ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Inside Story

‘The safest place to be Jewish’: 2,600 people have moved to Israel since Hamas invaded

New arrivals cite incidents of being spat on, bullied, and general rise in antisemitism; many had intended to make aliya and accelerated plans; authorities predict many more to come

  • The Benichou family moved from Marseilles, France, earlier than planned because of antisemitism they experienced after the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attacks. (Courtesy: Benichou family/ via JTA)
    The Benichou family moved from Marseilles, France, earlier than planned because of antisemitism they experienced after the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attacks. (Courtesy: Benichou family/ via JTA)
  • Israeli Immigration Minister Ofir Sofer poses at Ben-Gurion Airport with some of the 25 new immigrants who arrived from New York on October 19, 2023, less than two weeks after Israel was thrust into war. (Courtesy: Nefesh B’Nefesh)
    Israeli Immigration Minister Ofir Sofer poses at Ben-Gurion Airport with some of the 25 new immigrants who arrived from New York on October 19, 2023, less than two weeks after Israel was thrust into war. (Courtesy: Nefesh B’Nefesh)
  • Daniel and Emiliano Bleiweiss’ immigration flight was canceled after the Hamas incursion on October 7 but they rescheduled and now live in Israel. (Courtesy: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)
    Daniel and Emiliano Bleiweiss’ immigration flight was canceled after the Hamas incursion on October 7 but they rescheduled and now live in Israel. (Courtesy: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

JTA — When Yona and Mikhael Benichou decided over the summer to move to Israel from their home in France, they set a target date of around a year later — in time for their eldest son, David, 15, to begin his studies for Israel’s matriculation exams.

But after the murderous Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, they sped up their plans to immigrate, known in Hebrew as making aliyah. The straw that broke the camel’s back, Yona Benichou said, came a week after the attack in which the terrorists killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and took 240 hostage in Gaza, when the family, who wear identifiably Jewish symbols, were spat on by a group of rugby fans while walking down the street in their hometown of Marseilles.

“I was in total shock, I didn’t know how to react. Lots of other people saw what happened but no one tried to help us,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“The antisemites were always there. But after October 7, we felt like they have a platform to do whatever they like and that no one — and definitely not the French authorities — can stop them.”

The Benichous landed in Israel on October 31, arriving in a country still reeling from Hamas’s devastating attack on its southern communities and in the early stages of a grueling ground war that has reshaped society.

They are among the more than 2,600 people whom Israeli authorities say have chosen to move to Israel over the last two months despite the crisis.

Accelerated aliya

Almost all of the new arrivals had been planning to move to Israel for some time, though a handful, like the Benichous, have accelerated their immigration.

Aaron Gold poses with his mother before flying to Israel from the United States in November 2023. (Courtesy: Gold/via JTA)

Aaron Gold, 26, had planned to move to Israel next year and was in the country visiting when the war broke out. His parents, alarmed by the emergency evacuation of American citizens and by the fact that Gold did not live in an apartment with a safe room, pressured their son to return to the United States. He flew back to Philadelphia on October 18, but said he “despised” being there and returned to Israel as a new immigrant on November 16.

Gold, a product manager at Deloitte, said making aliyah had “always been a dream of mine” and said he felt waiting to see how the war played out would not make any difference.

“Hezbollah could attack now, they could attack in six months, they could attack in six years,” he said. “You can’t plan it.”

According to Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Ministry, 2,662 people have made aliyah since October 7, including 1,635 from Russia, 218 from the United States, 128 from Ukraine, 116 from France, and 106 from Belarus.

The numbers are smaller than the average in recent years and dramatically lower than in the same period in 2022, when 16,400 new immigrants arrived, propelled by people escaping the war in Ukraine. They also come at the end of a year when political discord in Israel had already depressed immigration beyond the usual rate.

More expected

Still, the new immigrants, known as olim, demonstrate that during challenging times, some Jews will still choose to move to Israel. And the organizations that support them say they anticipate a flood of arrivals soon, once the war ends but concerns about spiking antisemitism are still fresh.

The Benichous reached out to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has helped 317 people make aliyah since October 7. The organization purchased flights for the family and donated around $2,000 toward the cost of furniture for the family’s new apartment in the central Israeli city of Beit Shemesh.

Alina Tirnovienko, a recent immigrant to Israel from Odessa, Ukraine, works in the Aviv matzah factory, here with Yael Eckstein, CEO of International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which will send matzah to Ukrainian Jews for Passover 2023. (Courtesy: IFCJ)

According to the group’s president, Yael Eckstein, fewer new immigrants have arrived in Israel since October 7 than in other years due to a combination of canceled flights and decisions to put plans on hold until the security situation stabilizes. Israel quickly retaliated to the Hamas attacks of October 7, launching a dedicated operation to topple the Hamas rule in Gaza. At the same time, Hezbollah has consistently sent rockets and armed drones over the northern border, leading to a months-long tit-for-tat campaign.

