Following the spate of murderous anti-Semitic attacks in France last week, Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, emotionally proclaimed that it was time for French Jewry to immigrate to Israel and come “home.” Israel’s “arms are open wide” to French Jewish immigration, Netanyahu said Tuesday at the Jerusalem funeral ceremony for the four French Jews gunned down by an Islamist terrorist at a Paris supermarket on Friday.
For many French Jewish professionals and businessmen who have already made Israel home, however, intransigent Israeli government bureaucracy and earning potential at a fraction of the salaries they’d received in France have forced them into a dual life. Their “home” is indeed in Israel, but their work is abroad. And this experience indicates that anticipation of a massive wave of immigration from France’s 500,000-strong Jewish community, however troubled it may be amid the rising climate of hostility and violence, may be misplaced.
As world markets are increasingly globalized, international commuter lifestyles surge. French-Israelis have been at the forefront of this trend, for decades making what is colloquially called “Boeing Aliya” — often out of necessity rather than choice.
With a mere four-and-a-half-hour flight, several plane loads of French Jews ride the Tel Aviv-Paris circuit each week. There are different models of Boeing Aliya, in which Israel is the base of family operations while the breadwinner, usually the husband, commutes back to France. Some travel to the continent on Sundays, returning Thursday nights/Friday mornings. Others make bi-weekly visits, staying abroad one week or two weeks every month or other customized schedules.
If he’s not commuting himself, every French Jew in Israel personally knows dozens who are — usually those who own businesses abroad, or who are doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers and other high-status professions. They are not alone among immigrants. According to Hebrew University demographer Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, some 60% of all new Israelis receive the bulk of their income from abroad for several years after their aliya.
This is hardly surprising: Salaries in Israel are on average at least 30% lower than their French counterparts’. Highly skilled professionals there, for example doctors, make four to five times as much as in Israel.
But as highlighted in last week’s terrorist attacks and during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, an increased anti-Semitic atmosphere in France makes life for Jews there uncomfortable, and to some, frightening. This, coupled with its unstable economy — France’s unemployment is at an all-time high — has led a large proportion of France’s Jews to entertain the notion of emigration, for their children’s sakes, if not their own personal security.
The essential problem for many potential French immigrants is the dissonance between Israel’s welcoming rhetoric, and the poor salaries (alongside draconian accreditation procedures for French diplomas) which make work in Israel for these professionals rather uninviting.
Courting French Jews
In an interview with The Times of Israel last week, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky said one of the biggest problems facing the country is the imminent retirement of its doctors. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel has a projected need of 9,000 doctors and 7,000 nurses. Other professional fields are in similar straits.
Combine this Israeli need with the fact that of the 250,000 French emigrating each year, 25% have a college degree and 20% of top graduates from French universities take their first jobs abroad, and it would appear the time is ripe for Israel to kick up its recruitment efforts.
“Israel is a very dynamic society,” Sharansky said, and can absorb an unlimited number of people with knowledge and ambition.
According to Dr. Dov Maimon, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, other countries, especially Canada, Switzerland and the United States, have already woken up to the potential pool of French professionals and are advertising on French television and making campus visits to snare the best and brightest. Canada, and French-speaking Quebec especially, has paved the way for their integration into the workforce with conventions affirming broad-scale degree recognition.
Israel hasn’t done much, says Maimon, despite Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s recent flurry of press after the Paris attacks, announcing easement efforts in promoting a professional French aliya. Maimon, himself an immigrant from France, is set to deliver a policy paper to the government on the subject this week.
According to Maimon, France’s Jews are ready and willing to leave France for varied entwined reasons, including the country’s extended economic crisis, demographic changes (the 250,000 educated emigrants are largely replaced by an equal number of unskilled immigrants from North Africa), taxation policies, legislation restricting Jewish practices, a crisis of governance and the strengthening of the far right, and — as underlined by last week’s attacks — a decline in personal security and surge in anti-Semitism.
It is now Israel’s job to create incentives to bring Jewish entrepreneurs and their businesses to Israel to invent a new model of corporate relocation. Israel, he says, has much more favorable hiring and firing practices than “welfare state” France. To many French business owners, Israel is an attractive corporate base with its workplace flexibility and competitive workforce.
Israel needs to create an “ecosystem supporting fiscal advantages” which will induce potential investors and businessmen to set up shop here, says Maimon.
She brings home the ‘kosher’ bacon
For the Medioni family, making aliya was always a long-term goal. So when university lecturer Sandrine was afforded the opportunity to commute for work, the family jumped at the chance.
