The past two years have seen a dramatic rise in Jewish immigration from France, but this is not the first time there have been such spikes.
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The first exodus came in 1949, a year after Israel gained independence, when close to 1,700 French Jews set sail for the new Jewish state. For a long stretch thereafter, the aliyah figures hovered at around several hundred a year. Then came the 1967 Six-Day War, and for a period that extended almost until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, several thousand French immigrants arrived in Israel every year. In fact, up until last year, the record number of French immigrants in one year was set in 1969 when 5,292 arrived.
Dr. Dov Maimon, a French-born Israeli who heads the Europe desk at the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, attributes that wave to the very strong ethnic identity of French Jews.
“About 80 percent of the French Jewish population comes from North Africa, so they’re relative newcomers to France,” he notes. “I know it’s not politically correct to use this term, but they tend to be very tribal and feel a strong sense of brotherhood with Israel. The Six-Day War brought out a lot of Jewish pride in them, and many acted on that and moved to Israel.”
The next major peak in aliyah began in the early 2000s and coincided with the start of the second intifada in Israel. At that time Jews in France found themselves increasingly under attack by the local Muslim population. These attacks took the form of physical assaults and acts of vandalism, among other things. The most serious incident during this period was the 2006 kidnapping of a young, Moroccan-born Jew named Ilan Halimi, who was tortured to death.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 immigrants from France arrived in Israel each year from 2002 through 2007. This surge tapered off as well following the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who restored a sense of security among French Jews.
The past two years have seen a fresh spike in immigration, with the numbers reaching an all-time high of 7,086 in 2014. This most recent exodus has been attributed to a combination of a bad French economy and anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head once again.
Maimon estimates that French aliyah will set a new record this year, more than doubling to 15,000. “And that’s without the Israeli government doing anything to encourage people to come,” he says.
In the next 15 years, he predicts that half of France’s 500,000-strong Jewish community will head to Israel or other destinations, most probably the United States.