It was early 2015 in Paris and the attacks came one after the other. On January 7, there was the shooting attack on the editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that took 12 lives; the next day a terrorist shot a policewoman dead, and the day after that brought the siege on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket that ended in the deaths of four Jews.
On January 11, some four million people marched through the streets of Paris and other French cities in a protest against terror; some 50 world leaders marched in Paris, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who a few hours later spoke at the Great Synagogue in Paris and urged French Jews to make aliyah.
[You have] the right to live in our free country, the one and only Jewish state, the State of Israel,” he said, to applause from the crowd. “The right to stand tall and proud at the walls of Zion, our eternal capital of Jerusalem. Any Jew who wishes to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed with open arms and warm and accepting hearts.” The Immigration Absorption Ministry estimated that more than 10,000 French Jews would make aliyah that year.
That forecast was premature. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2014, there were 6,547 olim from France, while in 2015, the number rose only to 6,628. In 2016, the number of immigrants dropped to 4,239, and last year, there were only 3,157. Based on the first five months of this year, it seems that the downtrend is continuing; in the first five months of 2018, there were 759 olim from France, while during the comparable period in 2017, the number was 958.
Joel Samoun, a married father of four from Troyes and a nurse by profession, remembers Netanyahu’s speech. “The speech definitely moved me. It was also a period when we weren’t feeling safe in France,” he says. He began the aliyah process: He made contact with the Jewish Agency and even had his professional credentials and recommendation letters translated into Hebrew. But when Samoun discovered what a lengthy procedure he would have to undergo to work in his field in Israel, he decided to give up on the dream, at least for now. “It’s somewhere in my head,” he said. “Maybe when I reach retirement age.”
Nor is Annaell Asraf, 23, of Paris, hurrying to leave. Her sister made aliyah four years ago, did national service, and somehow managed. She herself worked in Israel for six months, then returned to France, finished her degree in business administration and founded an online fashion business.
“I have a good life in France,” she told Haaretz. Many of her friends, she said, “tried to make aliyah, waited two years to find work, and came back. On paper it looks easy, but it’s much more complicated.”
What are the primary obstacles? Gaps in language and mentality that aren’t easy to bridge, she says, plus, for anyone who didn’t serve in the army, it’s harder to find work. Moreover, she now feels safe in France. “Maybe someday,” she says, when asked if she sees herself returning to Israel to live.
Ariel Kendel, director of Qualita, the umbrella organization for French immigrants in Israel, says, “On the one hand, we see that aliyah is down, but on the other hand, the potential is great. If you know Jews in the community in France – it’s hard to find people who’ll say they don’t want to come to Israel.”
According to Kendel, the drop in aliyah has a number of causes. The primary ones are absorption difficulties; transitioning from the welfare state they are used to; and the fact that there are no aliyah programs tailored specifically for the French. “Where will I live, how will I make a living, what happens to my kids between 2 and 6 [P.M.],” he says. “In France, there is a developed welfare state. We don’t expect it to be like that here, but you can’t tell an immigrant at the airport to take the absorption basket [of services] and that’s it. Apparently every office in Israel should be asking itself these questions.”
Another problem he cites is the process of having professional credentials recognized in Israel. Although certification for physicans has been streamlined (to a trial period), nurses must undergo a test.
“People are asked to take an exam after 30 years of experience, it’s a scandal,” says Kendel. “We have at least one hundred nurses – 50 in Israel and 50 in France – who cannot work here. I don’t think that anyone in France is afraid to go to the hospital; [health care] is not at a low level. You can’t tell someone, ‘come, but chances are that we won’t accept your diploma.’”
Daniella Hadad, a bookkeeper who made aliyah with her husband and five children in 2015, works now in childcare. “When we made aliyah, there was a lot of terror and they said that we should immigrate more quickly,” she says. “They told me to work as a bookkeeper I would have to take all the courses from scratch, and that’s hard in Hebrew.” Now she’s looking for new avenues of employment and wants to improve her Hebrew.
Hadad is convinced that being able to make a living is the most important element in a successful landing in Israel. “I know a woman who made aliyah with her husband and children, but they had a hard time and now they are going back after two-and-half years.
