Rising Anti-Semitism Increasing Numbers of French Jews Moving to Israel
Following the recent terror attacks in France, more French Jews than ever before are planning on emigrating to Israel. Life there is expensive and far from perfect, but anti-Semitism in Europe, say many, is becoming intolerable.
El Al Flight 324 landed a full three hours ago, but Lucie Podemski is still waiting for her father to emerge. She is sitting in a café in the Tel Aviv airport along with a balloon she brought along for the occasion. "Welcome," it says. Suddenly, she receives a text message from her father including a photo of the new ID card he had just been given. He is now an Israeli citizen.
André Podemski looks happy in the picture on his new document. "In France, you always have to look so serious," Lucie Podemski says. "Here, we can smile."
More than six years ago, just after she graduated from university, Lucie Podemski emigrated from France to Israel and opened a daycare center in Tel Aviv. Several weeks ago, her cousin arrived. And now, on a recent Monday, her father. Only her sister is still living in Paris. "But she is afraid," Lucie says. "Armed police are posted in front of her children's school." Since the attacks in Paris a couple of weeks ago, even her sister wears a bullet-proof vest when she pick up her children after school.
Recent years have seen a rise in the number of French Jews leaving for Israel, with fear of attacks being the most important reason for making the so-called "Aliyah," as the "return" to Israel is referred. And the list of attacks is long. In 2006, young mobile-phone salesman Ilan Halimi was kidnapped by a youth gang and tortured to death. Two years ago, gunman Mohamed Merah shot and killed children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Just two months ago, a couple was robbed in the Créteil district on the outskirts of Paris and the woman was raped.
All of the victims were targeted because they were Jews -- and they are only the best known of thousands of incidents. But the murder of four Jews in the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher on Jan. 9, just two days after the related Islamist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, represents a new apex of violence.
When André Podemski, 65, finally emerges from the arrivals area, his daughter throws her arms around him and wraps him in an Israeli flag. He then tells the story of how he spent hours on that Friday in Paris glued to the television to keep tabs on the hostage-taking. He knew Hyper Cacher well; it was only a five-minute drive from his apartment. And he himself owned a supermarket until just a short time ago. "I was shocked," he says. "But I wasn't surprised."
Walks on the Beach
Five years ago, he says, he began to no longer feel safe in Paris. In the Metro, he took a good look at people before boarding and when he was out alone in the evenings, he was afraid. André Podemski bought an apartment in Tel Aviv and when he went there on vacation, he felt liberated during his evening walks on the beach. Finally, he went to the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps make arrangements for those wanting to immigrate to the Holy Land.
Following the attacks in Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on French Jews to come to Israel, their true "homeland." Encouraging Jews from around the world to move to Israel is, after all, part of the country's raison d' ê tre. The four who were killed in the Hyper Cacher supermarket were even buried in Jerusalem.
"But such statements are dangerous," says Gérard Benhamou, head of a group of French immigrants in Tel Aviv. "That's what terrorists think -- that they can use violence to achieve their goal of driving out the Jews." Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned: "Aliyah must be done out of will and not out of fear."
But it is hard not to be afraid, and not just in France. In Sweden, anti-Semitic threats doubled in 2014. In Britain, a survey has shown that every second person harbors anti-Semitic prejudices and roughly a quarter of all Jews in Britain have thought about leaving the country in the last two years. Shortly after the attacks in Paris, police in Belgium uncovered an apparent jihadist plot to attack Jewish facilities.
"In some (EU) states, the majority of the Jewish community is not sure they have a future in Europe," said European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. "I think this is a huge challenge to the very foundations of European integration." French Prime Minister Manuel Vals also warned at the march to commemorate the murder victims that France would be a different country without its Jews. Nobody should have to feel fear, he said, whether they are journalists, police officers or Jews.
In 2014, more than 7,000 people left France for Israel, almost double the total from the previous year. A total of 500,000 Jews live in France, putting it third behind the United States and Israel in terms of its total Jewish population. But it has also become the country from which the most immigrants to Israel come. "We are now also prepared if 15,000 come," says Nathan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency.
"For the first time in Israel's history, more Jews are arriving from the free world than from other countries," Sharansky says. Israel, he continues, has become much more than just a refuge from anti-Semitism. "People are now freely choosing Israel even though they could go to the US, Canada or Australia."
Daniel Benhaim, 41, head of Agence Juive, the French chapter of the Jewish Agency, has a similar message. In two or three years, he says, the numbers of French Jews leaving the country will be even greater than it is now. He oversees the 30 employees who work for the agency -- in its main offices in Paris and Marseille but also in smaller offices in Lyon, Strasbourg and Nice. Everywhere, the telephones are constantly ringing and people are registering in large numbers for informational events. In normal times, Agence Juive receives some 300 such calls every fortnight. In the last two weeks, it has been closer to 3,000.
Benhaim was born and raised near Paris and made the Aliyah when he was 17. Though he has now returned to France for his job, he says that Israel is his home, just as it is for his two children. He plans to return to Israel once his finishes his stint with Agence Juive.
