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Members of the French community at a coffee shop in Netanya, IsraelLior Mizrahi/Getty Images
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Israel’s French New Wave

The growing and distinctly western Mediterranean olim are a boon to Israel but a dark omen for the future of France

by
Matti Friedman
October 27, 2022
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Members of the French community at a coffee shop in Netanya, IsraelLior Mizrahi/Getty Images

The rumblings of Jewish history take many forms, and in this case the form was a disk of lemon filling, the dough brittle, meringue slightly browned. I was at Gagou de Paris. Across the street was the rival patisserie L’Artisan. I was called jeune homme by a manager graciously rounding down, and heard French at three of the four outdoor tables adjacent to mine. But hurrying by us on the sidewalk were the familiar capotes, the e-bikes, the skinny jeans on Arab teens, the religious girls with hair wrapped like African queens—it was Jerusalem.

Because the condition of Jews is a barometer of events anywhere, and because Israel has always been a barometer of Jewish life in other places, in Israel you can sense events far away. Even without ever watching the news this year, for example, you’d notice unusual numbers of Ukrainians around, and young Russian speakers with fashionable sneakers just off the plane from Sheremetyevo, bewildered and traveling light, and you’d know that something fateful is happening in and around the Russian Federation.

In the same vein, what does it mean that when I walk down a short stretch of Bethlehem Road in south Jerusalem, near my own street, I now pass the new butcher shop Le Charolais, and then the even newer bakery Delices de Paris, before reaching the restaurant Rendez-Vous? Discussing French affairs through cuisine is a cliché, yes, but the altered gastronomical landscape of the neighborhood is hard to miss. And what about the families erupting from Sephardic synagogues around here on Shabbat by the dozens, shouting arrête Ayala! and viens Eitan! Or the fact that of the kids in my son’s kindergarten last year, a quarter had parents recently arrived from Paris or Marseilles? I would never claim to understand the soul of a culture whose language I don’t speak, or of a place where I’ve never lived. But even through the limited lens of this city, it’s clear that something is happening, and that it’s linked to the increasingly unsettled feeling of Jewish life in these times.

At Le Charolais, under a few sides of beef hanging elegantly from hooks and by shelves stocked with imported preserves, I met Avraham Haim, 61, who spoke to me while dismembering red slabs with an enormous knife. Haim, who has a beard and a black kippah, trained at Potel et Chabot, the 200-year-old Paris caterer. This butcher shop, which opened three years ago, serves many French customers who are professionals, he said, people who are used to high standards from home and can pay. “The people who come here know what they want,” he said. He came to Jerusalem 15 years ago and commutes from the neighborhood of Har Homa, which is now heavily French. When I asked why he moved to Israel, he said it was because his wife wanted to. When I asked why French Jews were moving in general, he mentioned the fear of violence, the sense that the country no longer seems itself: “It isn’t France anymore, it’s Muslim.” I asked if he thought Jews had a future in France. He paused with his knife. “I am not a prophet,” he said.

Newly arrived immigrants from France study Hebrew at ulpan on March 12, 2015, in Netanya, Israel

Newly arrived immigrants from France study Hebrew at ulpan on March 12, 2015, in Netanya, IsraelLior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Down the street, the chef at Rendez-Vous had a different take. Yoni Markezana, 34, grew up in Marseilles, son of a father with old family roots in the city and a mother from Algeria. The new arrivals in Israel are overwhelmingly of North African extraction, as France’s Jewish community, estimated at about 440,000, mostly hails from the old colonial possessions of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The same is true of French Muslims. “We came with them, and I grew up with them,” Markezana said of the Muslims of Marseilles. His parents moved the family to Israel when Yoni was 14. The move was due not to fear, but to Zionism. “It was their dream,” he said.

I asked about concerns of violence committed by Muslim radicals, the kind of events that make the international news. He sees this as a more pressing concern in Paris than in Marseilles. “People say there are lots of Arabs in France, but ...,” he grinned, and gestured around at the city. More than a third of Jerusalem’s residents are Arab Muslims. If you’re fleeing a threat from radical Islam in Europe, where you’ve already fled from your ancestral home in Muslim North Africa, does it really make sense to choose the heart of the Arab Middle East?

