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Around the Jewish World Trading in Souffles for Shwarmas: French Jews Ponder Move to Israel

March 15, 2005
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Harry and Murielle Ouaknine are successful professionals in France, but they’re thinking of giving up their life here to move to Israel. “We always thought about moving to Israel, but the environment in France now has pushed us to find the courage to do it,” Ouaknine said last month at a fair here, held to encourage immigration to Israel.

Ouaknine, a shipping broker and the father of two children, was gathering information about high schools in Tel Aviv.

He wasn’t alone. An increasing number of Jews in France are contemplating a move to Israel. Nearly 4,500 people showed up at Aliyah Day last month, a huge increase from the 1,000 it drew in other years, according to the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in France, David Roche.

Now a new group has been formed to help French Jews make the move to Israel.

Launched last week at a posh dinner at the Maison France-Israel, the AMI association will partner with the Jewish Agency in smoothing the process of immigration.

AMI stands for Aliyah Meilleur Integration, or better aliyah integration — the word “Ami” means “my people” in Hebrew and “friend” in French. AMI is modeled on the group Nefesh B’Nefesh, which sees its mission as “revitalizing North American aliyah to Israel.”

“We think of the Jewish Agency as the big ocean liner, and AMI is the little speedboat,” said its director, Alex Moise. “They pay for the ticket to go to Israel, and we take care of the taxi ride from the airport, a custom-designed ride, so to speak.”

The group’s initial budget, $1.5 million, was donated by French Jewish philanthropist Pierre Besnainou. The amount is modest by American standards, but “it is a pretty good start,” Moise said. “And of course we have plans for fund raising.”

Two projects already are on tap. In one, AMI would help students get help from ongoing, privately funded financial aid programs — young French students studying in Israel can get Aviv grants, and French high-school seniors can get funding for trips to Israel at Chanukah.

The second project is new. AMI is setting up low-cost intensive Hebrew-language classes for families waiting for their departure date. It’s funded by the Jewish Agency, AMI and other groups.

Future projects include establishing an employment referral center for Francophones in Israel and arranging charter flights for new immigrants.

At AMI’s launch, a 45-page report on French tourism to Israel was released. It included some startling figures.

At least 100,000 French Jews came to Israel as tourists in 2004, almost one-fifth of the Jewish population of France. Most of the tourists define themselves as religiously observant, or “pratiquants,” but that could include people who go to synagogue only on the holidays and eat kosher food.

The French Jewish community is believe to number about 600,000, though the number is highly debatable.

Seventy percent of them are Sephardi. Either they or their parents tend to come from Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco. The rest are Ashkenazi, usually from Eastern Europe. The families of a small percentage of French Jews have been in France for many generations.

French Jewish tourists to Israel are 89 percent Sephardi and only 5 percent Ashkenazi, according to the report.

Of the 15- to 18-year-olds polled, three quarters say they do not see a future for themselves in France, and half have suffered from some form of anti-Semitism in the last five years.

“Here in France, the overall system has been very good for French people and for many immigrants, but some Magrebis have been unable to integrate,” said Rebecca Cohen, 17, talking about non-Jews of North African heritage. “The result is violence against us. You can’t imagine how many Jewish teenagers are talking about leaving for Israel.”

At the same time, most adults polled say they have good lives in France.

“Jews have been very successful in France,” Moise said. “But this year, there is a bad feeling.

“Frankly speaking, the anti-Semitism is coming almost entirely from the North African Muslim community,” he said. “And Jews here have less and less confidence in France and in Europe. At least some of the Muslims here want to Islamize France. Jews have a capacity to adapt to this that other French people do not have.”

People spoke frankly about their fears at Aliyah Day.

The Ouaknines live on a houseboat on the Seine River in Paris. The parents came to France from Morocco and Tunisia when they were children. They eat kosher food and go to synagogue every week. But they are beginning to worry about the future.

“Honestly, the anti-Semitic violence has not touched us directly, but it is scaring us enough to believe we have no future as Jews in Paris,” said Murielle Ouaknine, who works in information technology. “We want to construct our futures in Israel, no longer in France.”

Unofficial figures put the number of immigrants to Israel from France at about 2,500 in 2004.

France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, has even offered a blessing to Jews making aliyah. “Nobody is running away from France. People create their own spiritual conditions for going,” Sitruk said.

A report from the French Interior Ministry in December said that racist violence, including anti-Semitism, had increased by more than 70 percent in 2004, with 194 reported acts and 711 threats, compared to 112 acts and 418 threats over the same period in 2003.

Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sparked an argument with France after he urged all French Jews to leave the country immediately to avoid what he called “the wildest anti-Semitism.”

But Roche said the French government has been doing a good job in the fight against anti-Semitic attacks.

French President Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s former interior minister, “have taken strong positions, saying no violence will be tolerated,” Roche said. “But still, the courts could be doing more. And frankly, many people in France are simply not interested in the problem.”

Cohen, who lives in a Paris suburb, was looking at information about high schools in Jerusalem. “I have Muslim Arab friends,” she said, “but I have been called a dirty Jew by other Arabs in school more than once, more than twice.

“I was born here, but I am fed up. Whatever measures the French government takes, it is difficult to prosecute 15-year-olds, and the French people could not care less about this problem as long as it does not affect them directly.”

Going to live in Israel, where the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is tense, does not scare her.

“The Palestinians need a state,” she said. “They are hard-working people but are faced with a political problem.”

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