The French Ascent to Israel

Some go to synagogue on the Sabbath and then bathe in the sea, wear a yarmulke and dress très chic. They are educated, affluent, and prefer to send their children to French-speaking schools in Israel. Unlike the North African immigrants from the 1950s, the French olim are considered to be a well-established community, providing a great opportunity for the Israeli economy to thrive. This is the French aliyah of the last decade.

Mass immigration from France began in the 1970s, following the Six-Day War. Since then, an estimated 120,000 olim have come to Israel from France. From the mid-2000s there has been an increase in their aliyah rate which peaked in 2014- 2016 when 20,000 French immigrants arrived. “Generally speaking this is an aliyah of traditional or observant Jews with a strong connection to Israel, who are willing to lower their standards of living in order to live in Israel. They share this in common with olim from the US,” says Dr. Yitzhak Dahan, former executive member of the World Zionist Organization and current postdoctoral fellow at BIU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

France’s Jewish community – second in size only to that of the US – currently comprises nearly a half a million Jews. Dr. Dahan divides the community into three categories – about one third is observant, active in the community and has a strong connection to Israel. Another third are what he refers to as “Yom Kippur Jews,” who don’t wear yarmulkes and don’t necessarily observe Jewish law, but do occasionally take part in community events and have a certain connection to Israel. The last third is comprised of secular Jews who are far removed from community life, and tend to assimilate.

Those who immigrate, says Dahan, are members of one of the first two categories, and usually are traditional or religious. About 15% of these are even considered  Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi),although French Haredi Jews are a new breed, resulting from the return to Jewish roots, common among French Jews in the new millennium. Dahan elucidates: “The French exhibit a new model of traditional-religious society, which doesn’t shun the secular world and even incorporates elements into their lives. Some French olim are redefining norms and breaking stigmas – they go to synagogue on Shabbat, and from there head to the beach. They wear a yarmulke and dress très chic. The French traditionalists want to be accepted for who they are, and are outraged when the local religious schools suspend their children for going to coed beaches. The French community seeks to legitimize their new form of traditionalism, similar to the American community which sought to legitimize liberal streams.”

Since the 1990s the French aliyah has been fueled by Zionism and ideology, with immigrants seeking to live in a Jewish environment and provide their children with a Jewish education. This is coupled with increasing security threats and terror attacks, due to the rise of Islam and proliferation of anti-Semitism across Europe.

But like every aliyah, this one also has its challenges. Despite ideological and religious motivations, there is still a language barrier, the difficulties in finding employment and in helping the children acclimate to the Israeli school system. About 13% of French olim fail to meet the absorption challenges and return to France. Although Dr. Dahan notes that most of the returnees are people who left hastily following a terror attack, without planning their move carefully beforehand.

The  Francophonian  Bubble

French olim tend to live in their own “Francophone bubble” in Israel. In recent years they have established their own magazines, websites and newspapers in French.

Education is another realm in which many of them separate themselves from Israeli society. Some have opened French-speaking kindergartens for their children, and some high schools allow French students to matriculate in their mother tongue. Some, usually the Ultra- Orthodox olim, have gone so far as to establish French-speaking elementary schools. Dahan notes that this sect views the French language as the way Ashkenazi Haredim view Yiddish – as a wall separating their children from secular Israeli society. Dahan adds that there is a concern that these children, who grow up in this insular society, will be hard-pressed to earn a living, despite growing up in wealthy, well-educated homes.

Employment challenges, Dahan says, created the “Boeing Aliyah”, where the main provider (usually the husband), flies on Sunday to work in France and returns to Israel on the weekends. “It’s problematic,” says Dahan. “It’s like being on the fence. It’s unhealthy for family life.”

Dahan feels that this sort of seclusion will not last. The second and third generations will leave the educational, cultural and professional enclaves.Unlike the first generation of immigrants from the former USSR, who tended to live amongst their own out of a sense of superiority, the French segregation is motivated by religious and communal reasons. “It’s interesting to see how history corrects itself,” notes Dahan.“These olim, who initially emigrated from North Africa to France in the 1960s, are bringing their North African culture to Israel. They have built some 120 synagogues in Israel that are exact replicas of those they left behind in France – synagogues for the Jewish communities of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, each with their distinctive prayer style and customs. In that respect, the French olim brought back these traditions to North African Israelis who came here in the 1950s.

Contribution to the Economy

In the coming decade, there is a potential aliyah of 100,000 Jews from France,” predicts Prof. Elise Brezis, of BIU’s Department of Economics, and Director of the Aharon Meir Center for Banking and Economic Policy, (and herself French-born). In her essay “The Effects of French aliyah on the Israeli Economy”, she notes that about one half of French olim in 2014/15 had an academic profession, as opposed to 25% of Israelis, and as to years of study, their average is slightly higher than that of the typical Israeli. Her data also shows that the rate of unemployment among these olim is very low, and their potential to become dependent on welfare is lower than the national average. “As such this is a golden opportunity for the Israeli economy to gain a valuable workforce which was trained by another country (France),” concludes Brezis.

In addition, the French immigrant is a devoted worker, and wants to contribute to Israel,” she relays. “Therefore, it would be a shame for the State of Israel not to invest all its efforts in promoting this aliyah by providing incentives and helping with all the logistics and red tape.”