Israel Must Compete for French Jews

The former chief rabbi of France recently called on his fellow French Jews to 'jump on the train of history' and 'rejoin the Land of Israel.' But Israel must compete with the U.S. and Canada for France's Jews.

Rabbi Dov Maimon
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Europe’s Jewish communities are on a troubling trajectory, with organized Jewish life across the Continent in decline. A whole confluence of factors affecting Europe as a whole – economic, cultural, political and governance – are working against the perpetuation of Jewish communal life.

But since saving Europe from its current imbroglio is far beyond the Jewish people’s capabilities, a more modest and appropriate “Jewish people’s response” to these developments may lie in planning and easing the immigration to Israel of European Jews who seek that option. 

The former chief rabbi of France, Rav Joseph-Haim Sitruk, recently called on his fellow French Jews to “jump on the train of history” and prepare themselves to “rejoin the Land of Israel.” This is a man who was French Jewry’s most senior representative and a close friend of former President Jacques Chirac. For such a figure to issue so radical a call suggests that, behind the polite official discourse of confidence in the government’s ability to protect Jewish life, Jewish leaders feel significant anxiety.

In what is perhaps a practical expression of this unease, every day several hundred Jews call the French office of the Jewish Agency for information about making aliyah. Despite this high level of interest, though, aliyah from France in 2013 barely rose above a rather modest 3,100 people, noteworthy though this may be as a proportion of the Jewish population. 

Why the gap? Even among those who agree that Europe has no long-term Jewish future and who are motivated to leave, subjective resistance to change combines with objective obstacles that make realizing the dream of relocating difficult. Doing so usually requires giving up or severely disrupting a business or profession and leaving a life that is economically secure, socially comfortable, and culturally familiar. Moreover, starting over in another country is always a risky endeavor, all the more so in this time of global instability. 

If the barriers to relocating are too high, they can opt to remain. They could avoid discrimination from general society by significantly lowering their Jewish profile, or seclude themselves in self-segregated neighborhoods. Not ideal solutions, maybe, but certainly an option.

Nor is Israel the only destination available to those who seek to emigrate. The United States, for example, has growing Franco-Jewish hubs, notwithstanding the complications often involved in obtaining an American green card. But it is Canada and Australia that offer the real object lesson: They positively call out for skilled professionals who can help strengthen their economies by offering attractive immigration schemes.

For Israel to translate the impetus to migrate into actual aliyah, therefore, it must become a more appealing destination. Above all, this means decreasing the objective risks that a move to Israel entails by making it easier for migrants to transfer their businesses, relocate their professional lives and ensure their families indeed find promise in the Promised Land. 

Until now, Israel has been accustomed to welcoming aliyah from countries in distress. Since immigrants from these countries generally had little choice, Israel could afford the luxury of an immigration model that put the country’s needs first but offered relatively little recognition of the immigrants’ individual needs and aspirations.

Many question, though, whether this old, paternalistic model is equal to the challenge of the more competitive reality for European Jews, who have significant career and lifestyle expectations and, more importantly, choices. Even for those who are willing to compromise on living standards and favor Israel over Canada or the United States, there are many needless hurdles that they have to be overcome before the desirable can actually happen.

For Israel, and indeed for the Jewish people as a whole, the question is how we take an integrated view of the goals we are seeking to achieve – and what obstacles exist to achieving them. Then, developing a system that removes as many of these obstacles as possible is the obvious and necessary next step. We already know that we need to act to remove bureaucratic barriers to professionals and businesses to relocate; to make the compulsory military draft law more flexible; to improve the absorption system, targeting cities with high European immigrant concentrations; and to coopt the experience of organizations that have proactively attracted and absorbed North American immigrants.

Will Israel rise to the challenge and develop a new model that would make aliyah from developed countries an attractive option? A paradigm shift that breaks with the legacy of bureaucratic indifference and embraces the market-oriented approach that today’s reality demands could unleash if not a flood of immigration from Europe, then at least a steady flow where there is now but a trickle.

Rabbi Dov Maimon is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.

French Jews marching in Paris in March 2012.Credit: Reuters