Olivier Nazé, a father of four, is a dentist who made aliyah eight years ago. He had to invest a great deal in order to be able to work in his profession in Israel. Before moving the family, he came a few times on his own, to pass the required exam. He says his brother and family are worried about making aliyah as a result.
“If you have a profession, and you’re making money, it’s hard to get in because it’s like starting from zero,” he says. “In France I made a lot of money, and in Israel at the beginning, I was making a tenth of that. Now it’s slowly rising, but not everyone can afford to wait.” Despite everything, he says, “the quality of life is better here, for the children as well.”
According to a survey conducted by Zeev Hanin, the Absorption Ministry’s chief scientist, the results of which were published in June, 47 percent of French immigrants say their standard of living is not as good as it was in France, while 32 percent said their standard of living had improved. In terms of income, 80 percent responded that their situation was less favorable than in France, whereas 5 percent reported an improvement. But while many people indicated a worsening of various conditions compared to what they had in France, 67 percent said that they felt more at home in Israel, and 78.3 percent said they do not intend to leave.
Drop in incidents
It’s not surprising to learn that a drop in the incidents of anti-Semitism in France has been accompanied by a lack in emigration to Israel. Riva Mane, a researcher at the Kantor Center for the Study of European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, says that in 2015, the French Interior Ministry reported 808 anti-Semitic incidents in the country, whereas, in 2016 the number dropped to 355, and in 2017 to 311. Although not all incidents are reported, she said, the trend is clear.
Nevertheless, Mane says, “There is an increase in the number of violent attacks on Jews; 97 such incidents were reported in 2017, compared to 77 in 2016.” She added that there is still a sense of insecurity in the Jewish community, and that in recent years there has been an increase in internal migration. “Tens of thousands are leaving the poorer neighborhoods that also have a significant Muslim population and where there have been many incidents, for central Paris and other wealthier areas, where there are fewer Muslims,” she says. She also noted that Jewish pupils are increasingly leaving the public schools for private ones, where they are also likely to encounter fewer Muslim students.
“There’s always a reason for a wave of aliyah,” explained Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver. “Not all the olim come because of Zionism. There was a reason for this wave from France – fear of terror. Olim came from Ukraine a year ago when there was a security crisis there vis-à-vis Russia. And now people are coming from Argentina and Brazil due to the economic situation.”
Landver says that her ministry is fighting to remove barriers to successful absorption. “I’m out in the field and I meet with olim from France who are very satisfied,” she reports. Although the minister knows that the immigrants from France cannot receive what the welfare state provides there, such as schools that are open late and two years of unemployment payments, her ministry continues to encourage aliyah.
Landver says that she has instructed ministry staff to make home visits to people who have opened an aliyah file, and that the ministry provides money for the translation of documents and removes employment barriers insofar as possible. “We, together with the municipalities, are doing everything possible to increase the number of olim. I really want them here and I’ll do everything to ease their absorption and to support this aliyah.”
Valerie Halfon, a family financial consultant from the organization Paamonim, said she has met with hundreds of families in France before their aliyah, helping them to prepare an economic assessment, so they’ll know what to expect. For example, she says, she consulted with a young couple who were hesitant, because friends told them that they would need 20,000 shekels a month ($5,500) to get by. She said that after making their calculations, “we got to 8,000-9,000 shekels. There are rumors, and they’re not all true. You have to adapt, you have to make changes.”
Still, whether it’s the improvement in the security situation in France, or the fear of making a new start – or a combination of these – there has been a decline in aliyah. “Today there’s a feeling that things have calmed down in France,” says Arie Abitbol, director of the European division of the Jewish Agency’s Masa programs. “There’s a president [Emmanuel Macron] who’s empathetic, and there’s a sense that he cares about the Jews and wants them to stay. The feeling is that the threat of Islamic extremism is a threat to everyone, and not only to the Jews.”
He says that from his experience working with young people in France, “People don’t say that they don’t want to come, they say that at the moment the circumstances are unsuitable and they’ll wait a little more – maybe in a few more years.” He doesn’t blame only the Israeli government and absorption difficulties: “When there’s a trigger of a security situation, people find the strength to leave, but the biggest enemy of aliyah is the routine. From 2014 to 2016, there were unusually high numbers, and now there’s a return to ordinary dimensions, because as far as they’re concerned, the situation is back to routine.”