On El Al’s Tuesday morning flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, the dominant language is French — many young people with their children, the children speaking Hebrew, the parents speaking French. They seem well established in Israel as they go to Paris to visit the grandparents.
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On the way back on Friday morning it’s French again – some making aliyah, others coming to check out the prospects or to visit their children who have settled in Israel. It looks like the French Jews are coming.
The headline in Le Figaro that day is “The French who leave France,” and the subhead is “university graduates, entrepreneurs, retirees.” According to a French parliamentary commission, the numbers of French leaving the country is accelerating.
It sounds like many French are looking around for greener pastures — the younger ones on the lookout for opportunities and the older ones seeking better places to retire. During the past 10 years the number leaving France is increasing by between 2 percent and 4 percent annually, and 40 percent of those leaving say they do not expect to return to France.
Jews represent less than 1 percent of France’s population, and the immigration to Israel may not be significant in terms of the overall exodus from France. Their motivation for leaving France surely varies between dissatisfaction with the French economy and the lack of opportunities, the upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, and a desire to “come home” to Israel.
This, of course, is very significant for Israel. Outside Israel, the French Jewish community is the second largest in the world, trailing only the United States.
The significance of the immigration of French Jews cannot be measured only in numbers. It is the first large-scale immigration to Israel of Jews who are not fleeing their homes, who are not coming to Israel from an area of distress, who clearly have the option to remain were they are, and who have the possibility to move elsewhere around the globe. But they are coming to Israel because they prefer Israel. They are not fleeing France, they are attracted by Israel.
One is reminded of the exodus of half the South African Jewish community in the 1990s, most of them going to the United States, Canada and Australia but not to Israel, even though that community was fervently Zionist. An indication of that were the 800 young South African Jews who volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces during the War of Independence.
And yet, when many in the Jewish community there decided to pick up and leave, they did not turn to Israel. At that time, Israel evidently did not seem to offer the kind of economic opportunities they were seeking. In the intervening years much has changed. Israel, aside from its many other attractions, has become a land of opportunity.
It is attracting immigration from France, but not only France. The U.S. Jewish community is 10 times larger than France’s. And of course, there has been a trickle of immigration from America over the years; well over 100,000 Israelis today originate from the United States.
But as the Israeli economy continues to grow and provide employment opportunities for professionals and business opportunities for entrepreneurs, there is the likelihood of an increase in immigration from the United States and a return to Israel of Israelis who in past years left for the United States. In Israel’s large law offices and accounting firms, and in the high-tech sector, one comes across an increasing number of professionals who have come to Israel from America. In some settlements in Gush Etzion, possibly a quarter of the settlers hail from the United States.
It may be that many of the doomsday demographic forecasts will turn out to be in error, along with some of the political conclusions based on them.