Jacques Kupfer had big plans for the new World Zionist Organization department he was to head before he succumbed to cancer in January at the age of 74.
The Department of Diaspora Affairs was to morph into the Department of Diaspora Zionist Activities and French Speakers, intending to address the issues facing Jewish communities throughout the world – particularly those in France and other French-speaking countries. It was an issue he felt passionately about and which he personally experienced, having spent his adult life advocating for Jewish and Zionist causes.
His passing brings to light the struggles and successes the French immigrant community has made in their old-new home in Israel.
Kupfer’s daughter Nili Naouri, also an activist, spoke to In Jerusalem about her father’s life and the issues affecting French immigrants to Israel.
“MY FATHER always taught us that it is forbidden for a Jew to be afraid,” she stated. “His history of activism dates back to his teenage days in the Betar Zionist Youth Movement in France. It was leaders like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir who inspired him and the Betar youth to campaign against the Soviet Union’s treatment of Russian Jews. “
Naouri said the group gave Jewish youth their pride back and taught them to stand up to antisemitism.
She described a performance by a Soviet theater troupe that was met by Kupfer and his fellow Betar youth with placards reading “Let My People Go.” Another early Soviet Jewry protest involved a visit by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to France.
Born in France, Naouri works as an attorney and is the coordinator of Israel Is Forever, an association her father founded to mobilize the French-speaking Zionists. On her father’s side, her grandparents are Ashkenazi Jews with roots in Eastern Europe and her mother is a Sephardic Jew from Tunisia.
“It was rare back then for an Ashkenazi to marry a Sephardi,” she recounted, “but I was proud of this because in our home it was kibbutz galuiot (ingathering of the exiles). It was a symbol of Jewish unity. We had both gefilte fish and couscous on our dinner table.”
Today the Jewish population of France is the third largest in the world behind Israel and the United States – estimated at 450,000 to 500,000. Many contemporary French Jews have their origins in French-speaking Muslim countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, having fled in the 1950s and 1960s. Before World War II, most of France’s thriving Jewish community were of Ashkenazi heritage, but many were murdered by the Nazis.
Naouri’s parents were both in the Betar movement in France where they met and fell in love. Her father earned a degree in economics and business administration and a PhD in law and political science. He worked in the watch and jewelry business and served as vice chairman of the National Federation of Industry, and as a judge in the commercial court of France. The three Kupfer siblings followed in their parents’ footsteps and were active in the Betar movement.
From Betar, Kupfer graduated to the Herut movement he led for decades in France, the precursor to today’s Likud, where he worked with prime ministers Begin, Shamir and Ariel Sharon. He was very close to Sharon, the Israeli war hero who served as prime minister during the 2005 Disengagement, Naouri said, but they lost contact due to the Gaza debacle.
The Disengagement was advertised by Sharon’s government as a necessary divorce from Gaza and resulted in Israeli troops removing the more than 8,000 Israeli civilians who lived in the Gush Katif bloc of communities. The Strip was then turned over to PLO jurisdiction.
“Sharon said there would be painful compromises,” Naouri reminisced about the days leading up to the Disengagement. “So my father asked him, you mean the painful compromises will be for the PLO, yes? And Sharon laughed.” But it wasn’t an ironic joke for Kupfer.
After that he let their relationship drift away.
Kupfer ruffled feathers in his years as an executive with the WZO and as a board member for the Jewish Agency. While many of the elected board members advocated territorial compromise and concessions for peace, Kupfer insisted on territorial integrity and refused to refer to the land in question (Judea and Samaria) as the “West Bank.”
He caused a controversy in 1993 when as a member of the WZO’s executive committee he distributed brochures calling for the support of Jewish settlements. The JTA reported that “according to a Jewish Agency spokesman, Kupfer distributed more than 30,000 leaflets on behalf of the French campaign for the settlers.” It led to a heated meeting of the WZO’s executive committee, where he was defended by executive committee member Shlomo Gravetz, who was quoted by the JTA as stating, “There is no contradiction whatsoever in assisting the regular campaign and giving some money to benefit the settlers.”
