Speaking at the Grand Synagogue in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket murders in January, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stirred controversy when he announced: “Any Jew who chooses to come to Israel will be greeted with open arms and an open heart; it is not a foreign nation, and hopefully they and you will one day come to Israel.”
Some said that the prime minister, like his predecessors, was simply encouraging aliyah from the diaspora, while critics asserted that he was being insensitive to the community so soon after the tragedy.
But well before the terror attacks, a group of Israeli officials were developing an emergency plan for French aliyah that would be unique: proactive, comprehensive, and aimed at inducing all elements of the Jewish community there to resettle in the Jewish state.
The proposal, “an historic opportunity to absorb a massive aliyah wave from France,” is designed to take in 120,000 immigrants — about 30,000 families — over four years, according to a report issued by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a Jerusalem-based Jewish think tank established by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
If Israel is prepared to create adequate housing and job opportunities through the private sector, the project would cost the government little and still be possible to achieve, “for the first time in the history of Zionism, a large immigration wave from a prosperous country,” according to Dov Maimon, a French-born senior fellow at JPPI. He, along with five government officials, drafted the 150-page report.
During the annual conference the group held last month in Long Island, and later by phone from Jerusalem, he outlined the proposal for me with great enthusiasm. But after presenting a convincing case for the many benefits of the ambitious strategy that he said would be a major asset for Israeli society as well as French Jewry, Maimon acknowledged that in all likelihood “for the moment, nothing will happen.”
He believes few Israeli leaders and politicians will call for change, in part because they see no political advantage in advocating for a non-voting foreign constituency — helping potential newcomers is not high on their priority list, Maimon noted — and because many believe large numbers of French Jews will come to Israel anyway as their situation at home worsens. So why outlay money and make elaborate preparations in advance?
“No one in the government is inclined to do this,” said Maimon, who has an engineering degree from the Technion and went on to receive an MBA and a then a doctorate in Jewish and Islamic mysticism.
“The old paradigm,” he said, “is that people come to Israel when in distress, faced with no other choice. So just wait.” He added that Israelis want politicians to address their needs. “This project is for people not here or not yet born. It’s hard to invest in the future.”
But the pity, he believes, is that in light of the attraction of countries like the U.S. and Canada, and with no serious Israeli response, many secular, less identified French Jews will assimilate. And more affluent Jews seeking solid business opportunities will move elsewhere, leaving the weaker and poorer elements of the Jewish community to make aliyah under duress.
That, in turn, would perpetuate an all-too-familiar immigration scenario where the Jerusalem government, faced with a serious economic burden in providing for tens of thousands of needy newcomers, will house them wherever it is convenient, creating additional financial and social problems for the new immigrants, and fostering resentment from them and society at large.
“In the next 15 years many Jews will have to leave Europe,” up to 250,000 of an estimated 600,000 from France alone, said Maimon. He cited growing anti-Semitism, largely carried out by a growing population of Muslims; an economic downturn; the strength of far-right parties; and a deterioration of the domestic security situation.
Last year 14,000 French Jews came to live in Israel, a dramatic increase of 32 percent over the previous year, with France topping the aliyah list of countries of origin for the first time. This year, in the wake of the terror attacks in January, the numbers are expected to be far higher.
In addition, studies show that 70 percent of French Jews see no future for them in France, 49 percent are considering leaving in the coming years, and only 3 percent trust France to take action against Islamic fundamentalists.
“Our assessment, based on studies conducted by the European Union and Israeli immigration statistics, as well as a deep understanding of the field, is that the aliyah potential from France numbers in the hundreds of thousands,” according to the JPPI report.
It calls for: establishing an “administrative oversight team” in the prime minister’s office to cut through the bureaucracy; allocating land for “accelerated real estate development”; offering tax incentives and salary subsidies to those creating jobs for the newcomers; and creating an investment fund of at least one billion shekels (about $260 million) — “Shekels For Euros” — for establishing infrastructure.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, credits Maimon for “thinking out of the box, and thinking big, which is very important.” He told me in a phone interview from Jerusalem that French aliyah is one of the agency’s three primary day-to-day goals, along with aliyah from Ukraine and promoting Israel on U.S. campuses.
“Implementation [of the JPPI plan] would require coordination from several government ministries, foreign investment, and the private sector here and abroad,” he noted, “and nothing will be possible without the prime minister at the center.”
Sharansky said the issue would be part of the discussions at the agency board of governors meetings in Jerusalem this week. He is hopeful that he and Minister of Absorption Ze’ev Elkin, with whom he has held “intense discussions” on the subject, will present a coordinated plan for major-scale French aliyah to Netanyahu at some point.
Maimon is not holding his breath. In the meantime he is actively pursuing his goal, speaking frequently to Jewish groups when he visits France, and encouraging philanthropists in France and the U.S. to advance the plan. He hopes to create a pilot program in Ashkelon for about 2,000 French Jews, offering attractive housing and jobs.
Maimon thinks success there, and pressure on the government in Jerusalem to act, may have positive results. But he is a realist as well as a dreamer.
“I am told that American donors will only respond if there are more terror attacks [in France]. People tend to react to a crisis, and I worry that the Jewish people are not mature enough to see the future.” He cites the long history of Jewish persecution and exodus under extreme circumstances, from the biblical slaves in Egypt to the doomed Jews of Europe during the Nazi era.
“Unfortunately the French story may well be the same,” Maimon said. “If we don’t learn from history it will be the same — Jews only fleeing out of desperation.”