French Immigration to Israel Up — Especially Among the Younger Set

Julie Tahar’s return here from Israel was only temporary.

“People thought I’d come back to France” to stay, she said, adding that her decision to remain in Israel “was very strange for my family.”

In December 2001, Tahar was spending a year in Jerusalem with the Bnei Akiva youth movement when she was injured by a suicide bombing on the city’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

Now, Tahar, 19, back in Paris for a short visit, is eager for others to follow her to Israel.

Despite her brush with terror, she never doubted that she would stay in Israel, she said. By the time she finished her Bnei Akiva program last year, she had enrolled for a year of national service.

She spends her time at a religious academy for girls in Jerusalem, where she is in charge of a group of French students, who are spending a year in Israel before returning to France to complete their studies.

Tahar is typical of French olim, whose numbers have more than doubled in the past year.

Like the majority of French immigrants to Israel, she is young and committed to her Jewish identity. But like many others attending a recent aliyah fair in Paris, she has no complaints about France.

“It was good for me in France,” she said. “My family is here and we have money. There were no problems whatsoever.”

The fact that so many French Jews are enjoying the good life has created problems for Menachem Gourary, who runs the Paris office of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“It’s harder to persuade people here to make aliyah, particularly those who have not faced anti-Semitism,” he said. “People live well here, and in general, they do not have economic problems.”

Gourary is quick to state that last year’s figure of 2,566 olim — out of a French Jewish community that totals more than 500,000 — hardly represents a tidal wave of aliyah.

Just the same, he points to what he regards as a positive trend.

“There was a survey done in 1988 by the United Jewish Social Funds here in France, which showed that 3 percent of French Jews intended to emigrate to Israel in the near future.

“They didn’t exactly define what ‘near future’ meant, but since that date, more than 15,000″ — some 3 percent of the community — “have made aliyah” he said.

The funds — an umbrella organization responsible for the vast network of social and welfare projects run by the community — completed another survey last year. This time, 6 percent said they were seriously contemplating aliyah.

For Gourary, aliyah is part of a long-term decision and isn’t affected by short-term considerations.

“My job is simply to reduce the time scale,” he said.

In recent months Gourary has stepped up Jewish Agency activities, with extra staff drafted to work in Paris and a new office opening in Lyon, France’s second city.

Last year, the agency’s Aliyah Department focused on France, Argentina and South Africa as potential sources of increased immigration to Israel.

France was chosen after Jews and Jewish institutions here were targeted in a rising number of hate crimes, apparently spurred by Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Gourary doubts that last year’s aliyah total was related to those incidents.

“There are of course many catalysts, but this is not an aliyah that comes from political or economic distress,” he said. “These people plan and prepare themselves over many years. Our role is to give them the maximum information, to enable people to reduce their time of preparation, to make their decision concrete.”

The Sebban family, from Paris’ heavily Jewish 19th District, is a case in point.

Eric Sebban said his family had always thought about moving to Israel, but the time has now come.

“We’re young and we have young kids. Now is the time to make the decision,” he said.

The Sebbans, who are soon to have their fourth child, are aiming to move in the summer.

Eric Sebban said he has no problems in France and has not personally experienced anti-Semitism. Nor does the current violence in Israel bother him.

“OK, there’s a war on, but if we wait, there’ll be another war. There’s always some reason not to do it,” he said. “We should just go and not look at the situation. What’s happening there can just as well happen here.”

The Sebbans are looking to settle in Ashdod, where Eric’s sister moved last year. The city has a large French- speaking community, which Eric thinks will ease his family’s integration into Israeli society.

Eric could have walked straight out of the funds’ survey, so perfectly does he fit the mold of French olim.

He sends all his children to Jewish schools, has close family in Israel and describes himself as “traditional” in terms of his religious practice.

Joseph and Sophie Zrihen, who also live in the 19th District, said they are happy in France. They came to the fair with their son Emmanuel, 17, who has chosen to study pharmacy next year in Israel for what he calls “ideological reasons.”

Sophie Zrihen is the director of a Jewish school and her husband is a doctor.

“We live the typical rhythm of French Jews,” Joseph Zrihen said. “I am a French citizen of the Jewish faith. I have no problems of double identity.

“But you know,” he added, “it’s always been a part of me, that desire to join our people, our country.”

For now, Emmanuel’s parents have no immediate plans to follow him to Israel — though Sophie said it remains a possibility when all their children reach university age.

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