PARIS — As Parisians flocked Sunday to Place de la Republique to take part in the largest demonstration in France’s history, a far more modest event, organized by the Jewish Agency, was taking place in a small hall on the banks of River Seine.
The Aliyah Salon for French Jews aged 55 and over was scheduled well before the murderous terror attack on a kosher supermarket Friday which claimed the lives of four shoppers. The event planned to provide information for Jews considering immigration to Israel for their retirement. At information desks dispersed across the hall, interested citizens could get details on everything from how best to transfer their funds to Israel; what city to choose for residence; to dealing with Israel’s complicated social security system.
According to Daniel Benhaim, head of the Jewish Agency operation in France, the Aliyah Salon, which will also take place this week in Marseilles and Lyon, is part of a new Israeli government scheme called “France First,” implemented by the Ministry of Immigration Absorption and the Jewish Agency. Government funds, he said, are being directed to encourage French Jews to immigrate to Israel and accompany their immigration process in order to make it a success.
The Jewish Agency has decided to tackle interest in immigration by France’s Jewish community of some 500,000 according to age group: January is meant for people over 55, with the title “experience your retirement in Israel.” February will be dedicated to the younger generation, and March to families with children.
Between 600-700 retirees came on Sunday to hear what Israel had to offer them.
“It’s too soon to tell whether last week’s events influenced the people coming here. I think the people here planned their arrival ahead of time, but perhaps some have stayed away for fear of a terror attack,” Benhaim told The Times of Israel. “Make no mistake: no one believes that following last week’s mega-terror attack we’re entering a period of calm. That’s not at all the sense. Even the French authorities which try to underplay reality admit that there are many sleeper cells across France, which act independently of each other. The community’s fear is very tangible.”
The number of French Jews opting to leave an increasingly hostile France for Israel has increased steadily but significantly over the past few years. In 2012, 1,900 Jews came; in 2013, 3,293. That number jumped to over 7,000 in 2014, and is expected to climb to 10,000 during 2015. While those numbers are significant, they hardly mark the end of French Jewry in the foreseeable future.
Asked whether an atmosphere of terror was the driving factor behind the Jewish exodus, Benhaim was visibly annoyed.
“Listen, I don’t deny that the situation has its effect, but the Zionist motive — the strong connection of French Jewry to Israel — is still the determining factor,” he said.
Case in point: Jacqueline Benguigui, who said she wanted to join her grandson currently studying in Israel and her daughter, plans to immigrate as well. Her recently deceased husband, as well as her late mother, are buried in Israel, she noted.
“As a retiree, my sole goal is to live in Israel and spend my remaining days there,” the 74-year-old told from the Paris suburb of Morangis told The Times of Israel. “I love Israel and have visited it regularly over the past 30 years. I have my papers in order and hope to make aliya very soon.”
Unsurprisingly, the Jewish Agency fair became a magnet for visiting Israeli ministers, who stopped to chat with the concerned Jews on their way to the big rally. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman spoke to an elderly man, who told him of his imminent plans to leave France for Israel.
“The most important message I have for French Jews is: immigrate to Israel,” Liberman told The Times of Israel. “If you are looking for security and a safer future for your children there is no other alternative.”
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett was equally pessimistic about the prospects of Jewish life in France during his visit to the fair Sunday afternoon.
“I came here to meet the Jews and found them very worried,” he told The Times of Israel. “Many are beginning to realize they have no future in France, especially the young, and want to immigrate to Israel. It’s not only the religious any more.”
Bennett added that an interministerial team will soon start working on removing obstacles to French immersion in Israel. “There are hundreds of small impediments, from Israel not recognizing French dentistry diplomas to the need for more translators in municipalities. We need to multiply our resources five-fold to absorb the wave that’s coming.”
“I’m not telling Jews here what to do,” Bennett added. “I say that if they decide to come to Israel, there are those who will protect them. At the moment, I’m disturbed by the fact that European governments aren’t really prepared to face the problem. Political correctness makes them criticize ‘terror against freedom of speech’ and similar such vague statements. It’s not vague terrorism, it’s extremist Islamic terrorism that wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the world.”
Jacques and Rachel Rebibo of Paris said that “like all the Jews,” they are currently debating whether to leave France for Israel.
“We want to come to Israel, but it’s not easy. Life in Israel is more expensive than France. I work as an accountant, but there I won’t be able to do that. It’s not the same technique, I don’t speak Hebrew, and I’m 55 years old,” said Jacques Rebibo. “You can’t start everything from scratch for ten years [left] of work. So we’re thinking of our children, that’s all.”
The Rebibos said they are considering splitting their time between France and Israel.
“We believe that there’s no more room in France for the Jews, today at least. Our government tells us to stay, but Netanyahu tells us to leave,” said Jacques Rebibo. “The thousands of signs you saw are for Charlie Hebdo, not for the Jews. We the Jews are always singled out.”
An elderly man who emigrated from Morocco to France 25 years ago said that “our only solution is Massiah, but we don’t know when Massiah will arrive. We know, on the other hand, that Israel exists.” The man was worried, however, that Israel divulges bank details of French nationals with local accounts to be heavily taxed by the French government.
“The only solution right now is aliya. There’s no more security in France. What am I to do here? Security in Morocco at the time was better than in France now.”
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