PARIS — There may be almost as many answers to the question of why to immigrate to Israel as there are immigrants themselves. Does it come down to timing, or is it simply the temperate climate? Is it a seaside home purchased a few years ago to be close to children already living there, or is it a new job? Perhaps it can be chalked up to pure, idealistic Zionism.
Aliyah — the Hebrew term for immigration literally means “ascension” — to Israel is such a diverse and personal matter that it’s practically impossible to establish a sociological profile of the olim hadashim, or new immigrants.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-state non-profit organization, and the main body working to foster immigration and absorption of Diaspora Jews to the Jewish state, celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. The organization invited The Times of Israel’s French edition to accompany 100 Jews as they collectively embarked on their individual journeys to their new homeland.
Waiting for these new Israelis at Ben Gurion Airport was a crowd largely composed of young fellow immigrants, who danced, sang with musical accompaniment, and waved flags at a moving ceremony welcoming the newcomers.
Several other flights from around the world carried some 200 immigrants from Brazil, France, Argentina, Venezuela, and Russia on that Wednesday, July 17, 2019.
“In the name of Jewish people around the world, I am proud and enthusiastic to welcome 200 new olim [immigrants] who just arrived in their country, their historic homeland. We are celebrating the arrival of thousands of new olim in Israel this summer,” Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog told the crowd.
He made special mention of two families who made the long and clandestine journey from Venezuela with the agency’s help.
“The Jewish Agency works tirelessly, including in countries that are confronted with complex geopolitical and security problems, in order to guarantee the security of Jews throughout the world. The Jewish Agency will help these newcomers settle in immigration centers all over Israel, and with the help of the Israeli people, enable them to be a part of the rich mosaic of Israeli life. I wish them all possible success,” Herzog said.
Next stop: Tel Aviv
Earlier that morning, a diverse crowd took their seats on El Al flight LY3320 from Paris to Tel Aviv. They included young Orthodox or traditional Jews, families with children, and even retirees.
“We are about to realize the dream of entire generations in the state of the Jewish people,” a visibly moved Jewish Agency staffer told the new Israelis.
Twenty-year-old Kelly was lost in her music, headphones covering her ears, her face pensive but determined. After getting her bachelor’s degree in business at a university near Paris, she decided to join a religious seminary in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Jewish Agency’s Masa program, which offers four-to-six month opportunities for academic programs, internships, and traineeships across the country.
Above all, “[I wanted to] discover Israel. I wanted to see how life was over there, and I liked it,” Kelly confided with a smile.
Her program had included religious studies, trips around the country, and shared Shabbat meals. Some participants chose to make aliyah directly from Israel without returning to France. Kelly, whose mother is Israeli, plans to do national service before returning to her studies.
Louise, a 28-year-old nurse from Paris, also plans on taking up residence in Jerusalem. She had also previously participated in a Masa program and had studied Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion, one of many immersive language courses.
The bureaucratic requirements to transfer an academic degree from abroad can at times reach absurd levels, though Israel suffers from a shortage of nurses and there are many potential new immigrants who are qualified in the profession.
Organizations such as Qualita and the Jewish Agency try to help new olim such as Louise verify their French credentials to an Israeli government that, under pressure from certain lobbies, is sometimes reluctant to recognize them.
“It’s essentially thanks to [the] Qualita [organization] and Esther Blum, who is in charge of transferring academic degrees, that I’m moving here,” she said. She will receive essential assistance in navigating the Israeli bureaucratic maze from the group, which helps French immigrants find employment.
Louise, who has five years of experience as a nurse, has already filled out her dossier at the Israeli Health Ministry, and must pass an exam in September. If she is successful, she will then do an internship — though it’s still unclear as to how long that will take.
According to the Jewish Agency, the issue of academic equivalency concerns only about three percent of new arrivals. The agency also says that the media often presents an incomplete picture when focusing on the bureaucratic red tape, which can pose significant obstacles for people who want to move to Israel.
