of European Jewry’s future, emerges instead as the epilogue of its past.