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Bucking a Trend, French Jews Head to Israel

  • Lisa Bryant

FILE - People walk in the street in the Marais Jewish quarter in Paris.

FILE - People walk in the street in the Marais Jewish quarter in Paris.

Immigration to Israel has stagnated in recent years, but French Jews are bucking that trend. Last year nearly 3,300 Jews from France made their aliyah, or immigration to Israel, a 63 percent jump from 2012. The phenomenon is changing the face of Israeli immigration -- and France's own half-million-strong Jewish community.

By any standard, David Tibi is a French success story. The 44-year-old dentist and father of five has a thriving practice in Paris and a house in an affluent suburb nearby. His wife is a doctor and Tibi is a leading member of the Jewish community here.

Nonetheless, in early July the Tibi family will join the thousands of Jews who have been leaving France. Their house has been sold and a colleague will be handling the dental practice. The family is leaving on a one-way ticket to Israel.

Tibi believes that if his children are to fully live their religion, their future is in Israel, not France. He said many people in France's Jewish community feel the same way. There's a massive movement of Jews wanting to leave.

Experts have said a mix of factors is driving French Jews like Tibi to make their aliyah. Many have family there and already travel regularly to Israel for vacation and special occasions. The struggling economy and high taxes in France also play a role. Last month, French unemployment shot above 11 percent. By contrast, Israel's joblessness rate stands at about 6 percent.

Ariel Kandel, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel in France, cited growing anti-Semitism is another big reason.

Kandel said being a Jew in France is not easy these days, especially for those who exercise their faith in obvious ways, such as by wearing a kippah or Star of David.

A record 3,270 French Jews moved to Israel last year. Kandel believes those numbers could climb still further, to about 4,000 to 5,000 Jews a year. These days, Kandel said, it is becoming trendy to move to Israel.

France's roughly 500,000 Jews represent the largest such community in Europe. The park near Tibi's dental practice is packed after synagogue on Saturdays. The neighborhood is full of kosher stores and butchers.

But Jews like Tibi have said they are seeing increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism - most recently in the discourse of a controversial French comic called Dieudonne.

Tibi said Dieudonne is not driving his family out of France; it's the general atmosphere, which the comic is mirroring. Anti-Semitic remarks, he says, are becoming almost banal.

Some Jews have been physically attacked. The most dramatic incident took place two years ago, when a gunman shot and killed three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Two of Tibi's children were harassed in a tram. Last month, the family filled out their papers to immigrate to Israel.

Tibi said his parents will be following. A cousin and friends are already living in Israel. The Tibis have found an apartment and schools for their kids in a Tel Aviv suburb that he says is home to many other French Jews.

These days, Tibi said, Israeli restaurants hand out menus written in French. The Israeli documents he fills out are in French. There have been waves of emigration from Ethiopia and Russia. Now, he said, it's the French aliyah.

Israel is facilitating the French migration in other ways. There are draft measures to recognize French diplomas and other qualifications, and programs encouraging young people to visit. Every week, about 300 people attend the Jewish Agency's informational meetings about Israel, director Kandel said.

Kandel said those numbers suggest that as many as 30,000 Jews in France are actively thinking about moving to Israel in the next two years. He said his agency isn't encouraging people to leave, but if Jewish families want to move to Israel, the state must help them do so.

Israel does not suit everyone. There are no statistics on Jews returning to France, but some have a hard time finding jobs and adjusting to their new home.

Mendel Azimov, a rabbi in Paris, said some Jews immigrate to Israel on a trial basis. He doesn't think the aliyah will make a dent on the Jewish community here.

"Some people make aliyah for [their] family and they stay [in Paris] and work. And they come every week, every two weeks for five days to work. Sunday afternoon the flight is full with people who come to Paris to work and Thursday night they go back to Israel for life for the weekend," said Azimov.

Still, other Jews strongly believe their roots remain in France. That is the case of Sacha Reingewirtz, president of the French Union of Jewish students.

"For a lot of people now, being connected to Israel and having a Zionist commitment just expresses itself in the fact of going to Israel on vacation. And it's a way of supporting the state. We haven't seen at all a mass exodus. Because the Jewish population has been in France of 2,000 years and there is definitely a future for the Jews in France," said Reingewirtz.

Tibi is not so sure. He predicts the exodus may reach up to 8,000 Jews a year, and said that the Jews who remain here will be those least attached to Israel and to Jewish life, or those who choose to stay and fight anti-Semitism.

Tibi has made his choice, but said he is leaving France with a heavy heart.
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