Christian-funded group begins bringing French Jews to Israel, challenging Jewish Agency
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Christian-funded group begins bringing French Jews to Israel, challenging Jewish Agency

(JTA) — An Israeli organization with major funding from Christian donors brought 17 French Jews to Israel in what its founder said was an attempt to “end the monopoly” of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Jewish Agency officials dismissed the move as “smoke and mirrors” designed to gain publicity.

The French Jews brought to Israel by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, or IFCJ, arrived Sunday. They constituted the first group whose aliyah, the Hebrew-language term for Jewish immigration to Israel, was facilitated by the organization since it began working in France six months ago, IFCJ founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein told JTA.

The group was among the nearly 7,900 Jews, a record number, who will have arrived this year from France, according to the Jewish Agency’s France director, Daniel Benhaim. For a second straight year, France was Israel’s largest provider of Jewish immigrants.

The Jewish Agency is the only organization recognized by the Israeli government as qualified to handle the immigration of Jews in France.

Eckstein said the decision to start working in France followed his group’s entry last year into Ukraine as an aliyah facilitator.

“French Jews came to us and asked us to do our aliyah program,” he said. “We believe we can help bring more French Jews, in larger numbers, by helping with their absorption.”

A Jewish Agency spokesman called IFCJ’s France operation “smoke and mirrors for the media that doesn’t increase the total of olim.”

IFCJ offers immigrants to Israel with the group six months’ rent or a $1,000 one-time grant – assistance not offered by the Jewish Agency  – which Eckstein says “will increase aliyah because it takes away from the anxiety” connected to the move. Additionally, the group buys container space for the immigrants to ship furniture to Israel.

But Benhaim said the olim coming with IFCJ all registered with the Jewish Agency, only to switch to the IFCJ flight because of its incentives.

“IFCJ is not increasing aliyah, it is trying to take away from the Jewish Agency anyone who can be persuaded to pose for a photo op,” he said, adding that his agency “was fully equipped to handle the amount of applicants.”

IFCJ used to donate $13 million annually to the Jewish Agency, Eckstein said, but began using the money for its own aliyah programs in 2014. That year, IFCJ and the Jewish Agency sparred over Ukrainian emigres.

“We are concerned that the financial incentives offered to some olim who go with IFCJ create two classes of olim, leading to inequality,” a Jewish Agency spokesman told JTA.

Eckstein said the Jewish Agency was angry over losing its monopoly on French aliyah.

“We first took away the monopoly of the Jewish Agency 10 years ago when we started Nefesh B’Nefesh,” he said in reference to the group that handles aliyah from English-speaking countries. “We’re ending the monopoly again” in France, he added.