ASHDOD – The Attlanns and their five children have barely been living in Israel for a month, but already know the drill well. When the air-raid sirens sounded, even when they were fast asleep – as some of them were on the hot summer morning during a recent visit – they popped out of bed and made a mad dash for the special fortified room in their apartment.
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“We already prepared them psychologically while we were living in Paris,” says the mother, Sigalit. “Even there, we used the app that alerts you on your phone when rockets are heading toward Israel. Many French Jews use this app. It’s a way for them to feel what Israelis are going through.”
The Attlanns were among a group of more than 430 French Jews who immigrated to Israel in mid-July, just a week after the latest war in Gaza erupted. On their flight were her husband Philippe’s brother and family, and several other family friends. Like the Attlanns, many of the new arrivals chose to start their life in Ashdod, a coastal city barely 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the Gaza Strip, and, as such, a prime target for Hamas rockets.
According to the conventional wisdom, the Jews of France are fleeing in droves because of rising anti-Semitism in their country, which reached frightening new peaks last month with attacks on a synagogue and Jewish-owned businesses in Paris.
But many of these new immigrants say that anti-Semitism was not their primary motivation for uprooting themselves and starting life afresh here. “We’ve been wanting to come for years,” says Sigalit, 44, who was born in Israel but moved to France with her family when she was a teenager. “A few years ago, our teenage boys studied here, and they really missed it and wanted to come back. We’ve always visited a lot and for us, being here – even during these times – feels like returning to a mother’s womb.”
According to Jewish Agency figures, some 4,000 French Jews will have immigrated to Israel in the first eight months of 2014, topping the number for all of 2013. More than 5,000 are expected to arrive by the end of the year, constituting a full percent of the French Jewish community, the third largest in the world.
Pierre Besnainou, the former head of this community who also served as president of the European Jewish Congress, moved to Israel four months ago. In his view, the role of anti-Semitism in this latest wave of immigration has been widely exaggerated. “If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that in 2013, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France was actually down 30 percent compared with the previous year,” he says, pointing out that many of those French Jews arriving now, like the Attlanns, made their decisions months, if not years, ago. “The top consideration for the new immigrants has been Zionism. The French-Jewish community is the most Zionist in Europe, and perhaps even the world.”
According to Arielle Di Porto, director of French immigration activities at the Jewish Agency, nearly 80 percent of all French Jews have visited Israel at least once. “We’re talking about a group of people with a lot of motivation and a lot of ideology,” she says.
Another factor that sets French Jews apart and makes it easier for them to pick themselves up and leave, notes Besnainou, is that they don’t feel particularly rooted in the country. “More than 70 percent of the Jews in France are immigrants from North Africa – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – who arrived in the past 50 years,” he says. “A large majority, therefore, still have a sense of being in transit.”
France’s bad economy has also played a role, driving out not only Jews but also many young professionals seeking new employment opportunities and an improved quality of life. A recent survey, adds Besnainou, found that 50 percent of French citizens under the age of 25 were considering leaving the country. Indeed, many of those French Jews who have left the country in recent years have not necessarily opted for Israel, preferring other destinations like Britain, Canada and the United States (where Miami and Los Angeles have been the hot spots).
But barring the past two months of war, says Besnainou, Israel has been no less of an attraction, and probably even more. “The economic situation in France is very bad, while the situation in Israel has until now been great,” he says.
Another economic factor that may explain the recent wave of immigration is one less discussed, for obvious reasons: The fear among French Jews of having their bank accounts and other assets in Israel (primarily real estate) reported to the French authorities, in accordance with new OECD regulations. Taking on Israeli citizenship (but not necessarily with the intention of living in Israel) has become a way for many to avoid paying much higher taxes in France. Although it’s difficult to assess what share of recent new immigrants applied for Israeli citizenship for the purpose of evading taxes, the estimates are that it’s not a negligible number.
Since the beginning of the year, close to 500 Jews from France have relocated to Ashdod. According to Michel Nabet, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry liaison for the city’s French speakers, the overwhelming majority are traditional Jews interested in providing their children with a religious education. “For many of these families, the decision to move to Israel has been cooking for a long time,” she says. “Many say they don’t want to see their children grow up in France.”
Aside from Ashdod, the other top Israeli destinations for French Jews have been Tel Aviv, Netanya, Jerusalem and, more recently, Ra’anana. While Tel Aviv tends to attract the less observant, Jerusalem is the preferred destination for the more observant. That would include people like Laurence Cohen, her husband and four children, who were on the same flight as the Attlanns and now live in the affluent neighborhood of Old Katamon.
While anti-Semitism may explain the motivation of other French immigrants, says Laurence, it had nothing to do with her decision. “Maybe we are not representative, but we wanted to be here because we understand that this country is our country,” she says.
Did arriving in Israel in the midst of a war shake her conviction? “It’s not the same danger,” she says. “We never felt at home in France. It was a great country for many years, but it didn’t feel like home there. I prefer to be in danger here rather than there.”
Another passenger on their flight was Edouard Harari, a 22-year-old who immigrated on his own, on a special program for young adults volunteering for the army. “I always thought about making aliyah and joining the army,” says Harari, “but first I wanted to get my degree, which I just did. So this had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.”
In his view as well, reports about the dire state of the French-Jewish community have been magnified out of proportion. “It’s not that people are living in constant fear there,” he says. “The situation may not be improving, but on the whole it’s still fine.”