Disappointed, French Jews leave Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has antagonized French leaders by calling on France’s Jewish citizens to leave their country.

Erez Lichtfeld SIPA USA

In recent years, Israel has been trying to incite the mass exodus of France’s half-million-strong Jewish community.

To the annonyance of French leaders and many French Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials have repeatedly exploited acts of violence in France to urge Jews to leave.

Zionist activists already see last week’s truck attack that killed more than 80 people in the resort city of Nice as another opportunity to press this agenda.

This latest attack is being seized on by politicians keen to promote the corrosive narrative of a “war of civilizations” between “Islam” and the “West” despite the fact that a disproportionate number of those killed in Nice – one third – were Muslims.

“There is no future for the Jews in France because of the Arabs, and because of a very anti-Israel position in society, where new anti-Semitism and ancient anti-Semitism converge,” Natan Sharansky, the head of Israel’s Jewish Agency, claimed just last month.

The Jewish Agency, which works to encourage Jewish settlement in Israel and the occupied West Bank, has in recent years deployed massive resources to France, where Europe’s biggest Jewish population lives.

These efforts have met with some success. Departures hit almost 8,000 in 2015, against fewer than 2,000 three years earlier.

This surge came after a gunman with a troubled history killed three children and an adult at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012. The shooter, Mohammed Merah, had also killed three French paratroopers whom he had targeted for being Muslim.

But in the first half of this year, the number was only about half of what it was in the same period in 2015.

Going home

There is another side to this story that is rarely told: among those who do leave France for Israel, many return home disappointed.

In an in-depth look at the issue this week, the Paris newspaper Le Monde cites estimates that somewhere around 15-30 percent of French emigrants to Israel eventually return home.

Exact figures are unavailable because the question of returning to France is subject to a “double taboo,” according to historian and Israel specialist Frédérique Schillo: it’s seen as a failure both for the returnee as well as for Israel.

“It’s political,” Schillo told Le Monde, “Israel is a refuge for the world’s Jews. If it’s revealed that the big emigration from France is a failure, what would people say? The Jewish Agency has no interest in talking about it.”

Le Monde profiled several individuals – some only by first name because of the stigma attached to speaking out – who illustrate the different reasons why integration in Israel has failed.

Last year, Jacqueline, a 60-year-old retiree, sold up everything in France in order to go to the “land of [my] ancestors and live in the sun.” She also said that she had experienced anti-Semitic abuse in France.

But just seven months later she was back home. “It was impossible to find anywhere to live, it was prohibitive, and I couldn’t stand the heat,” she said. Jacqueline also cited France’s far better medical and social assistance.

“I’m a Zionist and I love Israel,” Jacqueline said, “but not to live there.”

Jöelle Roubine, now 52, went to Israel in 2006 and when she got there was in love with the place. But she went home to France six years later.

“I was penniless and I missed Paris,” she said, “and the religious weight of Jerusalem started to feel too heavy.”

Her return to France has been like a “dream come true.”

“It was a love affair. I marveled in front of the bakeries, the cheese, the pastries,” Roubine said. “I love it more than ever.”

Karine, a lawyer, left France for Israel in 2003. She returned home three years later, bringing with her an Israeli husband and their children.

She does not deny the difficulties France is going through – her husband narrowly escaped the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall last November by suspected Islamic State gunmen.

But her attachment to France remains strong. “In Israel, I missed the republic, meritocracy and the values of equality,” she said.

“I realized in Israel that I am French first, whereas before I had the impression that I was Jewish first,” Karine added.

She still sees anti-Semitism in France but believes that the right thing to do is to fight it there.

Staying

For some, the experience has sent them from one personal and political pole to another. Alexandre, a doctor, was extremely religious before he went to Israel but returned “completely atheist.”

He told Le Monde he was turned off by the “politicization of religion” and the “development of an absurd mystical and messianic discourse.”

After spending a year in Haifa in 2007, he went home to France angered by the “right-wing Israeli propaganda,” by the “distrust towards the Arabs” and by a feeling that the country was overrun with a conspiratorial mindset.

This has made Alexandre a political outcast among his friends in France, though he says he still gravitates towards his Jewish community when he feels that his identity as a Jew is under threat.

Rebecca, who went to Israel in 2005 and returned in 2011, says that she still worries about the future of Jews in France. But she says that many of her friends who do think of leaving look towards Canada or the US, rather than Israel.

Despite this unease, many are anxious not to feed the Israeli narrative that they are leaving in large numbers and doing so out of fear.

In January, “dozens of French Jews and Jews in other European countries” told Haaretz that they were staying put despite “a rising threat of terror and despite the exhortations of Netanyahu.”

“There are other reasons why people are leaving rather than terror, and it’s not just Jews,” a Paris rabbi told the Tel Aviv newspaper. “Besides, most of us are staying.”

Haaretz’s jarring conclusion was that “barring a massive campaign of terror,” the vast majority of European Jews would continue to support Israel from afar, but say “no, thank you” to Netanyahu’s invitation.

And as Le Monde reports, not an insignificant number of those who have gone to Israel sooner or later return home.

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Are these figures quite correct? Is it true 70-85% of French immigrants stay in Israel?
I'm told plenty of jews come from France to the UK but no idea how many stay on here into the long term, or what their position will be once UK leaves the EU.

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Perhaps thats because they wised up....Netanyahu told French Jews to go to 'Israel', because there’s nothing like solving one country’s postcolonial problems by contributing to the neo-colonial project of another.

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Interesting article! I personally know five Jewish families that left France for Israel. All but one has returned. The other family moved to the US!

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