Escape Hatch: French Jews Visit Israel As Anti-semitism Rises at Home

French is one of the common languages spoken around the sparkling blue pool at the David Intercontinental in Tel Aviv, along the sandy beaches of Netanya and Eilat and the hotel lobbies of Jerusalem this summer. Some 50,000 French Jews decided to forgo usual vacation favorites such as the French Riviera this summer and come to Israel instead.

The French tourist boom is credited with making August the best single month in a decade for hotels in the greater Tel Aviv area. According to Ha’aretz, for the past three weeks, there has not been a single room available at a beachfront hotel in Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, Herzliya or Netanya.

“This never happened before,” said Lyon Rosenbaum, chairman of the French-speaking Immigrants Association, noting the unprecedented numbers that are credited, in part, to a campaign by community leaders to make Israel the destination this summer.

The tourism exodus from France is not only a quest for s! olidarity with the Jewish state and for sun during troubled times in Israel. For some it is about shopping for property and looking into schools for their children: A growing number of French Jews — some spooked by the upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks in France — are considering the possibility of making aliyah, or immigrating to Israel.

Nissan Cohen, 25, who works for a mobile phone company in Paris, heads to the Tel Aviv beach in yellow tank top and shorts. Peering over a pair of reflective sunglasses, he said he is here for a good time but that aliyah lies in the back of his mind.

He and many of his friends are considering immigrating, he said, “because of anti-Semitism and also because we feel good here, it’s a Jewish country.”

Some 3,000 French Jews are expected to make aliyah in 2004, say officials in Israel — about double the number that came in 2001.

Numbers have been rising, the Jewish Agency for Israel says. About 2,085 new French immigrants arriv! ed in 2003, at a time when immigration figures overall were down in pa rt because of the intifada.

Last month, the issue of French Jewish immigration to Israel became the center of an international diplomatic flap after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on French Jews to make aliyah immediately.

“If I have to advise our brothers in France, I’ll tell them one thing — move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there, I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately,” Sharon said.

The comments drew fire from French government officials. Sharon was even told he would not be welcome in Paris, and Israel’s charge d’affaires in Paris was called in to account for the remarks.

The flap soon died down, but the Jewish Agency has set up an information tent along the boardwalk in Eilat targeting vacationing French Jews. There they pass out brochures about aliyah and present information about study options and other programs for new immigrants.

Rosenbaum, a lawyer who made aliyah from ! Paris in 1976, said French Jews are considering aliyah for two main reasons: a feeling of being under threat by elements in France’s Arab Muslim population — which is accused of being behind many of the physical attacks against Jews there — and because of the French media which he describes as especially hostile to Israel.

The growing number of anti-Semitic incidents “makes for an uncomfortable situation,” he said, singling out the French media for what he sees as anti-Israel editorial policy.

Yossi Borniche, a 58-year-old pharmacist who immigrated from France last year and is now living in Netanya, said coverage of Israel in the French media contributed to his decision to leave.

“There is very biased news against Israel,” he said. “For me it was very hard to be a Jew there. It’s not a pleasant place to be now.”

He said one of his daughters who lives in an upscale Paris neighborhood had the mezuzah on her door smashed.

“Always, always, every day someth! ing else happens. It’s hard to live with,” Borniche said.

The Fren ch government has published figures showing that out of 230 racist attacks against persons or property in the first half of 2004, 135 were committed against Jewish targets.

Sitting in a low-slung chair by the pool at the David Intercontinental, a luxury high-rise hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, Yael Marciano watches her 4-year-old daughter splash in the water.

She says aliyah is something she and her family would like to eventually do, but the question for her and other French Jews remains slightly abstract.

“I think everyone wants to live here,” but “we don’t know when, we don’t know how. I think French Jews are not doing so well in France so many are coming to see, to buy, to look,” said Marciano, a 29-year-old mother of three.

Those French Jews immigrating to Israel still represent only a small percentage of the French Jewish community — which, at around 600,000, is the largest in Western Europe.

But Olivier Rapovitz, the director of the aliyah d! epartment of the Jewish Agency in France, said that in the past three years some 3,000 apartments in Israel have been purchased by French Jews. In 2004, some 1,000 apartments are expected to be sold to French Jews.

“Most people purchasing apartments are not necessarily people making aliyah, but it is clear it is a very important step to making aliyah,” said Rapovitz in a phone interview from Paris. “Today it’s become a normal step to also have an apartment in Israel.”

According to Rapovitz, anti-Semitism is not the main factor fueling interest in moving to Israel.

“Anti-Semitism is too easy of an answer and not the right one,” he said.

French Jews, he said, believe that Israel is simply the best place for future generations to thrive. Furthermore, he said, as Israel’s economy begins to stabilize, specifically the high-tech sector, more see a viable economic future for themselves in the Jewish state.

He denied reports that the Jewish Agency, seeing an opp! ortunity to push aliyah in the community, had increased its staff in w ake of the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France.

“We are working very hard everywhere. We have in last two or three years been present even in smaller, more remote areas where Jews are living,” he said.

This means hitting the airwaves on the radio, going to universities and student associations and holding evening informational meetings explaining what programs are in place to help families and students ease the transition to life in Israel.

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