But Eckstein said she has seen an “increase in the number of requests for information about the immigration process from countries where cases of antisemitic incidents have risen.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh has facilitated aliyah for 384 people from the US and Canada since the start of the war, mostly for people who had begun the process long before October 7, the group’s vice president of communications, Yael Katsman, told JTA.

Still, like Eckstein, Katsman pointed to a “vast surge” in interest since the attack, marking an “an unprecedented increase” of more than 100% in aliyah applications compared to the same timespan in 2022. She attributed the spike to an increased “commitment to building Israel” by Diaspora Jewry during “difficult historic events.”

Many people who initiate aliyah applications, required for new immigrants to secure a range of benefits, do not end up completing them. But the chair of the Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration, recently told an Israeli news station that he expects 1 million new Jewish immigrants in the coming years — a number that would dramatically reshape the country of about 10 million.

The agency’s head of international relations, Yigal Palmor, was more circumspect in comments to JTA but likewise said signs pointed to a rise in new arrivals. One thousand people initiated applications in France in October and November, according to agency data, marking a 470 percent increase over the previous two months.

Immigration Minister Ofir Sofer poses at Ben-Gurion Airport with some of the 25 new immigrants who arrived from New York on October 19, 2023, less than two weeks after Israel was thrust into war. (Courtesy: Nefesh B’Nefesh)

“We’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in aliyah applications since the outbreak of the conflict, most notably in France and the US,” Palmor said. “We will probably see the results in the coming months, but it’s premature to predict numbers.”

Immigration Minister Ofir Sofer told JTA in a statement that his ministry was preparing for a surge in immigration as a result of the war.

Since October 7, there has been “a lot of interest [in immigration] from young people, students and young couples from western countries, including those from western European countries where people in the past did not show much interest in immigrating,” Sofer said.

The two main reasons, he said, were “growing antisemitism around the world, and solidarity with Israel.”

Gold said antisemitism in the United States redoubled his commitment to move to Israel permanently.

“You kind of realize you’re afraid to go to work, not only of physical violence but just emotionally,” he told JTA about his return in October. “I was with coworkers who told me that from their office they were able to hear people saying, ‘Restart the Intifada, death to the Jews’ and things like that.”

People get information about moving to Israel at a Jewish Agency fair in France in December 2023. (Courtesy: Jewish Agency for Israel)

The safest place to be Jewish

Daniel Bleiweiss, 51, made aliyah with his 14-year-old son Emiliano this fall from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had made the decision years ago, but postponed it because of the pandemic as well as bureaucratic issues related to Emiliano’s adoption, a yearslong process that was resolved only in 2019.

Bleiweiss, a physician, planned on arriving in Israel on October 10 with his wife Natalia and her teenage daughter, Lucia, from a previous marriage. The war threw a wrench into their original plan and the flights were canceled. Ultimately, the family decided that Daniel and Emiliano would move immediately, while Natalia and Lucía would join them in the future when conditions become more stable.

Bleiweiss cited several reasons for wanting to make aliyah, including Argentina’s economic crisis and the South American country’s inadequate resources to support his son, who has learning and social difficulties. But like the other new immigrants JTA spoke to, the main impetus was a rise in antisemitism coupled with a strong desire to live in the Jewish homeland, which he described as a “historic responsibility.”

Bleiweiss recounted a recent incident in which his wife had tried to check into a hotel where she had a reservation. The clerk saw the Israeli visa in her passport and subsequently refused to allow her to stay at the hotel, Bleiweiss said, adding that his wife chose not to press charges. He also said that his son had been bullied at school for being Jewish.

“It is painful, but it reinforces our conviction that Israel is the safest place to be Jewish right now, and it is perhaps the only place where we can express our identity proudly and in peace,” he said.

Bleiweiss said that another reason he didn’t want to delay his aliyah again was because he felt compelled to be in the Jewish state in its time of need.

“If a friend is in trouble, you shouldn’t wait for a better time to go see him,” he said. “That’s the time you should be there.”

Daniel and Emiliano Bleiweiss’ immigration flight was canceled after the Hamas incursion on October 7 but they rescheduled and now live in Israel. (Courtesy: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

Meanwhile, in Beit Shemesh, life isn’t without its challenges for the Benichou family. Because of how suddenly they left France, they didn’t have time to save up money or sell their belongings.

“We never thought in a million years we would come within a month. We came without any money,” Yona Benichou said. “It’s not easy to build yourself anew.”

But there are no regrets for Benichou or her children, who she said were understanding of the fact that this Hanukkah they wouldn’t be receiving gifts on every night of the festival as they were used to from previous years.

She said: “My 8-year-old son told me, ‘Mommy, we don’t need Hanukkah presents this year. The biggest present is that we’re here.’”

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