French Israelis, Fearing anti-Semitism Back Home, Await Wave of Aliyah

Community leader: ‘I believe that within a few years, a very high proportion will move here.’

Ilan Assayag

Three days after four Jews were killed at a kosher supermarket in Paris, the French Jewish community in Ashdod is still reeling. It’s true we’re here, they say, but a part of us remains there.

About 100 community members of all ages attended a memorial for the victims on Monday at the city’s Ahdut Yisrael Synagogue. Their common denominator was worry for the relatives they had left behind in France.

Rivka Laskar, 31, arrived from Paris Sunday night on a long-scheduled visit to check out schools for her three children and make other arrangements for her family’s planned move to Israel in July. She and her husband own a cell phone repair business and are hoping to replace their shop in Paris with one in Ashdod.

“I live 20 minutes from the grocery where it all happened,” she said. “I was in the car, and when I heard on the radio about the hostage-taking, I drove to school to pick up my kids and we shut ourselves up at home. We didn’t manage to see the news; we thought everyone had died.”

After this incident, Laskar has no doubts about the decision to move to Israel. “It’s already a no-choice situation; I have no security for my children,” she said. “Today the kids went to school and there were dozens of policemen. At the end of classes, they took them all out by the back door, with the police. The kids know something happened, but haven’t managed to understand it.”

A few meters away sat Michal Vaknin, who immigrated from Toulouse 46 years ago. She volunteers with the Jewish Agency to help new immigrants from France get settled in Ashdod.

“Israelis think all the French are rich, but that isn’t the case,” Vaknin said. “Most of the Jews who want to immigrate to Israel are young families, middle class and also poorer, and it’s hard for them. The biggest problem is earning a living, and also the housing problem. They talk about it being hard to buy a house, and how they’ll do it. But the number of people interested rises from day to day, and we have to support them.”

A discussion began on the women’s side of the synagogue about the need to increase benefits for immigrants. “I hope it won’t be just talk, that they’ll provide a basket of benefits for Jews from France, because we have to help them,” said one, Annette.

‘I no longer know France’

Michelle Hasson came to the memorial with signs bearing pictures of the murder victims, including one, Francois-Michel Saada, who was a friend of hers.

“I immigrated to Israel eight years ago, and France is no longer the country I knew,” she said. “The government there isn’t doing enough; they talk about anti-Semitism, but don’t take action. Millions demonstrated in the Place de la Republique, but no one said it was because of Muslim extremists. So who did it?”

Vaknin noted that over the past year, the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents has led to the opening of several Facebook groups for French Jews interested in moving to Israel. The members in France pose questions, and French immigrants already living here answer them.

After the memorial service, community members moved on to the next order of business – a thanksgiving meal. Gad Boukobza, one of the pillars of the French community in Ashdod, had a niece who was a hostage in the Hyper Cacher market, but survived. Her family in Israel then decided to host a thanksgiving meal in her honor.

“We’re here, but half our body is in France,” Boukobza said. “Now I hope the rest of the family will come to Israel, but it isn’t easy. Everyone has his job and his life. ... But I believe that within a few years, a very high proportion will move here.”

Boukobza is the treasurer of a nonprofit organization in Ashdod, partly funded by the municipality, that helps French immigrants connect to Israel and Israelis. “We have an ulpan [intensive Hebrew course]; we organize lectures and tours so people can get to know the country,” he said. “We’re a very organized community.”

Boukobza, who was born in Tunisia and moved to France after the 1967 Six-Day War, stressed that the French Jewish community is very Zionist. “Israel has a joker in its hand,” he said. “It just has to know how to play it.”