French Jews Still Testing Israeli Waters
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French Jews Still Testing Israeli Waters

Will summer spike in French tourists translate into a wave of immigrants?

Tel Aviv — It’s the first night of the Israeli workweek, but as midnight approaches, the cafés near Tel Aviv’s beach are overflowing with patrons. A couple of steps closer to the water reveals an explanation: the city’s recently renovated beach promenade is awash with hundreds of teens and 20somethings carrying on in French.

Though Israeli hoteliers reported a 25 percent dip in bookings during the first half of 2015, likely the lingering fallout from last summer’s war in Gaza, everyone here seems to agree that the number of French tourists in Israel surged during the summer — possibly signaling a continuation of the rise in emigration from the country that is home to Europe’s largest Jewish community.

“All of my friends came this year. They all come to the beach promenade,” said Yonatan Marciano, a 25-year-old French immigrant to Israel.

More than a half year after an attack on a Paris kosher supermarket that left four Jews dead, French immigrants and tourists in Israel say interest in Israel remains robust. One local real estate broker who caters to French Jews said business has surged.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency says that 4,772 French immigrants arrived in Israel during the first seven months of the year. That represents an 11 percent increase from the same period one year ago, but it would mark a slowdown of the year-to-year growth in immigration from France.

Just steps away from the Mediterranean Sea, the Comacon real estate brokerage and its neighborhood competitors post property advertisements in French to appeal to the growing numbers of visitors.

“We have had a lot of work in the last half year. A lot of people who were thinking about coming here made their decision,” said Eric Guedj, the owner of Comacon, who estimates that his business has doubled from last year. “The situation in France is difficult, and because of that people are making a decision to buy or rent.”

Guedj said he already has an office in the southern city of Ashdod and is planning to open a branch in Netanya; both cities are known to attract French Jews because, like Tel Aviv, they are close to the sea. He said some French real estate investors who are anticipating a move are quietly selling stakes in France while building up the same property portfolio in Israel.

Guedj moved to Israel 10 years ago from the French Mediterranean city of Nice. He said many people are drawn to Israel or the U.S. because they believe they’ll be safer there when out in public. The proliferation of anti-Semitic attacks in France in recent years have made French Jews more anxious. “Here, in Israel, you know you can go out with children without having problems, and you’ll come back safely. In France, you couldn’t,” he said.

Most of Guedj’s clients are looking for rentals, preferring to test the waters of life in Israel before making the commitment to buy. “They want to see if it’s possible to live here, because mentality is different,” he said. “Either they will end up in Israel or Miami.”

Not far away from the real estate brokerages lies a strip of kosher restaurants — from sushi to pasta to burgers — that attract large numbers of French immigrants and tourists who linger there through the evening until after midnight.

“Everyone talks about moving to Israel,” said Sarah Davidovici, a university student, as she shared french fries with a group of high school friends from Paris. “Most of my friends think there is no future in France, and here there’s more security — and here we can practice our religion the way we want.”

But even though Davidovici is at the ideal age to relocate to Israel, like many other French Jewish youths, she and her friends say that they’re not certain that they can make the move. Some of her friends remarked that last summer’s war — in which rockets were fired from Gaza at Tel Aviv — gives them pause.

“I’m not certain that life here is easier than in France,” said Davidovici’s friend Anna Mouyal. “Sometimes we want to leave France, but not necessarily for Israel.”

When the world’s attention was focused on the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher market in Paris in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to France with a message to Jews there that they should consider Israel as their future home. The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, made an oft-quoted prediction that it expected the pace of immigration to increase nearly 50 percent — from 7,100 in 2014 to about 10,000 by the end of this year. If aliyah continues at the same pace from earlier this year, the number of French immigrants will actually fall about 2,000 short of the prediction.

“They come to Israel for three weeks in August, and then they go back,” said Simon Hadad, a 33-year-old real estate agent and the son of French-speaking Jews, said of the many French tourists. “The anti-Semitism [back home] scares them, but it’s not their top priority. I always say that here it’s no less dangerous.”

Despite real estate broker Guedj’s claim that the Paris killings have triggered an upsurge in interest in relocating, other tourists and immigrants said they doubted that the murders alone were enough to boost immigration. For French Jews who have become accustomed to rising anti-Semitism in recent years, the attack did not prompt a dramatic reassessment of the situation, they argue.

“It’s not good to make aliyah because we are afraid of something in France. We need to make aliyah out of happiness,” said Raphael Bellaiche, a recent immigrant now serving in the Israeli army.

Others said that they were still too rooted in Paris. While young families and singles felt more free to move, middle-aged French Jews said they were not rushing to leave.

“I have a job, and I like Paris very much. I’m 60 years old. If I were to come here, what would I do?” said Guy Resnak. “If the situation is dangerous, I will leave, but so far, I’m not being touched by it.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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