In light of the US political elections and the worldwide refugee crisis, the topic of immigration is more pertinent than ever. Questions of migration, integration, and assimilation have overwhelmed both national and international stages.
France in particular has had a somewhat uncomfortable history with multiculturalism and immigration. In a country where the census does not acknowledge race or ethnicity—and where French nationality is promoted before all other cultural heritages—it’s no wonder that this multi-ethnic nation faces identity problems. In recent years, France’s controversial laïcité (secularism) laws have sparked debate and scrutiny. The laws prohibit displays of religion in public schools and seem to disproportionately affect Muslim school girls who cannot wear hijabs (headscarves) to class. France also faces the dilemma of first, second, and third generation immigrants who feel rejected by both their countries of heritage and France. One rather insidious result has been the cadre of people turning to violent extremism, which rightly places France’s questionable approach to integration on the international podium.
Although much of France’s integration discussions focus on Arab and Muslim populations, another smaller community has also been experiencing its own identity turning point. Faced with increasing anti-Semitism and a weak economy, many French Jews have decided to immigrate to Israel rather than stay in France, their country of birth. In 2015 alone, 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel—a significant number, considering the Jewish population in France is estimated to be around 475,000. In 2014 and 2015, France was, for the first time, the largest source of immigrants moving to Israel.
The existence of anti-Semitism in France is undeniable. In 2012, three students and one teacher were murdered at a Jewish primary school in Toulouse. This resulted in a 2013 study by the EU on anti-Semitism, which revealed that French Jews reported experiencing anti-Semitic harassment, feelings of not belonging, and discrimination, at or among the highest levels of the eight countries surveyed. Results indicated that 21% of French Jews had personally experienced anti-Semitic behavior in the previous year, and 87% believed that anti-Semitism had increased in the past five years, among other jarring statistics.
January 2015 saw the bloody Paris terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, followed by the killing of four Jews at a Kosher Supermarket. Just after the attack, the Israeli government approved $47 million in funding to promote Jewish immigration from France, Belgium, and Ukraine. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also made a speech urging French and European Jews to move to Israel, which he said was “also [their] home.” The November 2015 coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris further underscored the rising threat of extremist terrorist groups who have recently placed a higher target on westernized European citizens. In the vigipirate state, armed guards stand at attention outside state buildings, national monuments, Jewish schools, and synagogues. Many Jews feel this rising tension acutely. The threat of extremism has manifested itself not only in large-scale attacks, but also in the spike in the number of smaller displays of violence and words of anti-Semitism. Jewish people make up less than 1% of France, yet account account for more than half of the victims of hate crimes. All of this combined almost certainly correlates with the increase of French immigration to Israel.
Although French immigration to Israel did taper off in the latter half of 2016, its unprecedented statistics from the previous two years reflect a larger desire for French Jews to be in a place where they feel totally accepted. “Here [in Israel] we lose our identity. We don’t feel Jewish. We’re just citizens,” says Elliot, 22, who moved to Israel a few months ago. For Elliot and many others, the move revolved less around feelings of anti-Semitism or fear, and more around the desire to be a part of community that feels more like “home.”
Other French Jewish immigrants make the move out of a desire to escape a situation in which they feel unsafe and targeted. “The climate is changing [for Jews in France],” one French intern explained in Israel. “It’s much worse than before.” Other immigrants expressed the desire to escape from stereotypes. In France—along with other parts of the world—many non-Jews propagate the cliché sentiments that all Jews are rich, successful, and in powerful positions. These stereotypes can become overwhelming not only from a cultural standpoint, but also a personal one, in which it is often difficult to live up to what society seems to expect.
In Israel, the influx of French Jews is palpable. Walking along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, it seems that every other conversation is in French. But this migration trend does not necessarily mean that the move is permanent. Despite moving out of a desire to fit in, Elliot is unsure whether he’ll stay or return to France; in fact, many newcomers are already returning back home. Like most immigrant stories worldwide, integration into the larger Israeli society is often easier for youths who in this case have a chance to attend Israeli schools, learn Hebrew, serve the mandatory post-high school army service, and pursue Israeli degrees. For French-Jewish adults, who have spent the majority of their life in France, integration into the Hebrew-speaking community can be difficult. Many also find the professional landscape disappointing when education levels and specific degrees are not equally respected or transferable in Israel, which can prove frustrating for adults used to high-level positions and compensations.
The move for French Jews to Israel is just one part of today’s larger, international immigration story. The rise of right-wing political support in the US and across Europe indicates a growing pushback against those deemed “outsiders.” This increase in migration mirrors an insidious trend in worldwide cultural perception: singular nationalism over multiculturalism.
The next few years will prove pivotal. Will France’s Jews continue to leave in hordes, or choose to keep their long-standing community rooted? A visit to the Jewish neighborhood of Paris Le Marais and its thriving falafel restaurants makes this pattern seem negligible; a visit to the Tel Aviv boardwalk suggests otherwise. The reality is likely somewhere in between, but the results of France’s presidential election could certainly affect the pattern, one way or the other.