French Jews immigrating to Israel isn’t exactly news. Over the last four years, between 1,000 and 2,000 have arrived every year. But over the past few months, people active in the field say they’ve seen signs of the onset of a new, much larger wave of immigration that could have a substantial impact on both Israeli society and the French-Jewish community.
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In 2013, 3,120 French Jews moved to Israel. In general, they are younger, more educated, better off, more connected to Israel and have fewer absorption difficulties than immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia. However, that doesn’t mean there are no problems. But the relative success of French immigrants, combined with France’s economic woes and its Jewish community’s growing unease, could combine to produce a significant boost in immigration in the coming years, experts say.
“We organize information evenings for people thinking of immigrating,” said Ariel Kandel, the Jewish Agency’s emissary in Paris. “A hundred people attend every evening ... In 2012, we’d organize an evening every Monday, and every two weeks on Tuesday. In 2013, we moved to two evenings a week, and since September we’ve organized three evenings a week. In other words, 300 people every week are taking the step of registering on the Internet, leaving their house and coming to find out. That’s almost 15,000 people a year. And, of course, the whole family doesn’t come to these evenings. So, the potential – people who are considering it – stands at 30,000 to 40,000 people a year. Granted, they aren’t taking a major step, but this isn’t a water-cooler conversation at work where you say you’re considering immigrating. This is someone who looks in the mirror and says to himself, ‘I see myself as a potential immigrant to Israel.’”
A study by Prof. Erik Cohen of Bar-Ilan University’s school of education points to even larger potential numbers. Cohen asked 803 French Jews aged 18 to 40 which country they saw themselves living in in five years’ time. Only 33 percent answered France; 27 percent said they didn’t know; and 26 percent said Israel. In a similar study by the European Union, 50 percent of French Jews said they were considering moving to Israel – and the French-Jewish community numbers some 500,000 people.
The more involved someone is in Jewish communal life in France, the more likely he is to move to Israel, said Cohen. Thus, if immigration to Israel spikes, he warned, the French-Jewish community could experience an organizational crisis.
Why are they coming? Everyone involved in the issue cites the changes in French society sparked by Arab immigration, and the rising anti-Semitism, as a major factor. “It’s all kinds of little incidents, but they cause a subjective feeling of insecurity – especially about the future,” said Yona Hayer, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s representative in Paris.
The murder of a teacher and three students at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012 is generally considered a turning point. It didn’t spark an immediate rise in emigration, Kandel noted, but it did lead many French Jews to start thinking about it.
People like Virginie Bellaiche, 37, who moved to Israel in August with her husband Laurent, 42, and their two daughters, ages 5 and 10 months. She decided to come “one month after Toulouse,” she said from her home in Ra’anana yesterday. “I couldn’t stay in France anymore – not because I was afraid. It just wasn’t possible anymore.”
Cohen said that 29 percent of French Jews report having experienced anti-Semitism in the last two years. “I stress: They didn’t hear about someone; they experienced it themselves. That’s significant. It isn’t institutional or political anti-Semitism, but societal, and the situation is getting worse,” he said.
The second important factor is France’s ongoing economic crisis. Low growth and high unemployment, especially among young people, is causing many French citizens – not just Jews – to consider emigration. Last year, for instance, Australia received 20,000 French immigrants.
Prof. Esther Schely-Newman of the Hebrew University, who has studied the French immigrant community in Israel, cited a third factor. Most French Jews are descendants of those who came from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria when French rule of those countries ended in the 1950s and ’60s. In many cases, families split during those years, with some going to France and some to Israel. Therefore, “the idea of coming to Israel has been with them for many years,” said Schely-Newman.
Kandel added that the more people someone knows in Israel, the more likely he is to consider moving here. Thus, each group of immigrants draws others in its wake.
Hayer identified two main types of French Jews as potential immigrants: pensioners and young people. Often, the pensioners have dreamed for years of moving to Israel, know it well from multiple visits and generally have friends and relatives here. Moreover, supporting themselves isn’t an issue, since they can receive their French pensions in Israel. Of the 3,120 immigrants who arrived in 2013, 536 were over 66 years old.
The younger immigrants generally come after finishing their bachelor’s degree, sometimes with small children in tow. About two thirds of last year’s immigrants were people under 45. For them, earning a living is a major issue, and one of their main reasons for moving. They are often driven by fear of the future, from both the economic standpoint and that of personal security. “They see Israel as a young, innovative place,” Hayer said.
But once people have children in junior high or high school, immigration becomes more complicated. “Then, they generally say they prefer to wait until the child turns 18,” Kandel said.
Immigration, Bellaiche acknowledged, “is very hard.” She’s a journalist; her husband is a lawyer. Both are still learning Hebrew and looking for work, and he will have to pass the Israeli bar exam. “I don’t understand the language or the culture, and the traffic here is lousy,” she says.
“But for my daughters, it’s better here. For me, it doesn’t matter; I can work in a nursery school or a supermarket. It doesn’t matter. I know we made a good choice.”