The big move

A year ago, philanthropist Pierre Besnainou announced the creation of "AMI," an organization dedicated to supporting new immigrants from France.

aliya 88 (photo credit: )
aliya 88
(photo credit: )
Just a year ago, French philanthropist Pierre Besnainou announced the creation of "AMI," a new organization dedicated to helping and supporting new immigrants from France. AMI is an acronym based on the French, "alyah et meilleure integration," translated as "Aliya and Better Absorption." At the time, Besnainou and his close collaborators - president of AMI Gil Taieb and treasurer Gilles Azoulay - explained that "these Jews were members of the [French Jewish] community, and hence, their decision to make aliya was not only their private affair but the concern of all the community and its leaders." Besnainou, until then mostly unknown in Israel, has since become chairman of the European Jewish Congress, donated approximately US$ 1.5 million to the project and promised his on-going support. According to sources within the organization, his donation this year will come to $2.5 million. Last week, at a gala dinner honoring nearly 400 of the French immigrants who arrived during 2005, AMI director in France, Alex Moise, announced that at least 3,000 olim have come to Israel with the help of the association. He anticipates that the numbers in 2006 may be even larger. According to Moise, AMI attempts to prepare candidates for aliya and thus to increase their chances that their integration will be successful. AMI officials emphasized that the organization operates in full coordination with the Jewish Agency and the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, and Minister Zeev Boim attended last week's affair. Yet some Ami officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, did hint at a possible difference between their polices and those promoted by the Jewish Agency. "We are not afraid to tell a family: don't make aliya, or don't make aliya now, because we see that you might fail - because it is our duty." Moise explained to In Jerusalem what "preparation" means. "Our agenda is their success, and because we know how devastating the failure of even one family that returns to France in frustration can be, we really prepare them. "We give them an opportunity to study Hebrew," he continued. "We have created ulpanim in Paris and other cities in France. But it's not only the ulpan, it's also an exhaustive amount of details and knowledge, down to the minute details of what really awaits them here in Israel: the educational system, the jobs, the tax system - anything that can help them to be ready for what awaits them once in Israel." The hundreds of guests at the dinner last week represent a specific part of the Jewish community in France - which is the second-largest Jewish community in the Western world after the USA. Most of them, or their parents, came from North Africa and most are observant. Some appeared to be haredi. Contrary to common wisdom, they did not cite the growth of anti-Semitism in Western Europe in general, or in France in particular, as the reason for their immigration. "I came because of the general feeling that we have no future as Jews in France or anywhere else outside of Israel," explained one of the attendees. "I came to Israel to feel free and at ease," explained one of the dozens of students who immigrated with AMI's help. "I came alone. My family is still there and I miss them terribly, but I prefer to be here, instead of staying in Paris where my family is concerned about looking for fellow Jews to socialize with." Explained Valerie, a young mother of six who made aliya some seven years ago and whose husband is active in AMI, "Our parents didn't have to live in ghettos back in North Africa, but once they arrived in France, they were afraid of assimilation, of losing their Jewish traditions, so they sent their kids to Jewish schools, mostly religious. And now these kids have grown up and they feel more acquainted with Israel than with the country in which they were born or lived till now. The only problem is to be sure their aliya succeeds." Once the immigrants arrive in Israel, they continue to receive support from AMI. Avi Zana, who previously worked in the Jewish Agency in France and in Israel, heads the operation here. "AMI gives scholarships to students, up to a full three years' tuition at a university or college," Zana said. "We also help families." Moise added. "Every family we bring here knows that once the six months of support by the Immigration and Absorption Ministry are over, and if they still are not earning enough, they will find us beside them. Families of four who don't earn at least US$ 1,500 a month and receive income maintenance payments can receive a sum of up to six additional months of support so that they can reach the level of US$ 1,500. Moise further noted that AMI does not intend merely to provide financial assurance to immigrants, but rather to help them integrate into Israeli society. Yet he admitted that "financial aid can sometimes make the crucial difference between a successful immigration and a failure." At the end of the gala evening, Besnainou proudly announced that his own daughter would soon be moving to Israel - and that he, himself, would probably join her soon.