The French influx
A look at the tourists who have once again taken over Tel Aviv for the summer
"When I make my way through the restaurant or the line to the bathroom, I say pardon first and not slicha," says Uri Stark, a Tel Aviv restaurant owner, referring to the French and Hebrew words for "excuse me," respectively. "I'll only switch to Hebrew if the person doesn't react."
French tourists, in Stark's estimation, currently make up 90 percent of customers at his LaLa Land restaurant on Gordon Beach. And while you won't hear chansons from France there, LaLa Land's menus have been translated in full into French and its waiters have also studied the language that dominates the summer months.
"The Israelis are still here, but it's harder to find them," says one waiter. "Compared to the French, we are actually rather quiet. They overwhelm us."
"I don't like it when people bad-mouth the French," says Stark. "It annoys me. Let's be realistic - the Israeli tourist is also, to put it mildly, not the best role model in terms of international tourism. When you come right down to it, the French are excellent tourists. And let's not forget that they were the only ones who still came here during the [intifadas] and the Second Lebanon War."
"But they have their faults, that's true," he continues. "They've taken over Tel Aviv - the city is jammed with cars and taxis full of French tourists. They are also taking over the beach, and as a result Israelis are staying away from it. Even after they leave, it takes Israelis a while to come back. I can understand why Tel Avivians complain that the French have expropriated the city from them."
At the adjacent Sheraton Beach, the megaphone at the lifeguard stand has been commandeered for an important announcement - in French, of course: "There will be a beach party at nine o'clock tonight," beachgoers are informed. "What did he say?" asks an Israeli woman who apparently chose the wrong beach.
At a bar not far from there, scores of tanned and shirtless French people bounce along to the sounds of French disco, next to a improvised pool. In the evening, they'll move the party to the nightclubs of Tel Aviv.
"They come here with their PR people and their DJs, publicize their parties on flyers in French and bring their style of nightlife along with them," says Stark.
Jerusalem barely on the map
According to estimates compiled by the Tourism Ministry, the number of French tourists who will have come here during the months of July and August will amount to 80,000, the same as last year - maintaining France's status as the second-largest exporter of tourists to Israel after the United States. On average, each will spend about $1,100 during their stay in Israel, with most of them lodging in Netanya and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is barely on the map - simply because there is no sea there.
Idit Toledano recently returned to Israel from a two-year mission in Paris. Sent on behalf of the French Embassy in Israel, she was assigned to government schools where she taught Hebrew to members of the Jewish community.
"Most of the French people who travel to Tel Aviv during the summer are Jews with origins in North Africa - Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans," she explains. "What stands out is their total loyalty to Israel. Sometimes this borders on nationalism and on traditionalism - keeping kosher and the Sabbath. There is also the sense that they're oppressed and discriminated against in France, being both Jews and North Africans."
"Some of them are very wealthy and do not try to hide this," Toledano continues. "They live in luxury apartments in the prestigious 16th Arrondissement [of Paris], they drive SUVs and they dress well."
Not far from Gordon Beach is the Hilton Hotel, which traditionally hosts thousands of French tourists throughout the summer. Two of them, Parisian cousins Shirley, 26, and Johanna, 29, have come to Tel Aviv for a 10-day vacation, as they have every summer for the past several years. "Tel Aviv is a party," says Johanna, who knows the city - its beaches and its clubs - as though she were from there herself.
"We go to the beach, then we go shopping and at night we'll go to the port," she says, combining French with the Hebrew she learned at school. "We feel at home here, because everyone here is French," she adds. This is her second visit to Israel this year.
While here in May, though, she decided to visit the graves of holy men, "Because it was boring in Tel Aviv - there weren't any French people here at all," she says. Now, by contrast, "There's never enough time. Everyone comes here to look for friends and meet new people." After a few seconds she adds: "They don't realize that every year it's actually the exact same people."
Like many other tourists, Johanna prefers Israel to other more attractive, less expensive destinations closer to France.
"Here everything is kosher, which makes it more convenient. And you can also go to the Western Wall and observe the Sabbath, because everyone here is Jewish," she explains. "I'm always behind Israel. The French media don't show the real information, but we Jews know, for example, that the Arabs are to blame for the attack [in late May] on the flotilla that was headed to Gaza."
Talking Torah in taxis
Not far from the Hilton stands Robert, a 54-year-old journalist from Paris who writes about culture for the French women's magazine Prima. "Those people have no class, no culture," he says in fluent Hebrew, referring to the French people crowding the beach. "They lie around all day, on the beach and in the sun and" - he adds with some self-irony - "they're exactly the people who read the magazine for which I write. For them it's like reading a book."
"The people you see here don't ask hard questions about the situation in Israel," he continues. "They've become more extreme in their pro-Israel and anti-Arab stance as a reaction to the anti-Semitism in France. They stay among themselves here, and even after years of visiting or living in Israel, many of them don't speak a word of Hebrew."
When asked where his own fluent Hebrew came from, he smiles. "It's a love story. What didn't happen with the woman, happened with the language. And without even having to work very hard," he says.
Reuven, a 36-year-old lawyer, immigrated to Israel from Versailles four years ago. He too ventured to the beach in Tel Aviv this week with his friend Sebastian, who has been here for 17 years now.
"They say if you immigrate after your bar mitzvah, your accent will never go away," explains Sebastian.
"Everyone is immigrating to Israel these days," Reuven says enthusiastically. "I feel at home here. After a week here I felt at home. Tel Aviv is an international place."
For Reuven, his Jewish identity was the primary reason for immigrating to Israel. "I love France, but what is the point of being a Jew outside of Israel? Instead of praying toward Jerusalem, you can just buy a plane ticket," he says. "Here I can talk about the weekly Torah portion, even with a taxi driver. That would never happen in Paris. First of all, it's impossible to get a taxi and secondly, the driver is never going to be Jewish."
Many of Reuven's friends prefer to partake in "Boeing immigration," as it is called in the local jargon, after the airplane enabling them to skip back and forth frequently between Paris and Tel Aviv. "They live half a week in Israel and half in France. Just a four-hour flight separates the two worlds," explains Reuven.
Others chose to get married in Israel over the summer. In recent months, he says, he has attended nine weddings of friends from France. "Here everyone keeps kosher and there is also a certain style, so no one can pass up coming to a wedding," he says.
Reuven is now trying his hand at setting up a business to serve the many French people who own apartments in Israel, but stay in them only in August.
"I will handle renting out the apartment throughout the rest of the year, and in the summer the owners will be able to stay there and use the rent to finance their vacation," he explains. "On my website they'll be able to get an update on the apartment from anywhere in the world. Even if they're in Paris, they can feel like they're in Tel Aviv."