French Jews making aliyah go from one conflict zone to another
At dinner at the Jerusalem Ramada, I sit with “the kids” at a long rectangular table in a corner of the dining hall. Across from me, Daniel-from-Barcelona—who traveled with our group because there is no Jewish Agency branch in Spain—peers longingly at a table of South Americans who have just arrived this afternoon. Daniel-from-Barcelona is the real-life version of the European from my teenage foreign-exchange fantasies. Eva, who sits next to me, asks Daniel what kind of girl he likes, then points to me. I blush. Looking at Eva, Daniel-from-Barcelona says it’s too bad I’m going back to America. Eva asks when I’m going to make aliyah. They both stare deep into my eyes. I laugh and get up for another dinner roll.
After dinner, Nora and I walk up the spiral staircase to the hotel lobby and make our way to a lounge on the second floor across from the Internet room. The nightly Muslim call to prayer sounds as we sit down next to the bay windows over the Ramada parking lot. Nora wears billowing bohemian pants that inhale and collapse as she sits down. Her eyes are huge, communicating a bulging intelligence that bubbles up in a fidgety kind of energy. She speaks English faster than I can write.
The first time Nora came to Israel, she was 13 and hated it. “I expected a lot,” she says, imagining Israel as the paradise of diaspora hype. Instead she found the people cold and unwelcoming and couldn’t wait to leave. But when she returned for Passover three years ago, she discovered a different Israel among the young people on her kibbutz. “This new generation around our age is really different. They were born in this state, their parents were born in this state. They don’t have this fear of uncertainty. They are not scared.”
As we talk, Nora looks down at her phone distractedly, awaiting a call from a friend about a possible apartment opportunity. At 24, she moved to Israel without a job or a place to live, but listening to the command in her voice, it seems clear that she will land on her feet. She wants to use her degree in theater to import French drama to Israel’s francophone community. Her goals are lofty, but she’s clear-headed about her prospects. “I know it’s going to be complicated,” she says.
Nora wasn’t raised in a religious family and doesn’t share the idealism of many of her fellow olim. Before coming to Israel, she debated moving to England but was discouraged by the economic situation there. She recognizes that Israel isn’t perfect and thinks it’s important to offer a critical perspective. I wonder if this isn’t just the guarded optimism of a younger generation, another kind of idealism.
Nora pauses to take a call from her uncle, who lives in Israel and plans to attend the ceremony tomorrow afternoon. “I don’t like Paris,” she says after she hangs up. “I prefer this war to the other one, because no one reacts there, no one.” More than any particular form of racism or anti-Semitism, she says French society has grown cold to its own brutality. She’s seen people collapse on the metro and intervened when no one else would. She’s watched transit authority officers turn their eyes from dangerous subway fights. After witnessing a violent attack in a Paris park, she and her friends called out to a police officer down the street. The officer told them they were out of her district and put in a call for help before continuing on her patrol. “It’s the law of the streets—they’ve given up there.”
After the Jewish Agency delegates have distributed the new Israeli IDs, everyone hangs around to hug and take photos. Eventually, they migrate to an adjoining room, where the hotel staff has heaped their luggage into a pile. Back in the lobby, people mill about, waiting for buses to arrive and distribute them across the country. The first to go are the kids, all but one of whom are headed for Tel Aviv. They depart as a lively group, already planning a party as they load their suitcases into a large white van. I return to the lobby to sit with Maryse and Gérard.
When they leave, I’ll take a city bus back into Jerusalem. I’ll let street vendors lure me into overpriced jewelry shops with the promise of free coffee and mint tea. I’ll visit three of the holiest sites in the world—the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—all in one day. I’ll make strange new friends in dingy youth hostel kitchens. My backpack will be searched more times than I can count. I’ll see the separation fence and listen to the life stories of Arab bakers who no longer bother to hope for peace. And I’ll finally walk the beaches of Tel Aviv, as crisp and salty-white as in those photos.
Watching the last of the buses disappear, I know I should be excited by all of this. But I am standing alone in an empty hotel parking lot, and my mind fills with questions I can’t answer. What exactly are these people running away from and what do they hope to find here? A part of me thinks they are crazy for trying this. A part of me thinks they are just plain wrong. Because I know that somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of French olim ultimately return to France, I am sure that at least one of these families will move back. The thought of such upheaval makes me queasy. And yet I feel a fondness for them I could not have anticipated. I envy their hope. I want them to succeed.
As I re-lace my tennis shoes and tighten the straps on my backpack, I watch the clouds pull apart, freeing up broad patches of blue. Mostly I’m thinking that I can’t wait to get back to America, to the place where I grew up and where all of my family lives. A place that I love and hate simultaneously and feel perfectly at ease saying so. It is the only place I have ever called home, which is to say that it is not so much a country as a feeling of comfort and belonging. I feel lucky to have such a place, and I have no idea what I would do without it.