Snap Judgment: The Norman invasion

French Jews starting to become the preeminent immigrant group from the Western world.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
When did I reach the breaking point? Was it when I first saw scattered around my neighborhood the signs advertising luxury apartments written only in Hebrew and French, and no English? Or perhaps a few weeks ago, when I was in the local bakery and noticed that the usual stacks of free hand-out publications - advertising fliers, a drosh on the weekly Torah portion, a translated edition of the haredi paper Hamodia, and even a local TV guide - were all in French. Or maybe it was just the other day, when I walked by a French-speaking family down the block, and could have sworn they shot me a dirty look when they heard me speaking English. No, I'd have to say it was two weeks ago, when the historic 1947 landing of the fabled Jewish refugee ship Exodus was recreated at Haifa - only this time the passengers were all French Jews, 300 of them, with 30 arriving to make aliya. Excusez-moi? I don't remember fresh croissants and brioche being served on the deck of the Exodus. Wasn't that Paul Newman defying the British on the ship's bridge in the big-screen version - not Jean-Paul Belmondo! YES, THE French are coming. Perhaps not quite as many as it seems - the actual figures on average are some 3,000 olim a year, although it seems much more because many of the more than 100,000 French Jews who vacation here every summer are also buying second homes in Israel. (The overly enthusiastic French tourist is now a prominent enough local stereotype to even earn its own satirical depiction on TV's Eretz Nehederet - "Shak-shou-kah!") But for those of us who live in areas where the French immigrants/tourists congregate - the Katamon-German Colony-Baka-Talpiot belt in southern Jerusalem, the area around Gordon and Frishman Streets in Tel Aviv, Ashdod's "Little Paris" quarter, certain neighborhoods of Netanya, Ra'anana and Ashkelon - their increasing presence is definitely noticeable, as is the concurrent rise in home prices thanks to the euro's buying power. As a fellow immigrant Israeli who still believes that in this day and age aliya is the highest expression of Jewish commitment, I should of course be welcoming this development with open arms, and a cry of "Vivent les Juifs francais!" For the most part, I do. Yet I have to admit that in some dark part of my Anglo-sphere soul, I resent it. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against French Jews - except, of course, that they're French (the Jewish part is fine). These feelings don't extend to French-speaking individuals; some of my best friends, as they say, are French-Israelis, and I married a diehard Francophile who received a degree in French from the University of Strasbourg and insists on watching the French channels on local cable. Heck, with CNN now gone from cable, my preferred foreign news channel is the Paris-based France 24, where all the presenters and reporters look stylish and speak English with cute French accents (except the Israeli correspondent, go figure, who speaks with an Australian accent). So what's the problem? It's jealousy, I guess. Not because most of them dress nicer than I do; or because native Israelis are less prone to look down on their French-accented Hebrew than they do on my English-accented Hebrew; or that their flights back home are a lot quicker and cheaper. Nope, it's something deeper than that; to my mind, the French Jews are starting to supplant us so-called Anglo-Saxon Israelis as the preeminent immigrant group from the Western world. They're stealing our thunder - and frankly, I don't like it. IT USED to be that the Jewish immigrant from France was seen as a particularly rare bird here (I'm not including here French-speaking immigrants from Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa - an entirely different species of olim). If the American oleh was often stereotyped in the sabra psyche as a religious extremist who gave up the good life in the US to live in a small settlement in the West Bank, the French immigrant was viewed as a charming rogue who perhaps had to leave France for Israel under shady circumstances just one step ahead of the gendarmes. That's certainly the profile of the man who is probably still the most famous Franco-Israeli, the shady financier and former Knesset-seat buyer Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, whose French-accented Hebrew seems to have gotten only more accented over the decades. But if Flatto-Sharon is still around, his stereotype is outdated. French olim no longer bear a stigma resulting from Israeli puzzlement over why they would possibly leave the arrondissements of Paris for the shechunot of Jerusalem and Ashdod. Not when they have a perfectly good reason to leave the good life in France for a new life in the Jewish state - the rise of Islamic extremist-fueled anti-Semitism on their home turf. The result is that French Jews are no longer viewed necessarily by Israelis as misfits or losers for wanting to come here. Indeed, the Exodus metaphor is perhaps not quite as far-fetched as it once might have been, if one views French Jews as refugees fleeing a Europe inexorably falling under the demographic sway of its Muslim immigrant population. Of course, French Jews don't necessarily have to flee to Israel; in past years many left for North America, especially Canada, where, thanks to that nation's generous immigration policies, they easily found a new home in French-speaking Quebec. Many, I'm told, are still choosing that option, or heading off to south Florida. Yet there is no doubt that more are now choosing to make aliya, so one must credit them with genuine Zionist feelings in coming here. Maybe that's the real cause of my jealousy. For over 20 years I've been waiting for more of my fellow American Jews to follow me here, but those aliya numbers, despite a very slight rise recently thanks to the efforts of groups such as Nefesh b'Nefesh, are still fairly stagnant. In contrast, French aliya has shown a real upturn, the annual rate doubling since the 1990s. The yearly number of new olim now matches that of North American Jews, despite the fact that the French Jewish population (about 600,000) is just one-tenth the size of the American-Jewish community. All this might change, of course; I'm told the election of the more pro-Israel Nicolas Sarkozy might reduce French-Jewish emigration. Still, it is looking more and more likely that French Jews, and not their American cousins, will be the really significant wave of Western aliya in the coming years. Ah well, c'est la vie, I guess. And if this also means finally getting a decent fresh croissant at the neighborhood bakery, it's all for the best. And should the French decide in the end that life was better back home - well, I guess they'll always have Paris. [email protected]