Analysis: Will more French Jews move to Israel?

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett warned of a “historic missed opportunity” to bring more Jewish immigrants from France.

By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett recently said that there has been a “historic missed opportunity” on Israel’s part to bring more French Jewish immigrants to Israel.

“There are 200,000 French Jews who want to come here, and the state bureaucracies simply aren’t prepared for it,” Naftali Bennett said. The number of French Jews moving to Israel peaked in 2015 with 7,000 immigrants but has been trending downwards ever since.  

What is the state of French Jewry and why has the emigration rate of French Jews to Israel slowed down considerably in recent years?

According to official statistics, there are approximately 500.000 Jews living in France. This makes French Jewry by far the largest Jewish population in Europe.

In addition, other important factors distinguish French Jewry from other European Jewish communities. Unlike the rest of European Jewry that is overwhelmingly of Ashkenazi descent, the majority of French Jewry descends from Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrants who arrived from North Africa after the Second World War.

Unlike the more assimilated European Ashkenazi Jews, the majority of French Jews are traditional and Zionist. Most French Jews have visited Israel several times and many have strong family ties to the Jewish state.

French Jewry has also been facing a lethal Islamist anti-Semitism like nowhere else in contemporary Western Europe, from the Hyper Cacher massacre in Paris to the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse to the killing of individual French Jews.

This, in combination with a strong affiliation with Israel, makes French Jews in theory perfect candidates for immigration to Israel. However, as with any move, emigration to Israel means overcoming numerous personal and professional obstacles. There is the question of learning a new language and overcoming culture shocks. In addition, most French Jews do not speak English while most Israeli Jews do not speak French.

Israel is a small economy and highly competitive society. While upward mobility is possible in Israel, there is also a considerable state bureaucracy including a complex accreditation process. As a result, Israeli authorities do not recognize many diplomas and certifications from France and other countries.

This has perhaps been the most serious obstacle to a large-scale emigration of French Jews to Israel. Most French Jews are in white-collar careers and are understandably reluctant to settle for underpaid blue-collar jobs in Israel.

Due to lack of census data on religion in France, it is hard to tell the total number of Jews who emigrate from France. What is known is that an increasing number of French citizens emigrate or are considering emigrating. The stagnating French economy and social unrest are the main factors pushing emigration from France.

According to official statistics, emigration from France grew by 4 percent annually from 2000 to 2016. As a result, at least 1.6 million French citizens are reportedly living outside of France.

Around 50 percent of the French emigrants move to another Western European countries like the U.K. Thirteen percent moved to North America while 8 percent have gone to the Middle East, mainly to Israel. French-speaking Quebec in Canada has emerged as an increasingly attractive destination for Jewish and non-Jewish French citizens looking for a better life outside of France.

Bennett’s claim that 200.000 French Jews want to come to Israel is probably an exaggeration. However, there is little doubt that under the right circumstances, more French Jews would choose Israel as their preferred destination.

But declarations alone will not attract more French Jews to the Jewish state. 

A larger-scale immigration of French Jews to Israel requires making it a national priority. In practice, this means a comprehensive Israeli strategy that removes Israeli state bureaucracy, recognizes French diplomas and facilitates career opportunities and integration for French Jews who are considering moving to Israel.