That was years ago, before Kupfer was elected to the Zionist Executive in the recent 38th World Zionist Congress. WZO chairman Yaakov Hagoel called his longtime colleague “one of the few individuals who made Zionism an integral part of his life, incorporating aliyah, settlement, Jewish identity and Zionist education into his being.”
He added, “We begin the term of the Zionist Executive of the 38th Zionist Congress with an intrinsic component missing. Jacques was a man imbued with faith and a sense of purpose and we will miss him very much.” He also noted that many attribute their move to the Jewish state to Kupfer.
Naouri also commented that people have told her how much her father inspired them to make aliyah.
For Kupfer, it was “Judea and Samaria,” not the “occupied territories” and he led tours of the Jewish communities there. For the past 35 years, he organized the annual Hebron Day parade. The event sees French Jews living in Israel, tourists and new immigrants converge upon the City of Abraham and march with Israeli flags in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The parade earned him the admiration of the local Jewish community, who honored him with the Yakir Hebron award. This year, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, a tiny group of French olim came to Hebron to keep up the tradition.
His Israel Is Forever organization also leads tours of Gush Etzion, the Tomb of Joshua, and other historic sites in the contested areas Israel gained control of in 1967, including the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, current site of al-Aqsa Mosque and former site of the Holy Temple.
In 1969, two years after the Six Day War, Kupfer led a group of Betar youth to the Temple Mount where they sang “Hatikva” before police dispersed them. Naouri says she remembers in 2017 her father returned to the site on Jerusalem Day and waited among several thousand others to ascend the site.
“We waited two hours,” Naouri said, “and when we finally got up, they limited our time and did not let us make the full tour. My father did not agree. So he started to sing “Hatikva” and everyone sang with him. It was a big balagan, but it was very important to him.
“We cannot act like mere tourists in our own homeland.”
Among the other words that Kupfer insisted upon was to use the word galut rather than Diaspora. He argued that galut means exile; Diaspora is too soft a word. His call for mass aliyah, especially from his country of birth, is echoed by his daughter.
She noted the recent antisemitic attacks in France, such as attacks at a kosher grocery store, stabbings in front of synagogues and two separate incidents of murder of two elderly women.
But she noted the differences between French aliyah today and what it was like when her family moved to the Jewish state decades ago.
“Twenty years ago it was mainly students who made aliyah. At the age of 18, you don’t have any dependents and your parents stayed in France.”
But today is different she stated, where those seeking to immigrate are families with children to support and in some cases elderly parents they are reluctant to leave behind.
“They want to come but they want to work and earn money,” she said.
She warned, “Israel is missing an historic opportunity for community aliyah, because French Jews want to leave France. They want a better future for their children. The question is when they get to the airport, which direction will they fly, to the US and Canada or to Israel.”
It’s an issue that Kupfer’s colleagues in the WZO have been trying to address as well. Hagoel sought to ease bureaucratic processes as described in a July Jerusalem Post article.
“All government ministries must mobilize for the issue and bring the Jews of France to Israel,” Hagoel asserted. “This is our Zionism today.”
He has been working together with Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata “to have a list of businesses willing to employ the olim in exchange for tax benefits or government subsidies, putting the system in place in France first so as to allow new arrivals the ability to adjust to their new lives as quickly as possible.”
One issue that has been brought up repeatedly by Naouri and others is the process of recognizing foreign diplomas, specifically medical certification.
“As a nurse in France, you can treat countless citizens throughout Europe,” she said, but in Israel, those in the medical field must have their licenses recognized through a process that sometimes takes years.
Such obstacles exist for medical professionals, lawyers, investment bankers and others.
The issue culminated in November of this year in the midst of the coronavirus crisis when the government approved a proposal by Minister Tamano-Shata to fast-track the approval of medical licenses for immigrants in healthcare professions. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein hailed the decision, noting he highlighted the issue for years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “From France, they come from one of the most advanced health systems in the world, and the bureaucratic obstacles are just that – bureaucratic obstacles and nothing more.”
