PARIS (JTA) — A major Israeli philanthropic group with Christian funding brought its first large group of French Jewish immigrants to Israel.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has an annual budget of over $100 million, put the 83 new immigrants on two airplanes Monday in Paris following a ceremony led by its founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
The fellowship said it has given the Jewish Agency for Israel, the semi-governmental body responsible for bringing Jewish new immigrants to Israel, more than $170 million since 1994 but stopped the funding after 2014, when the group started its own program for aliyah – the Hebrew word for Jewish immigration to Israel – in Ukraine.
Since then, the fellowship has brought more than 4,000 people from 12 countries. Its pilot program from France in December brought 17 immigrants to Israel. Eckstein told JTA that his group will bring 2,000 Jews to Israel this year through what his organization calls “Aliyah VIP,” offering the immigrants a one-time grant of $1,000 per adult and $500 per minor under 18, as well as other amenities that bring the total expenditure to $3,200 per immigrant.
The group also arranges trips and activities for immigrants inside Israel, job market guidance, childcare solutions and, for needy immigrants, rent and dental care.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, which does not provide a cash grant or some of the extra support offered by the fellowship, has criticized Eckstein’s organization as creating inequality among immigrants. Agency spokespeople have also said the fellowship is creating a false display because its immigrants are ultimately also processed by the agency, which is the only body with a mandate from Israel to handle aliyah in France.
But Eckstein has maintained the Jewish Agency is not doing enough to support immigrants in Israel, leading to returns to immigrants’ countries of origin and decrease in aliyah overall.
“They’re upset because they feel it infringes on what used to be their monopoly,” he told JTA of the Jewish Agency, adding that he regretted the clash with the agency.
“We just want to get the job done,” he said. “Our purpose is to increase aliyah.”
Aliyah from France has decreased by 43 percent in the first five months of 2016 compared to the corresponding period the previous year, according to the Israeli daily Makor Rishon.
In total, more than 8,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel last year, a record number that for the second year straight made France the largest provider of Jews to Israel in one year. The first time France topped the list was in 2014. Aliyah officials attributed the increase to a mix of factors including growing uncertainty over Islamist terrorist attacks, Zionistic sentiment by French Jews and France’s near-stagnant economy.
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, attributed the decrease to “a slightly improved feeling of security” by French Jews.
Speaking to JTA during a Jewish Agency board of governors meeting in Paris on Monday, he also said aliyah has been decreasing because of “high housing prices in Israel and non-recognition in Israel of diplomas” of some French professionals. Sharansky said the Jewish Agency is in talks with the government to solve these issues.
The bulk of aliyah occurs in the summer, he said, noting the Jewish Agency’s Paris office has more than 9,000 open files of prospective immigrants.