“When we successfully lobbied for legal reform for dentists, very few of them subsequently made aliyah,” said Ouriel Gottlieb, director of the Jewish Agency’s Paris branch.
Also making aliyah on this day are Esther, Grégory, and their three young children. Rather than Jerusalem, the family has opted to live in Netanya.
Esther, 30, chalks the decision to emigrate up to “An appetite for a new life, to live our Judaism, far from anti-Semitism and the soldiers guarding the entrance to our schools.”
“It’s the ideal age for the kids to come,” said the mother of three, whose children range in age from 6 years to two-and-a-half months old (the youngest passenger on the flight). “The kids are aware that we are leaving, they know they won’t see their friends anymore, but in a few years they’ll have forgotten.”
Esther told The Times of Israel that the idea of her children being required to perform eventual mandatory military service wasn’t a major factor for the couple.
“If we had decided to leave later, yes [it might have been an issue],” she said. “But not now, it didn’t weigh into our decision. I still have time to get used to the idea.”
A tidal wave of immigration
The last decade has been marked by an unprecedented wave of French aliyah. Of the 119,000 immigrants from France since the foundation of the State of Israel, almost 37,000 have made the move since 2009.
The Jewish Agency notes a direct link between the rise of anti-Semitism in France and the number of Jewish emigres. From 2014 to 2015, which saw the most drastic terror attacks on French soil — some of which directly targeted Jews, such as the Hyper Cacher supermarket attack in Paris — there was a visible peak in aliyah, with 14,127 people leaving France for Israel.
Nearly 450,000 Jews live in France, of which 280,000 live in Paris and its suburbs, and 170,000 in other regions — including 60,000 in Marseilles and its vicinity, as well as more than 15,000 each in Lyon, Nice, Strasbourg, and Toulouse, according to Jewish Agency estimates.
With 700 synagogues and 170 Jewish schools, the Jewish community in France is the largest in Europe, and the second largest in the world outside of Israel, after the United States.
“Jews represent 1% of the overall French population, and are victims of 50% of total racist acts in France,” said Francis Kalifat, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, who met journalists at the Jewish Agency’s Paris office.
Kalifat said anti-Semitism stems from multiple sources and is manifested in many ways, coming from the far right, far left, radical Islam, and also from French citizens who fall into none of those groups. This includes “casual anti-Semitism” — minor aggressive behavior such as insults and dirty looks which Jews experience on a daily basis.
According to Kalifat, these lead to an “internal aliyah,” or redistribution of the Jewish population within France, as Jews are forced to move neighborhoods to escape hostile environments.
In the spring of 2018, Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals and other notables launched a petition signed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy denouncing the “new anti-Semitism” and “low-profile ethnic cleansing.”
“Ten percent of the Jewish citizens in the Ile de France [region including Paris and its surroundings] — approximately 50,000 people — were recently forced to move because they were no longer safe, and because their children could no longer attend public schools. This is a low-profile ethnic cleansing in the land of Émile Zola and Clémenceau,” the petition stated.
France experienced a record 74% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 compared to the previous year.
“Twelve people were killed in France since the beginning of 2000, simply because they were Jewish,” emphasized Kalifat, specifying that this included the 23-year-old disc-jockey Sébastien Selam, who was murdered and mutilated in November 2003.
The anti-Semitic character of the killing has not been officially recognized despite substantial evidence supporting that finding and a legal battle spearheaded by Selma’s family.
“France is not anti-Semitic. There is anti-Semitism in France, but the state is the barricade against it,” said Kalifat.
Simon and Alice Midal don’t share Kalifat’s opinion. For them, “the situation in France is becoming increasingly catastrophic.”
The couple, both 76 years old and retired; he a former lawyer with a successful career in activism and nonprofits, and she a former video technician. They have decided to move full-time into an apartment they own in the central Israeli town of Ra’anana, which attracts many immigrants from France.
“France doesn’t make any effort to act against racism and anti-Semitism. There is a considerable rise in radicalism, and that’s a problem for our community,” said Simon Midal, who also formerly served as president of B’nai Brith in France.
