PARIS (Mar. 28)
With French aliyah surging since the intifada began and anti-Semitism spiked in France, a new group is helping smooth the transition to the Jewish state. Launched in March 2005, AMI has aided 1,000 French Jews who chose to make aliyah, helping them with job networking and apartment financing in Israel and offering scholarships to students.
AMI — which stands for Alya et Meilleure Integration, or Aliyah and Better Integration — is a private organization working with the Jewish Agency for Israel, similar to the Nefesh B’Nefesh program in the United States.
Its 2005 operating budget was $2.5 million, financed by Pierre Besnainou, head of the European Jewish Congress.
A one-year anniversary gala for AMI in mid-March, attended by some 250-300 people, brought Jewish Agency head Zeev Bielski on a one-day visit from Jerusalem.
“One man has decided to devote his life to the Jewish people and to making aliyah,” Bielski said of Besnainou. “He is a fantastic example and a model for other people to follow.”
Bielski said French Jews are different from other communities because they often have close relatives in Israel. Sephardi Jews from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, former French colonies in North Africa, make up some 70 percent of France’s Jewish population of approximately 600,000.
“More than 200,000 French Jews visited Israel in 2005 alone,” Bielski said. “For some people, their visits as tourists are a first step to considering making aliyah.”
David Roche, JAFI’s director in France, reported that 3,005 people made aliyah from France in 2005, up 25 percent from 2004.
“Making aliyah is an individual decision but is a collective responsibility, ” he said, noting a correlation with the level of anti-Semitic activity in France.
“The French government has taken very strong steps to reduce anti-Semitic activity, and the number of incidents has notably decreased,” he said, “but when people actually leave, it is the end of a process begun and a decision made a couple of years earlier.”
Roche said 2003 and 2004 were bad years for anti-Semitism in France, with hundreds of attacks against people and property, notably in suburbs around Paris, where thousands of Jews live.
Most of AMI’s budget goes to financial aid and university scholarships, but the organization increasingly is focusing on finding work for new arrivals with professional coaching, employment workshops, job listings, training for opening businesses and a lecture series on life in Israel.
“Everyone agrees that the greatest challenge for new immigrants is finding work,” Bielski said. “It’s no longer enough for the Jewish Agency simply to provide a place to live. Professional people with good jobs want to remain professional.”
He added, “AMI is providing a detailed service to olim, where the Jewish Agency has been offering the basic fundamentals.”
Bielski acknowledged that life is not easy for new arrivals, but noted that unemployment in Israel — about 9 percent — is actually lower than in France, where it’s about 10 percent.
Besnainou, 51, a self-made multi-millionaire who moved to France from Tunisia at age 20, said AMI is giving French Jews a strong role in the aliyah process.
“A couple of years ago, we leaders of the French Jewish community had developed a certain complex talking about making aliyah,” he noted. “The Israelis were doing everything in the Jewish Agency, and we decided that we had to do our part as French Jews. And so the AMI program was born.”
While in Paris, Bielski also paid a visit to Ruth Halimi, whose 23-year-old son, Ilan, was kidnapped and tortured to death recently by a criminal gang in a suburban housing complex.
Ilan Halimi’s murder was officially declared an anti-Semitic act, but most French people continue to believe that it was simply a criminal attack that had nothing to do with the victim’s religion.
Bielski said Ruth Halimi would be visiting Israel over Passover, but she had said it was too early to make any decisions about her future.
According to reports from the Paris office, Bielski said, the number of people contacting the Jewish Agency about aliyah had doubled since Halimi’s murder.