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Despite the Fighting, French Jews Still Vacationing on Israel’s Beaches

August 14, 2006
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France’s Sylvie Dray didn’t let the Israel-Hezbollah conflict get in the way of her vacation to the Jewish state. “There was no way I was canceling this trip to Israel because of the fighting,” Dray said. “I take my three kids to Netanya almost every year and we are not afraid to go this year.”

It seems that just about everyone in France goes on vacation in August — and for many French Jews, the destination of choice has always been Israel, mostly the beaches of Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashdod and Eilat.

This year appears to be no different, despite the fighting that has engulfed northern Israel.

On a recent warm morning under gray skies in Paris, 10 clients were waiting for plane tickets in the Magentour travel agency, specializing in charter flights and hotel nights in Israel, and all were flying to Ben-Gurion Airport.

“We haven’t stopped, even with the conflict,” said travel agent Cynthia Amselem at Magentour. “Among the French clients, there have been plenty of cancellations, but among French Jewish clients, only two people canceled.”

Amselem noted that very few French Jews visit northern Israel, in any case.

“French Jews do not visit the kibbutzim or archaeological sites in the Galilee,” she said. “A few people go to Haifa, and those people canceled their hotel nights there, but almost everyone just goes to the beach in Tel Aviv, Netanya or Eilat.”

Amselem added that she herself was about to go to Eilat to see her sister, who lives there.

“Try finding a hotel room in Eilat or even in Tel Aviv,” she said. “It’s almost impossible. Every August there are huge crowds from France, and this year, all the Israelis who fled the North and can afford hotel rooms have taken them.”

She said her parents and a couple of siblings live in Netanya, and she has just bought an apartment in Tel Aviv, so this seemed like a good time to finalize things with the bank there.

“I know how much French Jews support Israel,” she said, “but once there, they are all like robots. They go to the beach, eat dinner on the beach and go shopping. It’s like a big Club Med.”

In the studios of Radio Judaique, one four Jewish radio stations that share the same wavelength on the FM band, Lea Perez Marcovic was just getting off the air after one hour of live reports and interviews from Tel Aviv and Netanya with journalists.

“My colleague André said that in Netanya, he heard people speaking Judeo-Spanish, Arabic and French,” she commented. “He said that for a moment, he thought he was back in Tunisia in the 1960s.”

She noted that the French Jews feel an ever greater solidarity with Israelis because of the anti-Semitism they experienced in recent years.

“When they saw the damage from the Katyushas and that the towns in the North were empty,” she added, “it struck a raw nerve with them. People call the radio every day and say, It’s Israel, do or die.”

Existing figures show that there were about 15 percent to 20 percent cancellations to Israel this summer, according to Charles Silberman, the owner and director of Voyages et Découvertes, a major independent travel agency group in Paris.

“Most of those who canceled were non-Jewish French people,” he said, explaining that he makes the distinction by their names and by their destinations.

“Every year we book church groups going to Nazareth, people who do the Christian pilgrimage circuit in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and who also visit Tel Aviv,” Silberman said. “Those Christian groups all canceled, but very few Jewish groups or individuals canceled, and those who did were quickly replaced by people making solidarity visits.”

He said that every August, 50 percent of the hotel nights booked in Tel Aviv are from France. “This August it is no different,” he said.

His figures showed that there are about 45,000 people from France in Israel during the month of August.

“That is, in fact, a bit fewer than last year, but given the conflict situation, it is extraordinary. At our agency, we have very little to offer for Israel for August.”

Most people go with regular El Al flights, or with charter flights on Arkia, Sundor and Israir, all Israeli companies, or on Corse Air.

“Of course, there are religious people from France who go to Jerusalem and even to the territories,” commented Cathy Slama, who runs an employment agency. “But most French Jews eat and play cards on the beach in Tel Aviv and go shopping in Eilat, very ordinary things. They don’t always understand the politics, and some have little contact with Israelis. They just say they support Israel, especially in a crisis period such as now.”

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