Benhaim is careful to note that when he left France, his motivation was a different one than that propelling so many to leave today. He was driven by the Zionist dream, wanting to help build up Israel and do his part. When asked when fear began to take precedence over the Zionist dream, Benhaim says it was a process that took place over the course of 15 years.
He relates an anecdote that tells a lot about how attitudes toward Jews have changed. In 1990, a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras was defiled, whereupon 100,000 French took to the streets in solidarity with Jews in the country. But after the murders in Toulouse two years ago, not even 10,000 demonstrators turned out.
Enzo Lumbroso has an even more disturbing story to tell. The 23-year-old, wearing a ruby red running suit and stylishly mussed hair, says that there were several demonstrations against Israel's military operation during the Gaza war last summer and that even synagogues were attacked. Demonstrators chanted: "Kill the Jews, kill Israel." And it wasn't just Muslims who were raging against Jews," Lumbroso says. Anti-Semitic tones could be heard among the rest of the population as well, he says.
Lumbroso says he had long wanted to emigrate. Last summer, he completed his economics degree at a university in Paris and began preparing for his move. The fact that he would have to serve in the military in his new homeland didn't bother him in the least.
He arrived in Israel shortly after the Paris attacks. At the airport, he received health and social insurance, in addition to his new identification card and a small amount of cash. Lumbroso will spend the next five months in an absorption center, where he takes Hebrew classes for five hours a day. The facility has a cafeteria, a synagogue and exercise equipment in the air raid shelter. The state invests a significant amount of money in immigration: In addition to the language courses, it offers loans for entrepreneurs, financial support for students, stipends for artists and assistance for both home buyers and renters. On top of that, single immigrants receive up to 4,000 ($4,508) and families with two children around 11,000.
When Lumbroso is finished with his military service, he hopes to open a business importing second-hand clothing or a bar with delivery service. In Israel, the economy is growing, even as it stagnates in Europe. "Here, I can simply try things out," he says, adding that Israelis are willing to take risks and to experiment. "And if it doesn't work, then I'm not labeled a loser. I'll just do something else," Lumbroso says.
But for university graduates, it isn't easy to find a well-paid job in Israel. Salaries are around 30 percent lower on average than in France while rents and food are more expensive. As a result, many immigrants commute following their Aliyah, working in France and spending weekends in Israel. They are referred to as "Boeing Aliyah." Some even leave Israel again after a time, heading to Canada or the US.
Wealthy French Jews in particular tend not to emigrate, preferring instead to buy property in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv as investments, holiday apartments or as a place to retire in the future. They spend their summer holidays on Israeli beaches and their apartments stand empty for the rest of the year.
Mickael and Angélique Cohen moved with their three children a few months ago to Netanya, a small city north of Tel Aviv with a large French community. The Cohens now live in a newly built residential high-rise with a small Eiffel Tower in each of the children's rooms. They sold their apartment in Paris. "We currently have enough money for exactly one year," says Angélique Cohen, 37. "We are young. It is still possible for us to start a new life." She fiddles with her necklace, on which a Star of David is hanging. In France, she says, she used to hide it under her sweater.
"We think that our children have a better future here," says her husband Mickael, 40. In France, he says, there is no economic recovery in sight and the tension is quick to turn into hostility. "People always think that, as Jews, you must have money," he says.
Angélique Cohen says she always knew that she would live in Israel one day, in the country where both her religion and her people are from: the "home of her heart," as she says. But the move was triggered by a business lunch in Paris. She was sitting there with her colleagues, totally normal French people, and they were laughing at the anti-Semitic jokes of the comedian Dieudonné -- the same Dieudonné who was just arrested for posting "Je suis Charlie Coulibaly" on his Facebook page following the Jewish supermarket attack. The perpetrator of that attack was named Amedy Coulibaly. Angélique Cohen placed her call to the Jewish Agency on the evening following that business lunch.
'Makes Me Afraid'
The family moved last summer. In France, Angélique Cohen worked in a large IT company, but she is still looking for work in Israel. Her husband, who owned an eyewear shop in Paris, is having difficulties because he is not allowed to open a shop in Israel with the degree he has. Neither speaks much Hebrew, the signs in the local supermarket are impenetrable and visits to the authorities are a challenge. They also don't have family in Netanya nor have they made many friends thus far. "You can't compare your life here with what you had in Europe," Angélique Cohen says.
In addition, the security situation in Israel has once again worsened. Several attackers have rammed crowds with cars and two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem last November. In Tel Aviv last Wednesday, a young Palestinian stabbed 16 passengers in a bus, wounding at least three of them seriously.
"Of course that makes me afraid," says Angélique Cohen. But she says that she still feels safer in Israel than back in France. In Israel, she says, they are part of the majority, whereas in France, they were targeted for being members of a minority.
"I am more worried about my family in France," Mickael Cohen says. His parents still live in Paris and he and his wife are now trying to convince them to move to Israel as well. But his parents moved to France from Tunisia in the 1970s. "They don't want to lose everything for a second time," he says.