Israel Is Not an Option for Many in the French Jewish Community

A friend in a Paris suburb is furious at Benjamin Netanyahu for a dubious offer of a better life in the promised land.

AP

Y.B. watched Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday in seething fury.

“What’s he thinking?” Y.B. asked in a phone call to Israel. “That he can come like that to tell French Jews to come to Israel to vote Likud? France is my country. French is my mother tongue. I was born here, my children were born here, my grandchildren were born here. What’s this? Doesn’t he have any respect?”

Y.B. and his wife live in a comfortable Paris suburb. He’s a master upholsterer and owns an upholstery factory; his wife keeps the books. Both were born in France to parents who came as children from North Africa, and neither ever heard any language at home but French. They’re connected to France with every fiber of their being.

True, they have relatives in Israel. They’ve even visited a few times and enjoyed the sun and sea. But they found the cost of living off-putting. All their lives they’ve lived in a spacious rental apartment, and there’s nothing to stop them from growing old in it comfortably. If they ever considered moving to Israel, their modest savings wouldn’t let them buy a one-room apartment.

But Y.B. and his wife aren’t considering any such thing, and there are hundreds of thousands of French Jews like them. Some, mainly the more secular, haven’t encountered anti-Semitism in their daily lives. Others say the anti-Semitism didn’t begin yesterday and isn’t a reason to pack their bags – and certainly not for Israel.

And many were frightened by last summer’s missile attacks from Gaza, and many more, including some with relatives who have moved here (and in some cases have returned) are deeply suspicious of living conditions in the promised land.

And what exactly is Netanyahu talking about when he proposes that French Jews move here en masse? What can Israel offer a citizen of this democratic republic that raises its children in a generous, varied, rich and universal welfare state?

French citizens receive free public education, including a long school day and meals, from the age of 3 months until the end of university. They enjoy free health-care services (which include care for the elderly in their own homes), efficient subsidized public transportation, public housing that keeps getting better with the years (including affordable housing, which has accelerated greatly), large child allowances and generous retirement packages. And that’s without mentioning the enormous state and municipal money invested in culture, including literature and newspapers.

In recent years, there has been a stormy debate in France over this system and the relatively high taxes that fund it. The conservative right has linked the universal welfare state and the rise in immigration, while the socialist left claims the welfare state has been eroded and the government isn’t investing enough in society’s weaker members.

And both accuse the government of ignoring the worsening social crisis. Meanwhile, unemployment is rising and France’s economy is lagging well behind those of its neighbors.

But people like Y.B. and his family haven’t been affected. They all work, belong to strong unions and feel at home in the republic that, with gritted teeth, is opening to deep cultural changes.

“After all,” Y.B. said, “we too are children of immigrants, and we have much in common with our Arab neighbors: tradition, music, attitudes toward the family.”

But in Israel, according to what he hears from relatives who moved to Ashdod in the 1960s, the status of descendants of North African immigrants is nothing to brag about, the chances of finding work are nonexistent and the situation of the elderly is downright frightening. And that’s without even mentioning the wars and terror attacks.

“I don’t think Israel is waiting for me,” Y.B. said. “Netanyahu can do without me.”