French Jewish Leader Doubts ÉMigrés to Israel Will Heed Government Calls to Come Back

Bad economy and security are main reasons for exodus.

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French Jewish immigrants at Ben-Gurion International Airport, July 16, 2014.
French Jewish immigrants at Ben-Gurion International Airport, July 16, 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israel will continue to draw thousands of French Jews over the next few years, predicts a leader of the community there, who says it is unlikely that those who have already left will heed recent French government pleas to return.

“The pace will continue to be high, so long as people don’t see a future in terms of the economy and security,” said Robert Ejnes, the executive director of CRIF (Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France), the umbrella organization for French Jewry, in an interview with Haaretz. Ejnes, who is visiting Israel for the High Holy Days, also serves as president of the Jewish community of Boulogne.

Last year, a record number of 7,000 French Jews moved to Israel. Ejnes estimated that the number will be upwards of 8,000 this year.

A bad economy and rising anti-Semitism in France are the main factors driving this exodus, said Ejnes. Tipping points were the 2012 attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse, in which a teacher and three children were killed, and last January’s attack at a kosher supermarket in Paris, in which four Jews were killed and others were taken hostage. “We understand that young parents are questioning their ability to raise their children in a country where security has to be assured by military and police forces,” he said.

Ejnes pointed to another less publicized factor that may also explain the rising tide of immigration in recent years: pensioners joining their children. “Many French Jews, who already have children and grandchildren in Israel, have waited for retirement to come join them,” he said. “About a quarter of the new immigrants belong to this category.”

According to various estimates, between 10 and 20 percent of French Jews who have moved to Israel in recent years have gone back. Ejnes said that based on the experience of his own very large community, the actual rate of attrition is lower.

According to a report this week in The Wall Street Journal, the French government is concerned that the large number of educated and professional Jews leaving the country is causing a brain drain. The report said that French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron was hoping to use his visit to Israel this week as an opportunity to try to lure French Jewish investors and innovators back to the country.

Ejnes referred to this report as “very good news,” noting that it indicated how much the French government valued the Jewish community. He said, however, that “unless the economy improves, I doubt that there will be a movement of Jews back.”

Ejnes noted that in addition to Israel, many French Jews have relocated to the United States, Canada, England, Brazil and Australia in recent years. Although he said no exact numbers were available, he estimated that the total was “much less” than the numbers heading for Israel.

The French Jewish leadership had refrained from making any recommendations about leaving the country, stated Ejnes. “We are concerned about the future of French Jewry and want to prepare as well as possible for this future because there will be Jews staying in France, as there have been Jews in France for the past 2,000 years,” he said. “We are respecting the choice of those who want to make aliyah because the French Jewish community and the French Jewish leaders have always had a very pro-Israel position. But we are not asking people to go or to stay. We are just trying to make sure that the conditions for Jews in France will remain as good as possible and even improve.”

A recent report commissioned by CRIF found that many French non-Jews held very negative views of Zionism and saw it as an extremist movement. The report, prepared by the prominent American political consultant Stanley Greenberg, suggested that French Jews refrain from using the term around non-Jews unless they had the opportunity to hold a proper discussion. “It shocked us that many said Zionism is to Jews what jihad is to Muslims,” said Ejnes. “This made us realize that we have lots of educating to do in French society.”

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