Naouri said she is proud of French olim like her father and hopes his successes in inspiring aliyah and assisting the integration process will continue with whoever fills his position at the WZO.
She hopes her father’s legacy can help make French Jews feel more at home in their Jewish homeland.
Naouri also fondly remarked on the stereotype of French people having exquisite food, such as pastries, cheese and other delicacies.
“Every immigrant brings something special from the country they were born in,” she said.
The French are known for their food and Israel has benefited from the increase in French immigrants who have brought their skills to the Holy Land. One example is Franck Assuli of Franck Delights patisserie in Jerusalem. He, like almost all those interviewed for this article, knew Jacques Kupfer personally.
When Franck Delights opened in 1999, most of the clientele were fellow French-speakers, Assuli said. But today it has expanded to Israelis and tourists.
“Israelis travel around the world so they test the European food,” Assuli said. “Upon returning to Israel, they have a more developed palette.”
He said that traditionally, Israeli food was influenced by the Middle East, but that has developed and expanded with the influx of French and other European immigrant communities. He also commented on the plethora of US franchises throughout the world.
“The Israelis knew American, American, American,” Assuli said, “but now they have developed a need for the French pastries they tasted abroad.”
He was trained at the prestigious Paris Patisserie School and ran a bakery in France for 10 years before making aliyah.
“The people here are very different from France,” he explained. “Simpler, more natural. They have morality, they have yirat shamayim (awe or reverence of a Higher Power). It is much easier to practice your Judaism in Israel.”
Yet he also noted some of the challenges newcomers face, in that in addition to the exams a doctor or nurse must take, other professionals face obstacles.
“If you are a lawyer, you need to pass another exam, and even then it will be difficult to work here because the law is different in Israel.”
In his own experience, setting up a business meant a lot of bureaucracy and that was compounded by not being a native Hebrew speaker. Even native-born Israelis are challenged with many of the regulations in owning a business. However, he has succeeded in providing Jerusalem with the delicacies they crave for more than two decades. His bestsellers are chocolate and coffee éclairs and rocher suchard.
A staunch supporter of aliyah, he says the security situation in Europe is not the only reason that French Jews are looking to relocate. It’s also the feeling of coming home to the Jewish homeland.
Fellow French bakery owner Livnatt Affriat of Jerusalem’s Gourmandises by Yoel echoes his sentiments. Despite the struggles and economic losses incurred by the coronavirus crisis, she says that moving back to France is not an option.
“Never,” Affriat insisted. French Jews have a certain savoir faire (knowing what to do in any situation), she explained. Affriat, who moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2013, has seen the difference in the quality and quantity of French restaurants and fashion in the Jewish state.
“It’s changed completely.”
In 2015, the number of immigrants from France was an impressive 8,000, the largest number from any Western country in a single year since the Jewish state’s creation. But since then, it has dropped in the last two years by more than a third.
An Israeli association called Qualita, created in June 2015, has been at the forefront of helping French Jews have what they call “a quality klita” (integration). Local community groups and families have pulled together to help one another and French Jews have found camaraderie among the melting pot of native-born Israelis and other immigrant communities.
For Qualita CEO Ariel Kandel, French aliyah is about more than just a chocolate éclair.
“It is nice to speak about food – in Tel Aviv we see more kosher markets, which is a new thing. But it’s more than that. In France we used to be all Jews together. Not dati, hiloni or haredi (religious, secular or ultra-Orthodox).”
Born in France to Holocaust survivor parents, Kandel moved to Israel in the early 1990s at the age of 17. He was influenced by groups like Bnei Akiva, his Jewish scout troop and the Jewish school he attended.
“Our school was mixed and had haredi, secular and modern Orthodox. It was a Jewish school, not a religious school,” he explained. “The best thing the French community can bring to Israel is achdut (unity), because in France it is a regular thing.”
Kandel said in France the Jewish community sees itself as one entity, not separate denominations.
“That’s a bigger deal than French food.”
He also commented on the issue of French diplomas being transferred in Israel.
