French Jews May Not Immigrate to Israel So Fast

Despite back-to-back terror attacks, experts say majority will opt for a planned aliyah.

Sasson Tiram

About 500 people attended an aliyah fair in Paris on Sunday. Although the event had been scheduled months before, it came just days after two terror attacks and amid growing fears among the Jews of France about their future there.

The event was held under tight security and had been organized in response to growing interest by French Jews in making aliyah. Last year, 7,000 French Jews immigrated under Jewish Agency auspices, up from 3,400 in 2013 and 1,920 in 2012.

Daniel Benhaim, the Jewish Agency’s chief envoy in Paris, said before last week’s attacks that the figure would reach 10,000 this year. But even after the bloody events of last week, on Sunday he and others expressed doubt that greater numbers of French Jews would decide to leave just yet.

“When you talk about aliyah, especially for families, it’s not a process that happens in a flash,” he said. “We are assuming that in the next few days we’ll see an increase in the number of requests by Jews for information on aliyah to Israel.

“But it’s impossible to know if that will translate into actual immigrations,” he added. “We’ve seen very difficult events, but still we are talking about immigration by choice, not people fleeing, so it will take time.”

France’s Jewish community is the largest in Europe, numbering more than 500,000 people. Among the four people killed at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in eastern Paris last Friday, Yoav Hattab had visited Israel for 10 days just two weeks earlier, through the Birthright organization.

“We are no longer at home here,” said Yves Lellouche, a member of the Union of Kosher Consumers of France. “Fifteen of my relatives are attending a Jewish school near the site of the kosher store that was attacked. I fear for their safety. I fear for my safety.”

Lellouche said he would be attending Sunday's “freedom” rally in Paris, “but only out of curiosity, not as an activist, because this is no longer my country. It was a temporary home.”

Other attendees, including Serge Luz, said they intended to march as a political act. “I see no future for myself here, but I am still French and I am still attached to the values this march is meant to defend,” he said.

Benhaim said he preferred people to make aliyah by choice, after careful consideration. “We encourage French Jews that are considering aliyah to come to Israel for a visit to visit cities they are thinking about living in, check out educational options and explore work opportunities,” he said.

Birthright, which sends young Jews to Israel for tours to get acquainted and strengthen their connection with the Jewish state, estimates that some 25,000 people who have participated in its programs since it was started in 2000 have made aliyah, although that’s not the organization’s purpose.

However, Raphael Gutperstein, who heads Birthright’s operations in France, said student-age French Jews may be deterred by concerns that their credentials won’t mean anything if they opt to immigrate to Israel.

“Students understand that all their studies aren’t worth anything in Israel and that they will have to start over,” he said. “We hope this will change soon and the French studies will be recognized in Israel, at which point I would expect to see significant aliyah.”

Benhaim warned that French Jews would have to get used to a different economic lifestyle in Israel. “France is a country with among the most advanced welfare policies in the world. Leaving it is complicated financially,” he said. People there are entitled to three years’ unemployment benefits, and child allowances are much more generous, with a family of four children entitled to 700 euros ($825) a month.

“People weighing aliyah have to take into account not only their net salaries, but the support they get from outside,” added Benhaim, saying he was more encouraging of young people ages 18 to 25 immigrating because they are starting out in their life and careers.

JTA contributed to this report.