January is normally a quiet month at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s offices in Paris. Normally, about 150 people per week register for JAFI’s information sessions about moving to Israel. But in the week since last Friday’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, 2,000 people have signed up.
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“This doesn’t mean they’ll all immigrate, but it means the incident is having an effect,” said Daniel Benhaim, head of JAFI’s French branch. “Our switchboard is getting three times as many calls as on a normal day.”
JAFI, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and other groups involved in French immigration are hesitant to predict what impact the attack will have. None is prepared to guarantee that January 2015 will be a turning point in the life of France’s Jewish community. But all expect French immigration to Israel this year to top the 10,000 mark, and to rise again in 2016. JAFI is even considering reopening absorption centers for French immigrants. And even the French government understands that if something doesn’t change fast, many French Jews are liable to leave.
Deborah Attali, 25, moved to Israel on her own a year ago. “I didn’t abandon France when I immigrated to Israel,” she stressed, as many other French immigrants do, too. “I liked my life in France, but I wanted to be here and be part of our history.”
Nevertheless, she added, “the time had come to leave France,” because “something is happening” to relations between the Jews and French society. For instance, after a terrorist murdered four Jews at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, “We felt they didn’t understand us. They didn’t understand how important this was and how much it says there’s something not right in the country. Ultimately, [the victims] were Jews, not them.”
France has some 500,000 Jews, 80 percent of whom immigrated from North Africa decades ago. Many have relatives in Israel.
The core community comprises about 150,000 to 200,000 people, most of them religious. This group provides the community’s services, like Jewish schools and synagogues. It is very Zionist and feels closely connected to Israel. This is the group that has been targeted in attacks on Jewish institutions, like those on the Toulouse school and the Paris supermarket. This is also the group that suffers most from street harassment, mainly by Muslims, because it is identifiably Jewish – for instance, the men wear skullcaps.
Thus most of the immigrants to Israel come from this group – something that could have a dramatic impact on France’s Jewish communities, especially the smaller ones. In some Jewish schools, enrollment dropped by 10 to 15 percent last year because of families that moved to Israel.
Alongside immigration to Israel, there has been a lot of internal migration by French Jews: They are leaving suburbs with large Muslim populations and moving to the cities. That also weakens smaller communities.
French immigrants to Israel cite various reasons for coming here, ranging from economics to ideology. But all of them mention security as well. There has been a string of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks in recent years, with one of the peaks coming during last summer’s war in Gaza.
Nevertheless, Jews aren’t being forced to flee; the decision to come here is carefully considered. In fact, statistically speaking, the chances of being hurt or killed in a terror attack are still greater in Israel. Thus what motivates French Jews to move here is less objective danger than subjective feelings of insecurity.
“People tell me, ‘It’s true it’s more dangerous here, but here I can at least walk down the street in a skullcap,’” said former Ashdod Mayor Arieh Azoulay, who is currently active in absorbing French immigrants in his city.
“Here it’s more dangerous, that’s true,” agreed Attali. “But it’s not the same thing, because here, we look out for one another. There, the feeling is that nobody will protect us; we don’t know if people on the street will help us if something happens.”
Immigration and absorption professionals say they expect the results of the latest Paris attack to be felt for at least the next two years, since that’s generally how long it takes families to decide to move and begin the process.
The French government, however, seems determined to try to persuade the Jews to stay by bolstering their sense of security, including by stationing soldiers at Jewish schools. In an extraordinary speech to parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that “France without its Jews won’t be France” and acknowledged that the government hitherto hadn’t done enough to combat anti-Semitism.
“How does it happen that there are schools that can’t teach about the Holocaust?” he demanded. “How does it happen that today, children tell their teacher their enemy is the Jew?”
Moreover, contrary to public perception, French Jews face many absorption difficulties in Israel. For instance, professionals like doctors and accountants often find their French credentials aren’t recognized here. Many people have trouble finding work. And many families can’t afford local housing prices – which is why JAFI is now considering reopening absorption centers for French Jews.
“We don’t need more encouragement for immigration; the terrorists have done that for us,” said Avi Zana, director of AMI, an organization that assists French immigrants to Israel. “We need to take care of the immigrants who come here.”
Nevertheless, Zana added, while it may take some time, ultimately, the Jews will come. “The feeling is that today, there’s almost no other choice for French Jewry,” he said.