Dear French Jews, Living in Israel Wouldn't Be All That Bad

People panic after terror attacks, but neither in France nor in Israel are war and terror a big enough factor to need considering. Also, moving to Israel would make Islamic extremists look very silly.

David Rosenberg
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French soldiers on patrol in Paris, Jan. 14: People panic after terror attacks, then life goes on.Credit: AFP
David Rosenberg

How quickly the wheel turns. Two weeks ago Paris was the scene of two lethal terror attacks that left 17 people dead. This week 13 people were stabbed on a Tel Aviv bus. Meanwhile, perched on Israel's northern border, Iran and Hezbollah are vowing to retaliate for an Israeli attack on their fighters.

What is an anxious French Jew, looking for a refuge from anti-Semitism and violence, supposed to do?

Our prime minister – no doubt motivated as much by Zionist ideals as an upcoming election – has urged France’s Jews to pack up and come to Israel. But France’s chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, seems to think that the true Promised Land is where the baguettes are good and plentiful. “France is our language, our dreams, our hopes for the future,” he said at a memorial service.

Theodor Herzl, who was inspired to launch the Zionist movement by the Dreyfus trial, the signal event of France’s long history of anti-Semitism, would probably beg to differ.

In any case, not a few of France's half-million or so Jews are asking themselves whether immigrating makes any sense.

French immigrants to Israel, arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv. July 16, 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

How to make Islamic extremists look silly

For French Jewry to get up en masse and leave for Israel would certainly make Islamic extremists look kind of ridiculous by encouraging more Jews to Israel to oppress Palestinians. On the other hand, for French Jews to flee would be surrendering to terror and anti-Semitism.

And then, of course, there are the questions of whether France’s Jews would suffer a big drop in their standard of living, and, would they be any safer.

Shorn of Zionist idealism, that question seems like a no-brainer. France is among the world’s richest countries. It offers its citizens a generous package of state benefits. It hasn’t fought a war on its soil since 1945 and offers some life pleasures unmatched anywhere in the world. Israel is a modern Sparta in one the world’s most dangerous and unstable regions. It citizens are crushed by unaffordable housing, high prices and a government that doesn’t provide them with good schools or hospitals. To misquote King Henry IV, Paris is well worth a massacre (from time to time).

Dear French Jews, the situation in Israel is not so dire, certainly not for anyone not just thinking about tomorrow but about his or her children and grandchildren.

Higher standard of living in France, but -

Yes, in France you enjoy a higher standard of living. The average household’s disposable income was $24,322 in 2013, almost $4,000 more than in Israel. France’s government spends almost twice as much on health – $4,118 versus $2,239 – than Israel’s. Food prices have been rising over the last eight years at a fraction of what they did in Israel. Homes are more spacious – 1.8 rooms per person versus 1.1– and less expensive. France offers more generous child allowances, unemployment benefits and other government-paid-for goodies than Israel.

But Israel has a lot of numbers working in its favor. Our government is stingy in terms of social welfare – in large part due to high defense costs – but the taxes on the average worker, measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, are just 20.7%, versus 48.9% for in France.

Israelis are far less likely to be unemployed: In 2013, the rate was just 6.2% versus 10.3% in France. Two other very critical labor indicators also favor Israel: The percentage suffering long-term unemployment in Israel is 0.9% versus 4% in France, while youth unemployment in Israel just over half France’s – 12.1%, compared with 22.8%.

Also, Israel has enjoyed solid economic growth over the past decade while France suffered a severe recession in 2009 and has been limping along ever since.

Israel has its problems, too, but it is in a better position to deal with them: The government’s finances are in order and the economy enjoys a business horizon thanks to our vaunted high-tech sector. France, in many respects, is living off borrowed time, the fruits of an era passed when its economy was more competitive. A French Jew thinking not just about how he or she will manage in Israel, which will be tougher than remaining in France, should also be about thinking about how his or her children will be faring in two decades.

After the panic attack

Which country is safer is much harder to judge.

People panic at the immediate aftermath of a terror attack like those in Paris or Israel’s Gaza war last summer, but neither in France nor in Israel are war and terror a big enough factor that anyone should take it into account.

On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed during last summer’s Gaza war. Meanwhile about 250 were killed in road accidents last year, and no one would decline to immigrate in Israel for fear of being hit by a car.

At 2.2 per 100,000 people, Israel’s homicide rate is three times that of France - but it’s half the OECD average. (In the U.S., in case anyone is thinking of immigrating there, is more than 5 per 100,000.) Life expectancy in the two countries is pretty much the same: 81.8 years in France versus 82.1 in Israel for men (for women the figures are higher).

Zionism’s problem is that it’s a victim of its own success. Israel is no longer so backward that it invites the kind of people ready to engage in self-sacrifice to build the Jewish homeland. There’s building to be done, but it’s the kind that will raise us up from the minor leagues of the OECD to the majors, not the kind that inspires dreamers and idealists.

But the economic gaps with the U.S. and Europe are enough to deter people who might change countries to enjoy a better lifestyle. The reality, however, is that most people are pushed out of their home countries by war, poverty, the lack of opportunities and other rottenness rather than pulled by the attractiveness of some other place. Only French Jews can decide that life in their country has deteriorated to that level.

Standards of living and freedom from violence aren’t the only factors to consider. Israeli wine and cuisine have gotten immeasurably better in the last decade, and the more French Jews that come the better it will get. If a store clerk mistreats or ignores you, you can be confident it’s not an act of anti-Semitism, just local custom. Israeli manners can be rough, but the French are famously rude, too. It’s easy to get used to it. You can start up a company far more easily in Tel Aviv than in Paris and maybe make a fortune. In France, you will always be a Jew and an outsider. In Israel, you will be French and an outsider. But your children, you can be sure, will be full-fledged Israelis.