French aliya is on the rise but barriers remain

Poor language skills, and differences in academic and professional accreditation serve as barriers.

FRENCH JEWISH children at the historic Synagogue des Tournelles in Paris in July ahead of their aliya with their families. (photo credit: EREZ LICHTFELD)
FRENCH JEWISH children at the historic Synagogue des Tournelles in Paris in July ahead of their aliya with their families.
(photo credit: EREZ LICHTFELD)
While French aliya has surged dramatically in recent years due to economic pressures and rising anti-Semitism, barriers to integration for Francophone immigrants still remain an issue for many, say experts and community activists.
Language barriers and the incompatibility of professional and academic accreditation systems between the two countries pose the biggest issues, and while many French Jews have achieved great successes, these two factors often impede new immigrants’ ability to obtain employment here.
About 6,500 Jews have made aliya from France so far this year and, according to Jewish Agency projections, some 8,000 more will have immigrated from France by the end of 2015.
Chairman Natan Sharansky has previously stated that around 50,000 of out the 700,000 people in France estimated by the government to be eligible for aliya have inquired into the possibility of immigrating.
“I have spoken with ministers and senior government officials and they say ‘yes, you are right.
This is a historic opportunity to [bring French Jews]’ but afterwards nothing happens,” said Dr. Dov Maimon, an expert on the French community at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.
Maimon, whose plan to absorb 120,000 French Jews was presented to the cabinet earlier this year, said he believes the “sectarian and tribal” nature of Israeli politics, in which many highly factionalized parties represent narrow interest groups, plays a role in preventing French advancement.
In his January proposal, Maimon and the JPPI asserted that Israel has thus far not implemented the necessary policies to compete with the US, Canada, and various European states in attracting highly educated and business savvy French Jews.
According to Maimon, the most important thing Israel can do to bring French Jews en masse is to “give tax incentives and job creation incentives” as well as provide subsidies for people who could create jobs here.
Given that French emigrés can work all over Europe and that places like Quebec recognize their degrees and professional qualifications and actively recruit French graduates to move, Israel’s efforts, unless revamped, may prove insufficient to woo young, educated Jews, he added.
Late last year, the cabinet approved a new initiative to reform the bureaucracy involved in integrating accredited members of white collar professions into the |labor market.
Doctors, physiotherapists, architects and other professionals will have easier transitions, the government announced last November, although no results have been announced.
In February it was decided that the Economy Ministry would conduct an inquiry into recognizing the French BTS higher technicians’ degree but did not subsequently announce any results.
Also ,the Jewish Agency announced it would double the number of French speakers employed in its Israeli call center and increase the number of emissaries in France.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday from Paris, Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, said that while young people right out of college and retirees see “only positive outcomes” upon immigrating, heads of households looking for work may run into trouble.
“The people who have work in jobs with accreditation need to transfer and get their credits for diplomas and that may take time,” he said, referring primarily but not exclusively to the medical and legal professions.
According to Ejnes, poor language skills contribute greatly to the challenge, he said, asserting that more has to be done to bring young French Jews to a sufficient level of Hebrew fluency while they are still in school.
“It is definitely a barrier to aliya. It is difficult to think that after six months of ulpan people will be able to speak well enough to work to secure a job.”
Those in the tech sector, who usually have better English skills, do quite well here, he added, noting that employment in Israel is one of the primary topics of conversation during synagogue services in France.
One of the main issues is that the systems for providing academic and professional accreditation differ widely between the two countries, explained Alain Zeitoun, general secretary of the Association of Alumni from French High Education in Israel.
“The format of French diplomas is completely different,” he continued, explaining that many French credentials are granted by the government following schooling and that since the diplomas were not analogous to those given in the US or England, whose model is followed in Israel, difficulties can arise.
Even when there has been progress, as in the case of the Health and Education ministries, the requirement to pass tests many years after schooling ends can prove to be a disincentive for seasoned professionals to make the move.
“In some professions, lets say specialist physicians, dentists, nurses and pharmacists, if you had to pass exams like you did during studies now, years later, you would fail,” he said. Moreover, the government fails in providing sufficient courses for retaining and test preparation for newcomers, he added.
Another barrier is the high cost of translating and notarizing diplomas, which can run up to €1,500, which Zeitoun believes should be subsidized by the government in order to bring more professionals into the workforce.
Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer told the Post that one of the primary challenges noted by French immigrants is the difficulty in getting certain academic and professional credentials recognized by Israeli authorities.
“We are working with our partners in the government of Israel to address this issue and have been pleased to see the government adopt measures to lift many of the barriers to French immigrants’ employment and education in Israel,” he said.
Enrollment at the Agency’s Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem has risen significantly, he said, adding that the organization is “exploring additional ways of providing French immigrants with suitable environments in which to learn Hebrew back in France and upon their arrival in Israel.”
Despite the issues, not everyone has run into problems here, however.
Child psychologist Muriel Yudkevitsh told the Post that she was able to convert her degree back in the late 1990s without undue problems and that the government “took everything into account.”
And while she earns much less than she would in France she is very happy here, she said.
According to Maimon, such experiences may become more common in the near future, as the Jewish Agency is in talks with Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder Tony Gelbart to prepare a “high level” and “holistic plan to bring 50,000 French Jews” to Israel.
Both Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency declined to comment on Maimon’s statement.