For the first time ever last year, France became the largest source of immigrants to the State of Israel. Close to 7,000 French Jews relocated across the Mediterranean in 2014, more than double the previous year’s number. According to Jewish Agency forecasts, the increase this year will be even more dramatic, with 15,000 immigrants from France expected to arrive in Israel by the end of 2015.
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All told, about 50,000 French Jews of voting age live in Israel today. For parties on the right, they have long been viewed as a natural constituency. Indeed, the overwhelming majority are traditional Jews of Sephardi background who in the past have tended, like their native-born Israeli counterparts, to cast their votes with the Likud and religious parties.
At least one political party is now trying to lure them closer to the center, and that’s with the help of a very prominent French-speaking candidate: Israel Prize laureate Eli Alaluf, who holds the No. 3 spot in the recently formed Kulanu party.
But as Alaluf has discovered, it’s not always an easy task. “Many of them left France because of tensions there with the Muslim community, and this has made them quite hardline politically,” he said in an interview with Haaretz. “Still, I believe we can convince considerable numbers to vote for us.”
Set up by Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud cabinet minister of Sephardi background, Kulanu has been focusing its campaign on socioeconomic issues, primarily the cost of living. Kahlon gained popularity as communications minister for opening the cellphone market to competition and causing prices to plummet. He has expressed openness to joining a coalition headed by either one of the two big parties – Likud or Zionist Union.
“Security issues are of deep concern to French Jews,” says Alaluf, “but not only. Housing prices are as much of an issue for them as they are for native-born Israelis. They’re also very challenged by the Israeli bureaucracy when they come here.”
Contrary to widespread conceptions, he notes, many French-speaking immigrants are not particularly affluent and they share the concerns of most other Israelis about getting through the month.
Born in Morocco in 1945, Alaluf headed the anti-poverty commission established by the Knesset in 2013, whose recommendations have yet to be implemented. Before that, he served as chief executive of the Rashi Fund, a charity focused on disadvantaged populations in Israel’s periphery, primarily children.
Based on the latest polls, Alaluf is likely to be the only French-speaker serving in the upcoming Knesset. (In the last Knesset, Yoni Chetboun of Habayit Hayehudi held that distinction, but he has since broken ranks with the party, joining another list whose chances of making it into the Knesset are in question.)
The ninth of 10 children, Alaluf lost his father when he was four years old. After spending a year on a kibbutz, he moved to Israel following the 1967 Six Day War. After serving as an aide to the renowned archeologist, army general and cabinet minister Yigal Yadin, he moved to Be'er Sheva to work with disadvantaged communities in the south. He lives there to this day.
“Even after 50 years in the country,” he jokes, “I can’t get rid of my French accent.”
As Alaluf tells it, Kulanu did not seek out Israel’s French-speaking voters; the French-speaking voters went looking for Kulanu. In recent weeks, he reports, he’s been on the road hopping from one parlor meeting to another of French speakers.
Even for someone who considers himself in touch with this community, he acknowledges, he often comes away surprised. “Some of the French-speaking immigrants in this country have very extreme views on security matters, which I believe are largely based – I’m going to use a tough word here – on ignorance.”
How open are they to accepting more moderate views? “I’m no magician,” says Alaluf, “but I do know that I am capable of getting at least some of them to think differently.”