Aliyah Programs Draw Praise, Criticism Among French Jews

The Jewish Agency for Israel would like to see the Jews of France become Jews of Israel, and in general French Jews are enthusiastic about the idea. But a few months into an active aliyah campaign some members of the community are reacting warily, saying it plays on people’s fears and is aimed at attracting mostly Orthodox young people.

The Jewish Agency’s president, Sallai Meridor, visited Paris in mid-March and announced that France was at the top of a list of aliyah priority areas that included North America and the former Soviet Union.

“Anti-Semitic events have provoked uncertainty in France, and our natural duty is to be with the community here,” Meridor said, adding that three out of four French Jews have relatives in Israel. “Nowhere else in the world is the situation like that.”

About 2,400 French Jews made aliyah in 2004; this year, the Jewish Agency hopes the number will hit 3,000.

A similar number of Jews made aliyah from the United States in 2004, out of a Jewish population of more than 5 million. There are between 600,000 and 700,000 Jews in France.

The Jewish Agency has stepped up its youth group activities in France. It also is organizing major events, some about aliyah and others that do not focus directly on aliyah but are meant to encourage it nonetheless.

One such event earlier this month, the “Israel, je t’aime” — or “Israel, I love you” — Day at the Porte de Versailles convention center, attracted close to 20,000 people. Speakers included Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, and its defense minister, Shaul Mofaz.

The agency will run seminars on employment in Israel at the end of May. It is also matching aliyah candidates with Israelis in the same professions.

There is an aliyah call center in Israel for French olim, and there is an Internet site for them as well.

“We don’t want people to come to Israel because they are uncomfortable in France,” Meridor said, “but there is a degree of fear here. Many people are wondering — what will the situation be for Jews in France 20 years down the road?”

Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF, the umbrella group of Jewish organizations in France, thinks the danger to the French Jewish community has been overstated.

“France is not an anti-Semitic country, though violence from North African Muslims is on the increase,” he said. “Out of a population of about 600,000, 2,400 people making aliyah is not very many, in spite of all the talk about leaving.”

Not everyone wholeheartedly backs the Jewish Agency’s efforts.

“I think the agency is playing on the fears of Jews in France,” said Danielle Brami, a Parisian pharmacist. “Many young people especially are afraid of violence or the threat of violence from Muslim teenagers in a number of suburbs here. Many are talking about leaving — but I don’t know if it is a good Zionist act to go to Israel out of fear.”

Brami, who is active in the Cercle Bernard Lazare, a secular group linked to the leftist Yahad Party in Israel, said a majority of aliyah candidates are religiously observant.

“I think the agency should reorient its programs to focus on more secular candidates,” she said. “I don’t like people developing a religious identity out of fear here, and the agency taking advantage of that.”

Meridor denied that the Jewish Agency focuses on religious immigrants.

“Our priority is young people, from 18 to 30 years old, not religious young people,” he said.

Yossi Haklai, head of the agency’s youth programs in France, said 50 percent of some 200 young people enrolled in the recently invigorated Massa program are observant. The program sponsors six-month stays in Israel in university or job training programs.

“There is no deliberate focus on religion, but the program seems to attract many religious young people,” he said. “There is a focus on cultural studies, and for many that means religion, not history or literature.”

Haklai said the target is to enroll 1,500 18- to 30-year-olds in Massa in the next three years. The program is active in several countries, but “the priority is now France,” he said.

Michael Sebban, a philosophy teacher in a suburban high school north of Paris where most students are of North African Muslim origin, lived in Jerusalem for several years before returning to France.

“French Jews idolize Israel, much more than American Jews. They know Israel much better than American Jews,” he said. But, he noted, “The real problem is finding work in Israel, because there isn’t any work.”

Sebban talked about many professionals and businesspeople who live “chetzi-chetzi” — half and half — in Israel and in France.

“Take the last flight to Ben Gurion before Shabbat and you’ll see people working in Paris and joining their families for the weekend in Israel,” he said. “People are taking the plane now the way they used to take the train. They cannot maintain the same lifestyle working in Israel.”

He scoffed at Jewish Agency efforts to match up potential immigrants with Israelis working in their fields.

“Aside from finding occasional jobs for people, what can the agency do?” he said. “There aren’t any jobs in Israel. And unemployment in France already is the highest in history.”

But, Sebban added, “If there were jobs to be filled in Israel like there are in the States, the Jewish Agency would be swamped with candidates, because among young people in France everyone is talking about making aliyah. Many are fed up and afraid, and the agency knows it.”

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