By Josh Hasten/JNS.org
Against the backdrop of studies revealing rising anti-Semitism both in France and across all of Europe, as well as one particularly brutal attack in Paris last month, French Jews are flocking to Israel.
On March 30, the Jewish Agency for Israel released figures showing that aliyah from France increased dramatically over the first two months of 2014. In January and February alone, 854 French olim (immigrants) arrived in Israel, compared to 274 over the same period last year, representing a 312-percent increase.
Shay Felber—the Jewish Agency’s deputy director-general for community services and resident expert on France, who made aliyah from France with his parents in the 1970s—cites three main reasons for the current trend. Two are anti-Semitism and the difficult economic situation in France. But from a more positive perspective, the high level of Jewish education and Zionistic identity prevalent in the French Jewish community is also leading to an upswing in immigration to Israel, Felber tells JNS.org.
In Paris during March, a 59-year-old Jewish teacher was subjected to anti-Semitic slurs and then severely beaten by a group of young men identified as being “Maghreb.” The men proceeded to draw a swastika on the chest of their victim with a marker, and vowed they would return to finish the job. No arrests have been made yet for that attack.
Felber believes that the current rise in anti-Semitic incidents and attacks in France is a direct result of the situation on “the street,” with many of the episodes being perpetrated by local Arabs and Muslims. Yet Felber stresses that the anti-Jewish sentiment is not French government policy, but that the government “is trying very hard to combat” anti-Semitism.
One recent study that reveals the worrisome realities for French Jewry is the 2013 report on anti-Semitism in France compiled by SPCJ, the security unit of France’s Jewish communities. According to the report, 423 anti-Semitic acts were recorded in the country in 2013 alone. The research also indicates that last year, 40 percent of all racist violence perpetrated in France targeted Jews. The report amplifies the ramifications of that statistic by explaining the trend from a proportionality perspective.
“Since Jews represent less than one percent of the French population, what this shows is that less than one percent of French citizens were the target of 40 percent of racist attacks perpetrated in the country,” says the report.
The document also states, “Since the year 2000—and for 14 consecutive years—the number of anti-Semitic acts in France has been very high, about seven times higher than numbers recorded in the 1990s. During this period, six people were murdered because they were Jewish, including three young children.
The report concludes that anti-Semitism in France “cannot be considered anymore as a temporary situation associated with the situation in the Middle-East; it is a structural problem that has not been fought as such and has not been halted yet.”
While many French Jews are moving to Israel to escape their situation at home, Israeli tourists are known to travel frequently throughout Europe—often ignoring the situation on the ground in hopes of having an enjoyable vacation.
Gideon Behar, director of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department for Combating Anti-Semitism, tells JNS.org that while he is “concerned about the rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and it is something we are following very closely,” his office has not issued any travel advisories or warnings for France or any other European Union countries leading up to the current robust Passover holiday travel season.
Mark Feldman—CEO of Zion Tours, a leading Jerusalem-based travel company—concurs that there is “no direct guidance for traveling to France” at this time. He says his company sends many Israeli travelers on vacation to places like Morocco, and that to “avoid speaking Hebrew, don’t be overly loud, [and] walk in numbers are what we would advise clients traveling to many cities throughout the world [to do], and not just [in] France.”
Regarding aliyah—not only from France, but from Europe in general—being a result of rising anti-Semitism, Behar cites the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) November 2013 study. That study was based on a survey given to 5,847 Jews from EU member states, asking them about their own experiences and perceptions of discrimination, hate crime, and anti-Semitism.
Two-thirds of FRA respondents (66 percent) consider anti-Semitism to be a problem across the EU member states surveyed, while three-quarters of the respondents (76 percent) indicate that anti-Semitism has worsened over the past five years in the country where they live. Almost half (46 percent) of the respondents worry about becoming the victim of an anti-Semitic verbal insult or harassment in the next 12 months, while one-third (33 percent) fear a physical attack in the same period.
In the 12 months before the survey, 26 percent of all respondents reported experiencing an incident or multiple incidents involving verbal insult or harassment because they were Jewish, and 4 percent experienced physical violence or threats of violence. Seventy-five percent of respondents consider online anti-Semitism to be a problem in their country of residence, and almost three-quarters (73 percent) said that online anti-Semitism has increased over the last five years.
The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, recently unveiled a new government plan to encourage aliyah from France. Along with the Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the initiative is boosting the number of Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) in France, increasing marketing efforts, developing new immigrant absorption programs, and establishing a special committee headed by the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office to remove obstacles to French aliyah.
The proposal also sets clear benchmarks for increasing the number of olim, seeking to double their numbers in the coming years. The plan was developed in consultation and cooperation with French Jewish organizations, both in France and in Israel. Other partners include the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, who are all are working together for the first time in order to strengthen French aliyah.
The Jewish Agency’s Felber says the plan is two-fold, “to promote aliyah in France through aliyah fairs, Hebrew-language courses, and sessions which assist in potential olim to find jobs in Israel, while the second part is kilitah (absorption) in Israel.” Felber says the Jewish Agency is in the process of constructing two new absorption centers, and at the same time is working with local municipalities in order to help French olim secure employment while also integrating into society.
Felber says he is confident that based on the large aliyah figures for French Jews—he estimates that there have been 100,000-120,000 total olim from France to date—these new immigrants will also succeed in building their new lives in the Jewish state.