For doctors, pharmacists and dentists, they have successfully worked with the Health Ministry and Immigration Ministry to alleviate some of the red tape. However, the issue of nurses is still a sticking point. He said the recent solution devised by the government does not solve every problem.
For more than half a decade, Qualita has been serving as an umbrella organization for French olim, helping them connect with various social service groups and government ministries. They have a team of volunteers and run an online radio station and podcast network.
In February the organization is planning a massive fundraising campaign to help families whose livelihoods have been severely affected by COVID-19.
Sara, a French-Israeli who made aliyah in the mid-1990s has seen the change. Working in Tel Aviv in the hi-tech field, she said the waves of French immigrants have changed food and fashion – but also Jewish life. When she first made aliyah, Tel Aviv was known as a secular haven, and it still is. But French and American immigrants have re-filled the once dwindling old synagogues and brought new life.
“Young French olim have created a scene for religious singles and young married couples. Today you can find classes and lectures in French and English, and plenty of activities geared towards religious young adults.”
She pointed to Netanya and Jerusalem’s southern neighborhoods of Baka and Talpiot as notable clusters of the French-speaking community.
Virginie left France 12 years ago in search of a better life, determined to integrate into Israeli society. Besides her ulpan classes in Jerusalem, she tried to avoid her fellow French immigrants in an effort to mix in.
“I limited my contact with the French community,” she said.
Once struggling while working in various clothing stores, today she is employed in Rehovot as a social worker and is raising a small child with her native-born Israeli husband.
“I am sure that moving to another country is difficult for anyone, but we make aliyah for an ideal,” Virginie added. “I miss France, the food, the culture, the landscape. At home, I watch French TV, listen to French music and cook French food for my Israeli husband.”
Home life is a mix of Israel and France.
“French Jews are traditional, both the secular and religious,” she explained, “and God gave us Israel as a home for the Jewish people to live in.”
A family’s journey
Jacques Kupfer was known throughout the French-speaking Israeli community and memorials were posted by organizations he was affiliated with, such as the JNF-KKL, WZO and CRIF, The Council for French Jews, as well as Israeli French-language publications such as Le P’tit Hebdo.
The average French Israeli on the street knew him too. Among them are Dr. Marc Zerah and his wife Yehudit of Jerusalem. Born in the French-speaking North-African nation of Tunisia, Zerah left home when he was young and served in the French Army’s medical corps.
Yehudit’s family comes from the bordering nation of Algeria, where her father was a rabbi. They met in France and made aliyah in 1999 with their children.
Zerah said that nurses from France have faced an uphill battle to have their diplomas transferred due to a different system in France not recognized in Israel. For surgeons like himself it is easier, he said.
“I had to do ulpan for six months and then an internship in Tel Aviv.” Today he is an obstetrician at Hadassah University Medical Center. He also noted the challenge of experienced French nurses who in their 40s move to Israel and then have to take a series of tests in Hebrew.
“I made aliyah because I wanted a better life for my children. I wanted to work in Israel. When my eldest daughter wanted to move to Israel, we made aliyah with the whole family.”
Among the four Zerah siblings is Emmanuel Zerah, who served in an elite IDF unit and was wounded in Gaza in 2018. He told Barbara Sofer in a 2019 Jerusalem Post column that he is the first in his family to serve in the IDF and is proud of it.
Emmanuel has had eight operations so far to fix his leg, ears and hand shattered by a terrorist explosive device. The room he was treated in benefited from a donation by the Ohana family of France.
Yehudit, who works as a speech therapist, said that much has changed for French Jews since she and her husband immigrated with their children. She cites antisemitism as one reason Jews are looking to leave, but reiterates the difficulties finding employment.
A resident of the southern Baka-Talpiot-Makor Haim neighborhoods of Jerusalem, she stated, “Many French people have come to this area. People want to live together and retain the mentality and way of life.”
As with other immigrant communities, there are some things from “the old country” that are missed.
“I remember 20 years ago when my husband used to visit France, I would ask him to bring back mustard, cheese, smoked salmon and other things,” she related. “But now when he visits I don’t ask for anything. We can find everything in Israel now.”
