French Jews making aliyah go from one conflict zone to another
An hour and a half after landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv I am nursing a paper cup of instant cappuccino in a windowless room of some distant unknown airport terminal. Maryse and Gérard—a retired couple from Paris—sit with me at a small round table in an open dining area, sipping the free coffee and orange juice. As Maryse snacks halfheartedly on miniature glazed cinnamon rolls, Gérard slips into an empty room along the back wall to chant his morning prayers. At the airport in Paris last night, Gérard was wearing a black duckbilled cap, which he took off on the airplane to reveal the blue-and-purple crocheted yarmulke he wears now. I never see him put the cap back on.
Across the room fellow passengers drowse amidst their belongings along a phalanx of plush faux-leather orange armchairs. Banners hanging from the walls display the words “Welcome Home” in multiple languages, and from a ceiling-mounted TV an infomercial from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption plays on an infinite loop, promising to help at “every step of the way.” As their names are called out, Maryse and Gérard disappear into adjoining numbered offices where they fill out the paperwork that will effect a silent transformation they have been planning for more than 40 years. When they board a charter bus tomorrow afternoon for their new apartment in Ashdod, they will be Israelis.
Maryse has been waiting for this moment since she was a young woman in Paris in the 1960s. With aspirations to join a kibbutz, she began attending a Jewish community group, where she met Gérard. In 1970 they were married. They were both born in North Africa, she in Tunisia, he in Algeria. Looking after Gérard as he walks off for his third or fourth refill of coffee Maryse smiles a wry grin. “Mr. Coffee,” she says, and begins to chuckle, her crystal blue eyes flashing mischievously. I notice that the two of them are wearing matching denim jackets. A gold-colored cane rests lightly against Maryse’s dark pants, occasionally sliding to the floor. She looks more exhausted than relieved.
As we pile onto a shuttle bus, Nora and some of the other young people in the group—known by everyone as “the kids”—pluck kumquats from a tree outside the terminal. Fluffy clouds hang high overhead and the air is warm and moist. The bus takes us to baggage claim, where everyone’s luggage sits in a pile by the carousel. A girl named Priscilla wheels a loaded cart out of the airport, holding her sedated cat in a travel carrier by her side. Her hair is pulled neatly back into a French braid, and she looks a bit like Audrey Hepburn. Because members of her family concealed their identities during World War II, Priscilla cannot prove she’s Jewish, and she has spent the last three years converting to Judaism in order to make aliyah. As she wheels a cart through the terminal’s automatic doors, she turns to Nora. “There you go, we’re Israelis,” she says, and they both laugh.
But that’s not quite true yet. Leaving the airport, we board a bus that takes us over rolling green hills to the Jerusalem Ramada. I am so tired I can hardly take in any of what I’m seeing. At the hotel, we sample plates of fruit and Israeli salads from a buffet table in the dining room. After breakfast, I help Maryse and Gérard carry their luggage up to their room before heading to a conference room where they will sign yet more papers.
From a seat at the back of the room, I watch a man named Michael sit down at a table across from a harried group of anonymous Jewish Agency delegates. His dark hair is slicked back under a black velvet yarmulke, and he wears jeans and a tight grey thermal shirt. When he is done he hurries back down the aisle, stopping briefly to tap me on the shoulder. “It’s very moving to sign that you are really Jewish,” he says with a smile and rushes out of the conference room.
As the ceremony ends, everyone goes up to their rooms to nap. I step outside, basking in the smell of unknown flowers. I wonder if Michael feels any different now, lying up in his hotel room. If Israel will fill the spiritual hole around which Maryse and Gérard have organized their entire lives. If Précylia will ever move back here. There is a palpable freshness to the air, and I start to feel lightheaded. Having nowhere else to go, I walk into the Old City.
As I return from my walk I spot Michael again in the hotel lobby. He’s standing alone near the elevator bank, waiting for a bus to arrive for a scheduled tour of Old Jerusalem. Whenever I see Michael, he is alone. When his wife and children moved to Israel a year ago, he stayed behind in Paris, working construction jobs to save up money for the trip. “Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of moving here,” he says. “When I was 13, I came and volunteered for three months in Jericho.”
Michael speaks of Israel with all the enthusiasm of a convert, dismissing the concerns other olim have raised about the lack of the social and financial support systems they’re used to in France. “We come here for a better quality of life, we don’t come here for money,” he says. “We’ve become too materialistic in France. We’ve become a welfare country.”
Michael was raised in the suburbs of Paris in what he calls a poor family, and he says he knows a lot of Jews who are leaving France because of the worsening situation there. “That wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago,” he says. “My best friends were Arabs. We loved each other like brothers.” When he runs into them now, his childhood friends are still friendly, but their children bristle. “The problem is that the Israeli conflict has been exported to France,” he says. French Jews and Arabs have come to see each other as Palestinians and Israelis, and heightened tensions in Israel lead to spikes of violence in France. Although he makes a point of acknowledging his appreciation for France’s rich culture and history, when I ask him if there is a solution to the situation there, he says there is only one: “To leave.”