“We don’t want to wait for the next municipal elections to bring the Muslim population to certain neighborhoods,” he said.
Midal has a fear of the country being run according to Shariah, or Islamic law, which he says would lead to separate swimming hours for men and women at the public pool, and cafeterias devoid of pork.
Out on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome the new arrivals was Immigration and Absorption Minister Yoav Galant. Asked by The Times of Israel whether he still appealed for French Jews to emigrate to Israel en masse — a call he made following the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the country’s northeast — he said, “Of course. If they remain in France, in 25 years they will marry… non-Jews.”
However, for the majority of the new immigrants queried by The Times of Israel, anti-Semitism was not a major factor in their decision to make the move. Rather, most respondents said the decision was completely voluntary, telling The Times of Israel that with the exception of the occasional dirty look, they have never had problems with anti-Semitism in France.
Fifty-five-year-old Armand said he “simply loves this country.” In 2004, the mathematical engineer and his wife traveled alone around Israel without family or friends in order to get a glimpse of the country’s true character without being distracted by the typical diversions such as beaches and restaurants. The couple fell in love with the country and decided to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv the following year, which will be their new home.
The Jewish Agency agrees that the relatively rosy “vacation Israel” does not reflect the daily reality in the country, citing as an example the differences between the health systems in Israel and France.
“France gives a lot of assistance to its citizens, whereas in Israel, they are asked to be much more autonomous,” acknowledges Gottlieb, who succeeded Daniel Benhaïm as director of the Jewish Agency’s Paris branch last January.
The array of government benefits a new immigrant receives varies according to the individual, as well as their history of time spent in the country. Those who have spent more time in Israel see their benefits diminish.
Between 600,000 and 1.2 million people in France are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the criteria outlined in the Law of Return. Adopted in 1950, the law practically implements the Zionist principle of the “ingathering of the exiles” inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It guarantees citizenship to Jews, their spouses, and anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. The law also stipulates that the potential citizen should not pose a threat to the state, and should demonstrate a true desire to settle and integrate.
Asked about the acceptance of citizenship applications by French nationals involved in criminal activity such as binary options, Forex, and fraudulent call centers in light of the above stipulations, a Jewish Agency spokesperson said: “First, it is important to understand that the final decision in refusing or accepting the aliyah application of a candidate is not in the hands of the Jewish Agency. This decision belongs to the Interior Ministry.”
“In 1954, the Law of Return was modified, and the provision allowing the Interior Ministry to not grant Israeli citizenship to a Jew ‘having had a criminal past and posing a threat public safety’ was modified,” they said.
This clause is in fact only used in a few cases. If the Jewish Agency has doubts about an applicant, it sends an inquiry to the Interior Ministry, which then comes to a decision.
The Jewish Agency by number
With an annual budget of more than $6 million, the Jewish Agency’s French branch is equipped with seven shlichim, or emissaries from Israel, and 15 local personnel.
The Jewish Agency representatives operate out of two centers, in Paris and Marseille, organizing activities that take place across the country, such as information sessions and personal interviews with aliyah candidates to discuss issues like schooling for children, higher education opportunities, accommodation, and employment.
The Jewish Agency also centers around Jewish community life in France — especially when it comes to maintaining the safety of Jewish institutions, thanks to the organization’s specially earmarked security fund. The agency also works to connect the younger generation to Jewish culture and the State of Israel through educational programming. In addition, it puts on exhibitions and events touting the benefits of moving to Israel, in cooperation with the Ofer Israel organization and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption.
Active in roughly 25 Jewish schools in France, the agency also supports Jewish life on about 20 university campuses across the country, offering activities and information on a variety of programs in Israel such as Birthright and Masa.
Every year, more than 1,000 high school seniors visit Israel through the Bac Bleu Blanc program; more than 4,000 in the framework of short programs organized by Israel Experiences, a branch of the Jewish Agency; and more than 900 through long-term opportunities with Masa.
This article was adapted from the original on The Times of Israel’s French edition.