Sandrine travels once a month to Paris for a jam-packed week of lectures and meetings. The rest of the month she telecomutes on Skype from Jerusalem and teaches via distance learning platforms. Her husband Aurele, a part-time photographer, mans the homestead and cares for their four children, aged nine through 15.
The family made aliya after the March 2012 murders at the Ohr Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse, where French-born Islamist Mohammed Merah killed eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego along with Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two sons, Arieh and Gabriel. Many French Jews consider Toulouse as a turning point and attribute the marked surge of immigration seen from 2012 (2,000) to 2014 (7,000) to this terrorist attack.
In describing his wife and many of his friends’ commuter lifestyle, Aurele says, “Generally people who do ‘Boeing Aliya’ are not people who are 25 years old. They’re well in their forties and have a good situation in France.”
Although flights can be expensive, with an open skies policy and planning well in advance, they are not prohibitive. The cost is more on the personal side for the family, he said, noting that usually it is the husband who commutes.
“It can damage everything: The wife is alone in Israel and the separation creates a lot of stress. The couple has to be very strong,” he says.
For the Medioni family, which had already decided that the future for their children would not be in France, coming to Israel was “a way to make something new and open a new page.”
Aurele, who was unemployed in France, says that decades ago, Israel was a developing country and France was a rich country. Now, he says, France is a declining country and Israel is a developed country, albeit with many problems.
However, for David Slom, a French-Israeli diamond dealer who commutes to Europe bi-weekly for work, it is Israel’s central position in the developed global market which promotes the so-called “Boeing Aliya,” a term he says he dislikes.
Slom, who made aliya at age 21 from France as a lone soldier to a parachute unit in 2002, calls this international commuting an “Israeli phenomenon,” rather than one particular to immigrants.
“There are many Israelis who travel for work,” says the married 35-year-old father of two. Since Israel is a small country with very poor salaries, many travel abroad where there are many more consumers to make a better living.
“Globalization requires this,” he says.
Granted, he and the family miss each other while he’s away, but, he says, the time apart is actually beneficial to his relationship with his wife, which had previously suffered due to financial instability.
“We know our time together is ‘holy’ and we’re more tolerant of each other,” he says.
Besides, he doesn’t see any other way to make as good a living in his field without travel.
Make a push for a French youth aliya
The typical French aliya has traditionally been one of retirement to Israel. First the family purchases a vacation apartment, most often in coastal cities Netanya, Raanana or Ashdod, or in the capital of the Jewish world, Jerusalem. Eventually, the vacation home is used for the retired snowbird couple, which winters in Israel and summers in more temperate France.
According to the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Maimon, this is the inverse of what should be happening.
After 2,000 years in France, the country has, he says, about 50,000 Jews who attend synagogue every weekend. Another 150,000 are what are called “High Holy Day Jews,” who have a strong connection to the Jewish community and Israel, and attend services on holidays. That leaves, he says, another 300,000 who are Jewish, but heading quickly towards assimilation.
‘In 20 years from now, they and their children will not be Jewish’
“In 20 years from now, they and their children will not be Jewish,” says Maimon. A large part will “marranize” and decrease their Jewish profile and become more assimilated, he says.
He sees recently renewed recruiting efforts by Birthright Israel-Taglit, a free 10-day trip for Jewish youth to Israel, as a way to go beyond French Jewry’s “inner circle” and reach the 300,000 unaffiliated. Last year some 2,200 French youth took a Birthright trip compared with 83 in 2013.
“We don’t have any way to get out to the smaller cities. If you go and say there’s a ten-day free trip to discover your own identity… we can get to 5,000 [Birthright participants] a year easily,” says Maimon.
In addition to Birthright, there is Bac Bleu Blanc, a Jewish Agency program that brings more than 1,000 French Jewish high school seniors to Israel each year. During their week-long visit, the teens explore programs offered by Masa Israel Journey. According to JAFI spokesman Avi Mayer, a majority subsequently choose to return to Israel for a year or more following their graduation from high school.
Once French youth have a taste of Israel, says Maimon, it becomes an option for a longer program like Masa, from which 75% of participants make aliya.
Maimon says 70% of young French want to emigrate and he wants to prevent a future Boeing Aliya by reaching these young Jewish professionals before they set up shop elsewhere.
The most ambitious Jews will move to America, he says; the most connected, to Israel.
“If they are offered a job abroad, they will move abroad,” says Maimon. “We need to bring them to Israel instead of to another galut or exile.”
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