She has no regrets about her move.
“The only place for the Jews is here in Israel. It’s the only place where we are active and not passive. You take part in the community.”
She described Jewish holidays, part of the social fabric of the country regardless of religious observance as being an ideal example of why she came. “During the hagim I really feel like I belong to the history and realize I am a part of the people.”
From both sides now
If anyone knows the ins and outs of the French aliyah experience, it is Yael Shira Maimon, who moved to Israel, left and came back again.
“Back in 1990, when I first arrived at Ben-Gurion airport, they gave me my documentation and a gas mask,” she recalled.
In her six years, she lived through the Gulf War, an intifada and the Rabin assassination.
“It was a tough time. Most of my friends left,” she said. But she also experienced some of Israel’s miracles, such as the influx of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, whose experiences contrasted with her own.
It broke her heart to leave Israel, but with no family and few employment opportunities, she returned to her birth country. Today she is back in Israel and has much to say about French olim, breaking it down into three main points.
1) “When I first made aliyah, there were hardly any French Jews coming,” she explained, “then it became a trend.”
Maimon’s grandfather was Rabbi Shimon Maimon, one of the last Jewish religious leaders of Tunisia before the mass emigration of the Jewish community to France, Israel and other safer locations. Her parents were both Jewish educators in France.
“It’s important to say that today, French Jewry is composed mostly from North Africa and our roots are very attached to Israel, she explained. “They are traditional, thanks to the work of the grandparents and parents.”
She described the Jewish private schools of France as academically excellent, teaching both Jewish subjects and general studies.
When the wave of Jews from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria came in the 1950s and 1960s, the Jewish community had recently been decimated by the Holocaust. The new Jewish immigrants sent their kids to public school and became assimilated, Maimon said. But little by little, the fledgling Jewish schools went from being inferior and struggling to being superior and successful.
The flourishing French Jewish school system, coupled with the changing population in France, led to more parents sending their children to private Jewish schools, which burgeoned – and with it, Jewish identity, Maimon explained. It became natural for the Jewish youth, both secular and religious, to want to go to Israel after high school, for yeshiva, college or to find a spouse.
2) The next point for Maimon is antisemitism. She said the tipping point was the murder of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish French citizen in 2006.
“It was unbelievable that it could happen in a society with protection of minorities where Jews were respected. Suddenly Jews are being killed in such an open way.”
Other anti-Jewish attacks followed in subsequent years. Maimon compared it to what her grandparents went through in North Africa: “It used to be a paradise and for years they lived peacefully with their neighbors.”
3) The final point Maimon stressed was the struggles French olim experience when they do arrive.
“It is a myth that all French Jews have a lot of money,” she said. The Russian and Ethiopian Jews she saw arriving in the early 1990s left with nothing and the Israeli government created programs for them.
She wishes there was a way for French Jews to get assistance tailored to their needs.
“Forty percent of the Jews in France live with the help of the state,” she said. “In France all citizens get virtually free health care and university. Yes, there are people with money, but not everyone. Real estate in Israel is very expensive and economic issues are a big factor.”
She pointed with hope to a recent program to bring doctors from France to communities in Northern Israel. So far, 14 doctors and their families moved to Nahariya as part of a pilot program of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Association for the Absorption of Communities of Israel (Amutat Kehilot Yisrael), which works with French Jews.
“But they don’t have a plan for everyone,” she said of the nearly half million Jews who live in France.
“I see people move back to France, even though they don’t want to. But with the job, the language, the culture and the mentality, they didn’t find themselves here, so they feel like they don’t have a choice.”
However, Maimon said over the past decade her siblings have joined her in Israel and successfully integrated. Her brother is still traveling back and forth for work in what Maimon calls “Boeing aliyah.”
“My sister had great difficulty in the beginning and spent two years telling me that she wanted to return to France,” Maimon said. “But now she has found her home. That is what everyone needs, to find a home in Israel, and today they say they will never leave Israel.”