Entente not-so cordiale As thousands of French tourists flock to Israel, Tel Aviv is starting to feel like Marseille
During the late-night hours the battle between Tel Aviv residents and French tourists can be most clearly observed: Locals used to waiting only a few minutes for a taxi watch helplessly as cabs carrying French tourists zoom by.
"Those French, they're taking all the taxis," one Israeli grumbles. But Oded Dror, a cabbie who works for Castel taxi services, is thankful for the extra work. "There's a lot of work because of the French tourists," he says. "Personally, I don't like all this pressure. I'm stopped by French people all the time and find myself mostly being hailed by French youth. They are very loud, and sometimes condescending. But it will soon end. They are leaving at the end of August." France, with some 500,000 Jews, constitutes the third largest Jewish community in the world and sends more tourists to Israel than any other European country, according to Tourism Ministry data. Some 150,000 French nationals visited Israel between January and July, an increase of 10 percent over the same period last year.
In Tel Aviv, Ben-Yehuda Street has been brimming with deeply-tanned French tourists since the beginning of August. They speak in their native tongue, and Hebrew is seldom heard.
Many French tourists flock to the Mazzarine, a cafe named after Rue Mazarine in Paris and located on Gordon Street. "Lots of French tourists come here," says Shimon Zohar, the owner of the cafe. "We are located on the way to the sea, and that's what they want: Sea, sea and more sea." Zohar's cafe is decidedly European in look and specializes in cakes. "This place reminds them of home," Zohar says.
Meanwhile, Michel Cohen and his Parisian friends sit at a nearby cafe on Frischmann Street. Cohen, who is a doctor, arrived in Israel with his wife and three children at the start of the month and will be here until the end of August. "What do we do all day?" he repeats my question, looking rather amused by it: "Nothing. We drink coffee, gaze at people on the street, talk, go to the beach and eat at restaurants."
Cohen says it was important for him to bring his children to Israel so they "get to know the country, Israeli culture and be in touch with the Jewish community." Despite his love for Israel, Cohen says he feels hostility from many of the Israelis he encounters on the street. "Israelis are rude," he complains. "Yesterday a woman at the beach asked me to move because I was blocking her view of the sea. I answered her in French even though I speak Hebrew, because I don't feel confident speaking Hebrew. Then she replied 'these French people, first let them study Hebrew before they come here.' I told her that the French are the only people who come here and she better be nice if they want us to come back.
"I keep hearing Israelis talk about 'these French people' or saying 'we don't like the French.' It's very offensive. A vacation in Israel is expensive, but we come here with love. I do, however, know a couple of people who chose not to come here this year because of the Israelis' attitude and preferred going to Morocco or Tunis."
During the conversation with Cohen the Israeli cafe owner suddenly approaches us and asks me with typical Israeli chutzpah whether I was interviewing him because he was a "French oligarch." Cohen looked away out of embarrassment.
At times during the month of August the Tel Aviv beachfront can be easily mistaken for that of Marseille; French is almost the only language heard. "How much French can you stand?" a local suddenly says out loudly. She turns angrily to the person next to her whose skin is very tanned, one of the signature marks of French tourists and asks him, "Why do you all come here?" He responds in perfect Hebrew: "What do you want from me? I'm just tanned."
Some, like restaurant owner Jackie Eiluz, have nothing but good things to say about the French wave of tourists: "It's a blessing," Eiluz says. "Sure, sometimes they come in hungry from the beach and fight over a table, but it's not like the Israelis are as polite as the British."