Jittery French Jews urged ‘home,’ but some wonder if Israel can handle flood
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Jittery French Jews urged ‘home,’ but some wonder if Israel can handle flood

With a massive immigration increase since 2013 -- and a potential 15,000 incoming next year -- French Jews lobby Jerusalem to keep its promises to them

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

‘Come home,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after each of French Jewry’s too many tragic watershed moments in recent history.

He said it following the March 2012 Toulouse shooting, which took the lives of three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi. And again, in January 2015, after the Jewish-targeted terrorism in Paris’s Hyper Cacher kosher market, Netanyahu pointed to Israel’s gleaming gates, arms widespread, promising to pave French Jews’ way to the Holy Land and smooth their paths to employment, absorption, and integration.

What had begun as an immigration trickle after the 2006 Ilan Halimi murder has turned into a steady stream.

But 10 months after the Hyper Cacher murders, some in Israel’s French Jewish community seriously doubt the country is truly ready to receive those in the Old Country who take Netanyahu up on his offer.

Today, with some 8,000-10,000 French Jews expected in 2015, after years of disappointment there is a movement among the community’s members to organize and finally force the government to make good on what was promised them: recognition of their diplomas (a main obstacle to employment for highly skilled professionals such as doctors and dentists), language training for their children, and a system that will cushion the culture shock of moving from la France to conflict-ridden Israël.

Hundreds of Israelis attend a rally at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, in solidarity with Paris, and in tribute of the victims killed in last night's terror attacks in Paris, France. November 14, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Hundreds of Israelis attend a rally at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, in solidarity with Paris, and in tribute of the victims killed in terror attacks in Paris, France. November 14, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In the aftermath of Friday’s multi-pronged terror attack in central Paris, an umbrella organization representing dozens of French-Israeli NGOs warned The Times of Israel that the immigration and absorption establishment is unprepared for the “historical opportunity” currently presenting itself as many concerned French Jews, suffering from anti-Semitism, economic instability and a European identity crisis, begin to search for a new home.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel Sunday, CEO of Qualita Mickael Bensadoun said that in addition to the thousands of French immigrants expected in 2015, according to his organization’s on-the-ground surveys in France, he foresees a real possibility of some 15,000 arriving in 2016.

However, seeing an increasingly disenfranchised youth living in francophone bubbles alongside their vastly underemployed yet professionally skilled parents, the community is bent on reversing a seeming failure of the aliya dream they were brought up on. In coordination with the Jewish Agency, the Gvahim immigrant employment agency, Nefesh B’Nefesh and French-Israeli philanthropist Marc Eisenberg’s Qualita, a new national plan is set to be presented to the government in 2016.

Time to burst the youth’s bubbles

Two schools in Netanya are the guinea pigs for a pilot program designed to help children of French immigrants better integrate into Israeli society. The city, which serves as the country’s main hub of French Jewry, has absorbed some 1,800 French immigrants a year since immigration from France exploded in 2013, according to the Ministry of Absorption.

CEO of Qualita Mickael Bensadoun (Courtesy Michael Alvarez Pereyre / Gvahim)
CEO of Qualita Mickael Bensadoun (Courtesy Michael Alvarez Pereyre / Gvahim)

Statistically, the earlier a child immigrates to Israel, the easier a time he will have acclimating. But, according to Qualita’s Bensadoun, youth who immigrate with their parents in grade 10 and above find it almost impossible to integrate into a Hebrew-speaking educational environment. He points to French-language Israeli schools such as Mikveh Yisrael near Holon as a potential option for them.

Middle school children, on the other hand, are somewhat between those two extremes, and with a bit of extra support, they can be absorbed into a “regular” Israeli school, said Bensadoun.

One of the things that shocks new immigrant parents and students, said Bensadoun, is Israel’s short school day, which often lets out as early as 1 p.m. In France, the pupils were accustomed to school until 4 or 5 p.m.

The pilot program in Netanya takes French youth who are not yet proficient in Hebrew, living in a cultural ghetto and rejecting Israeli society, and works with them a few hours a day after school, teaching them Hebrew and Israeli culture.

In the pilot program, the pupils are assigned a case manager who speaks French and Hebrew and tracks their progress. The team also includes psychologists, and there are elements addressing the pupils’ parents as well.

‘If you add the right components to regular Israeli schools, pupils will succeed’

“If you add the right components to regular Israeli schools,” pupils will succeed, said Bensadoun.

The pilot project comes from a special budget of NIS 4 million earmarked for French, Belgian, and Ukrainian pupils in the Education Ministry, said Bensadoun. That budget is part of a one-time NIS 180 million approved to support the immigration and absorption of these immigrants in February 2015, a month following the Hyper Cacher attacks in Paris.

