As anti-Semitism has grown over the last few years in France, so has the number of French immigrants in Israel. In 2005, Israel experienced the largest influx of French Jews in 33 years, and the phenomenon continues. To better understand the dynamics of modern Judaism in France, as well as the immigration experience of French Jews in Israel today, I spoke with an acquaintance, Moshe, who arrived in Tel Aviv almost six years ago.
Recent French Immigration Trends
When asked the reason for his move, Moshe points to the political situation in France. “I see France as an Arab country now. That’s reason enough for me to go.” While describing France as Arabic may be a bit of an exaggeration, the growing number of French Muslims does draw concern from the French Jewish community. France today has about half a million Jews, the single largest Jewish population in Europe. But at the same time, the Muslim population has grown to almost 10% of the population, or 5-6 million people. Outnumbered 10 to 1, and faced with a pattern of growing anti-Semitism, many French Jews struggle with feelings of disquiet. A surge of attacks against Jews in France at times over the past decade has reinforced many people’s fears. While the French government cracked down on violence in recent years and established more protective policies, distrust remains. Given France’s pro-Arab stance over many decades, one can understand such sentiments.
That unrest prompted Moshe’s move. While his neighborhood still felt safe, the area in which he worked had experienced recent vandalism. “I got tired of feeling afraid to wear my kippah on the streets outside my neighborhood,” Moshe states. “I was never personally attacked, but know people who were called filthy names or vandalized.” Latent anti-Semitism, combined with a love of Israel, fueled his desire to make a permanent move to the Tel Aviv area.
Moshe ran a clothing business in Paris for many years, and some of his relatives continue to run the store for him today. He considers himself semi-retired, and he and his wife enjoy traveling, both in Israel and other countries. Moshe has visited Morocco several times, as his roots are there, along with around 70% of France’s Jewish population, who come from North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.
Like over half of French Jews, Moshe visited Israel on an annual basis for years before he decided to move. Because of his familiarity with many communities in Israel and the presence of several relatives in the Tel Aviv area, the decision to move to Israel was an easy one. A couple of years before he moved, he had even invested in a small apartment in the Netanya area north of Tel Aviv. While he called it a vacation retreat, Moshe now says, “I saw it as a safety net for when I left France someday.” According to local realtors, business soared in some communities during the past decade, as French Jews bought property as a hedge against the worsening political climate in France. Usually they “trade up” when they move to Israel permanently. Because Moshe and his wife are empty-nesters, they have remained comfortably in their apartment. There is a couple they knew in Paris with whom they now socialize in Netanya, and he frequents French-speaking bookstores and cafés when he heads into Tel Aviv.
The Israeli Connection
For the most part, French Jews have an affectionate relationship with Israel. Many of them, like Moshe, have families there, and their frequent visits to the country breed a familiarity which has eased the moving pangs of many. French Jews feel protective of the homeland, and Moshe speaks of his and others’ indignation with the French news media’s biased reporting on the state of Israel.
When asked if he and his wife miss France, Moshe replies, “Of course. But I breathe more freely now.” Like his Sephardic neighbors in France, Moshe takes pride in his religion, his ethnic origin, and his birth country. Now he extends that same pride to the place where he plans to spend the remainder of his days. “I feel welcome here,” he concludes. “Now I can wear my kippah with pride.”