There have always been French Jews in Israel, but the sense in recent years is that a “wave” of immigration is under way, and that this population has assumed a critical mass that didn’t exist before. It’s not quite the Russian wave, which brought a million people to Israel in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed; since 1972, the first year for which the Absorption Ministry has records, the number of arrivals from France is a tenth of that number—106,775. But of those, a remarkable 41,860 have come in just the last 10 years.

As a result, the French have assumed a solid shape in the shared imagination of the Israeli public—not the older clichés of de Gaulle or Yves Montand, but that of a traditional Jew, less European than Mediterranean, Casablanca via Paris, God-fearing, life-loving, right-leaning, the imprint of a Star of David necklace sunburned onto the chest after too many hours at the beach. The beach at Netanya, of course, because with all due respect to Jerusalem, it’s Netanya, on the coast north of Tel Aviv, that’s seen as the holy city of the French. On a recent afternoon in a local playground there, nearly all of the young families seemed to be Francophone. A municipal spokeswoman told me with impressive precision that 16,602 French immigrants have moved in since 2002, and estimated the number of Francophone residents at about double that, just over 10% of the population. Netanya is in fact “the Riviera of Israel,” according to the jingle that plays while you’re on hold on the phone with city hall, though I have not heard this anywhere else.

Their image is less European than Mediterranean, Casablanca via Paris, God-fearing, life-loving, right-leaning, the imprint of a Star of David necklace sunburned onto the chest.

The French “wave,” like any migration, is a complicated affair, a mix of push and pull factors that are hard to predict, or even understand. Arie Abitbol tries nonetheless, because this is his job as the official in charge of Western Europe at the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for aliya. This word, meaning “ascent,” is the lovely Zionist term for Jewish immigration, granting nobility to an experience that often involves an ignoble mix of humiliation and alienation. Immigrants are thus olim, “ascenders.” Abitbol moved to Israel from Morocco when he was 18.

Since Israel’s founding, Abitbol said, French Jews have come to Israel at a rate of about 1,500 a year, with a momentary peak of 7,000 in the euphoria that followed the Six-Day War of 1967. After that, things went back to normal until the early years of this century, with the outbreak of the Palestinian terror wave known as the Second Intifada. That violence, he said, “began to mix the Middle East story with the story of the Jews in France, and turned French Jews into those perceived as responsible for the situation in Israel.” That perception exacerbated what scholars of immigration call “push factors,” a cold academic term that can mean practical fears about economic stability or health, and also thousands of frightening personal experiences ranging from petty vandalism to murder. It’s these factors, Abitbol said, that have decided and will continue to decide how many Jews move here. “We have tried plans and incentives, but the truth is that these hardly affect the level of aliya,” he said. Looking at Israeli immigration numbers thus offers a kind of recent history of France.

Tension in the neighborhoods where French Jews and Muslims had lived in close proximity built up to the 2006 incident mentioned in nearly every conversation with French immigrants: The killing of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped and tortured for more than three weeks by a group of young Muslims calling themselves the “Gang of Barbarians.” His body was found by a road on the outskirts of Paris, French authorities denied at first that hatred of Jews had anything to do with it, and immigration numbers more than doubled the following year.

They subsided when Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 and did his best to calm Jewish concerns, but in 2012, Mohammed Merah drove his motorcycle to a Jewish school in Toulouse and murdered a rabbi, Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arie, 6, and Gabriel, 3, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsonego. (In separate attacks, Merah also killed three French soldiers, one of them, like the killer, a French Muslim of North African descent.) The numbers at the Jewish Agency went up again. In 2015, when another Muslim gunman murdered four people at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris—this was just after different Muslim gunmen murdered 12 people at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and before others killed 130 people at the Bataclan theater and across Paris one night later the same year—the numbers reached the historic peak after the Six-Day War. When a poll published in January 2016 asked Jewish respondents if they were considering moving to Israel, 40% said yes.

Most of those people haven’t, though, despite other crimes like the murder by a French Muslim of 65-year-old Sarah Halimi in 2017, and the murder of 34-year-old Eyal Haddad by another French Muslim, his roommate in a Paris suburb, in August of this year. But the annual numbers remain far above the old average of 1,500: Last year, 3,568 assumed Israeli citizenship. (That’s just slightly lower than the 4,038 who came from the United States, where the Jewish community is 12 times larger.)