According to the Absorption Ministry, the plan was prepared in light of the need of the immigrants from these nations, and the overall increased interest in aliyah. It is meant to be a solution for those who need more support, from preparations in their home countries through integration into Israeli society.

Has Israel ever been ready for its immigration waves?

Jewish Agency for Israel head Natan Sharansky was asked in an interview with The Times of Israel this year if Israel is ready for a massive wave of immigration from France.

Sharansky, half-jokingly, answered that the country wasn’t ready for the immigrants from the former Soviet Union either.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and former minister of Immigration and Absorption Sofa Landver pose with a family from France, who immigrated to Israel in July 2014. (photo credit: David Salem)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and former minister of Immigration and Absorption Sofa Landver pose with a family from France, who immigrated to Israel in July 2014. (photo credit: David Salem)

“Despite all the friction, we all mobilized,” he said. He added that French Jews have a much easier time in their absorption because they’re much more connected to their Jewish identity. “We Soviet Jews were assimilated.”

Although declining to divulge future immigration estimates, spokesman Avi Mayer told The Times of Israel this week that the Jewish Agency expects the steady increase in aliyah from France to continue for the foreseeable future.

‘We are prepared for any scenario and Israel will always welcome any Jew who wishes to make Israel his or her home’

“We are prepared for any scenario and Israel will always welcome any Jew who wishes to make Israel his or her home,” said Mayer.

Dr. Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank, agreed that the Jewish Agency is on board in trying to make French Jewry’s immigration a practical reality. But despite good intentions of JAFI and several like-minded politicians, because of the French-Israeli community’s lack of real representation in the Netanyahu-led government, there has been no follow-through to its promises.

Traditionally, said Maimon, there have been hundreds of NGOs vying for a governmental minister’s time. The Qualita umbrella organization aims to be a one-stop lobbying shop for French Jewry’s concerns. With Qualita’s Eisenberg spearheading the effort, Maimon said French Jewry has a better chance than ever to have its problems addressed.

Eisenberg, said Maimon, is the ideal diplomat: on good terms with the French government and Jewish community in France as well as with the Israeli government and French immigrants in Israel.

French parliament member Meyer Habib (Erez Lichtfeld)
French parliament member Meyer Habib (Erez Lichtfeld)

The issue at the top of most French-Israeli leaders’ to-do list is the recognition of French professional diplomas in Israel.

Elected in 2013 to represent French citizens living abroad in Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Italy, Greece and Israel, Jewish French parliament member Meyer Habib told The Times of Israel on Sunday that he has been doing a lot to increase awareness among Israeli officials, in particular Netanyahu and Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, of the need and urgency to materialize the prime minister’s promise of diploma recognition.

“I know Prime Minister Netanyahu’s willingness to achieve tangible progress on this front. Still, this is no easy task. To date, much is still to be done and I can understand that some olim [immigrants] from France show impatience. It just cannot be that a dentist in France cannot be a dentist in Israel,” said Habib.

Half of Habib’s electorate reside in Israel. He said that the French aliyah, filled with quality, value-driven people, could live a very good life in Israel — if granted equal professional opportunities.

French Jews fight for liberte, egalite, fraternite — in Israel

The Israeli model of decision making is not the French model, said the Paris-born, Sorbonne-educated Maimon.

“It is the tribal model, in which everyone is the representative of a tribe,” he said.

In French political philosophy, this sectarianism directly contradicts the spirit of the French Republic. A true French republican, he said, must “privatize his tribalist identity and be only dedicated to the country. This is the spirit of France.”

Dr. Dov Maimon, senior research fellow and expert on French Jewry, at Jewish People Policy Institute. (Aurele Medioni/The Times of Israel)
Dr. Dov Maimon, senior research fellow and expert on French Jewry, at Jewish People Policy Institute. (Aurele Medioni/The Times of Israel)

Maimon claimed that in France, unlike in the US, there is no real Jewish lobby. Organizations such as the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France (CRIF) don’t wield any power, and can only make policy suggestions on the one issue of anti-Semitism.

In Israel, French Jews are slowly learning that unless they have a seat at the table, they won’t be dished out any resources.

Israel ‘is the tribal model, in which everyone is the representative of a tribe’

“Now French immigrants are more aware of the need for lobbying,” he said, although it goes against the grain of the French people, who for the past several hundred years have been attempting to exemplify French citizenship.

Many are saying to themselves, “Hey, I didn’t come to Israel to be the French guy,” said Maimon. He said their very DNA opposes it.

And so it requires a cognitive change for the French immigrants to understand that they must influence the government as a French collective.

It is ironic, said Maimon, because “at the end of the day, they want to be full Israeli citizens — and not be French anymore.”

— Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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