'Moral Obligation': Israel Wants to Lure French Jews on Aliyah

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Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2018.
Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2018.Credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via AP

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett will spearhead a new government effort to lure French Jews to Israel. He was tapped for the assignment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Bennett insinuated at the cabinet meeting that all previous government efforts to boost immigration from France had failed dismally. In response, Netanyahu asked him to take charge of a new campaign.

The number of Jews living in France is estimated at 470,000 – the largest Jewish community in Europe. Bennett told the cabinet that 200,000 of them were eager to move to Israel but that the state was not in a position to absorb them.

“It is our moral obligation to rise to the occasion and help them,” he said.

>> Why the expected wave of French immigration to Israel never materialized

Israeli officials with deep knowledge of the French Jewish community, however, charged that Bennett was exaggerating. According to them, no more than 50,000 French Jews are considering moving to Israel today.

Officials active in promoting immigration expressed surprise that Bennett had been chosen by Netanyahu to lead the new effort. Immigration promotion, they noted, has traditionally come under the authority of the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration. The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, they noted, has never before been involved in such activities.

Last month, Yisrael Beiteinu, the party headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, quit the government. Sofa Landver, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, had served as minister of aliyah and integration. Since her party joined the opposition, this ministerial post she filled has been left vacant.

In an effort to explain Bennett’s newly developed interest in the French Jewish community, some officials with knowledge of it suggested that because its members tend to be religious and right wing, they could be seen as potential voters for the party he heads – the settler-aligned, Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi.

The fact that more French Jews have not moved to Israel, Bennett told the cabinet, represented a “missed historical opportunity.”

Between 2013 and 2015, Israel experienced a large wave of immigration from France. The exodus was sparked both by a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and a depressed local economy. Since 2015, however, when close to 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel, the numbers have dropped steadily. In 2017, a little more than 3,500 French Jews moved to Israel, and that number is expected to drop by about 25 percent for 2018.

Many French Jews who moved to Israel during the peak years have since returned to France. Difficulties with the Hebrew language and with finding work commensurate with their skills have been cited as the key obstacles to their successful integration into Israeli society.

Netanyahu asked Bennett to draft a program for boosting immigration from France in conjunction with the National Economic Council, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. This program will be discussed by the ministerial committee for immigration and absorption, which is headed by the prime minister.

During the cabinet meeting, Bennett briefed the ministers on the activities of his ministry, bemoaning the high rate of assimilation among Jews living outside Israel. “Israel and the Diaspora are in the throes of an unprecedented crisis,” he said. “We’re used to being told that it’s because of [prayer rules at] the Western Wall, the Palestinian issue and other ideological controversies. It’s not correct. There’s a terrible problem of assimilation and growing indifference of Jews overseas both to their Jewishness and to Israel. That is the entire story, and it can be defined as a national challenge.”

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