Of those coming, Abitbol said, roughly a third are retirees, a third are families with children, and a third are unmarried young people. Most are of North African descent, and range from traditionally observant to stringently Orthodox. Immigration in 2022 is very different than it was even a decade or two ago—social media and cheap flights make aliya a less binary decision than it once was, and some people move back and forth, meaning that it’s sometimes hard to know exactly who’s living where. But it’s clear that the ludicrously high cost of living in Israel and the declining value of the euro against the shekel have made things harder, and the Jewish Agency estimates that between 6% and 8% of immigrants return to France. Yoni Markezana, the chef at Rendez-Vous, for example, said the economics were forcing him to seriously consider a return to Marseilles. The bottom line is that despite the Israeli impression of a dramatic human wave, the vast majority of French Jews are not lining up at the El Al counter. But at the same time, the past decade has seen more French Jews move here than in any other since the founding of the state.

One of the new arrivals in 2015 was Anaël Malet, a graduate of both the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, and now a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University and a sharp observer of the changing world of French Jewry. In a recent article for Mosaic, she noted that Jews are being squeezed not only by radical Islam but also by the government’s response to that problem—a more aggressive secularism, or laïcité, a founding principle of the French state that is often indistinguishable from simple intolerance of religious difference.

When she was a child in Champigny-sur-Marne near Paris in the 1990s and early aughts, for example, her public school offered an alternative lunch for kids like her who couldn’t eat pork. But because of the increased laïcité, such meals came to be seen as an unacceptable surrender to religious exceptionalism and are no longer available. There is more open resentment of special dispensations to Jewish university students, like granting them different dates to write exams that fall on religious holidays. Employees who deliver public services aren’t allowed to openly display religious symbols, meaning, for example, that a bus driver wearing a kippah would be breaking the law.

Amid these changes, it makes sense that emigration has become more widely discussed, she said, if by no means universally adopted. But Israel isn’t the only option. Some move within France, to places that are safer or have larger Jewish communities. People of more means may well prefer the United States, which happens to be true of nearly every Jewish migration wave from any country since the dawn of Zionism. “If you have more money and prospects, New York might be more attractive,” Malet said. If you’re in Manhattan and looking for an illustration of this point, attend Shabbat services at the West Side Sephardic Synagogue on 76th Street. But the position of Jews in the United States also appears far less solid than it did a decade ago, with more naked hostility from empowered segments of both the left and the right.

Malet describes her own move as not particularly ideological. She had a few uncles in Israel, and a cousin who’d come the year before she did, and when she was offered a university scholarship she came. Then she stayed. I have more than one friend with a similar story. Kids drift over, then parents come. There’s a social logic in play: At some elusive moment in a movement of people, the center of gravity shifts.

At Vice Versa, a French bookstore in downtown Jerusalem, the staff has noticed the shift in both the number and the genre of the books crossing the counter. The number of new customers is slowly ticking up, Nathalie Hirschsprung, the proprietor, told me, many of them are young parents, and the children’s section is doing particularly well. These new arrivals want to integrate, but also want their kids to read French. “If you ask why they came, they may tell you terrible things about antisemitism,” she said, “but they remain attached to France and to French culture.”

Unlike most of the recent arrivals, Hirschsprung is secular and of Ashkenazi descent, with a different French story. Her grandmother was sent to Auschwitz via the French internment camp of Drancy, and two of her uncles were sent there directly. She came to Israel first as a cultural representative of the French Foreign Ministry, and eventually decided to stay. Because most of today’s new olim are traditional Sephardic Jews, there’s demand for prayer books and religious texts in French translation, and though Vice Versa does sell Jewish philosophy, Hirschsprung leaves the sale of prayer books to Galia Books, another French shop in an ultra-Orthodox part of town. Most of her shelves are dedicated to secular literature.

For 74 shekels, for example, you can buy the bestseller Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. In this satire of modern France from 2015 we meet the character of Myriam, a university student who exists as an object of sexual attention for the miserable narrator, Francois, but who also demonstrates that whatever the actual size of the Jewish exodus, it is important enough to have assumed a place in an important political novel by one of the country’s most famous writers.

As an Islamist political party rises to dominance in the rudderless France of the novel, a distraught Myriam tells the narrator that her parents have sold their home in Paris and are leaving for Tel Aviv. They sense that something bad is coming. She’s going with them temporarily, over the summer vacation, but will be back. “I don’t speak a word of Hebrew,” she says. “France is my home.” Over the next few months, however, the frequency of her emails decreases, and so does the number of smileys and heart emojis. She stops calling him “dearest.” She meets someone else. She’s not coming back.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.

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