A cartoon published Friday in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed a plane labeled “Air Jihad” on the tarmac of Israel’s international airport, discharging a crowd of flag-waving French Jewish immigrants while an official greeter holds up a welcome sign.
As France contends with the shockwaves of last week’s deadly attacks by Islamist extremists, Israel is preparing for an increase in immigration from France, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising that new arrivals will be received “with open arms.”
Netanyahu on Sunday participated in the huge rally that saw perhaps as many as 2 million people march to protest last week’s attacks, which killed four Jews when a gunman seized hostages at a kosher supermarket two days after an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Jews are to be buried in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
The assault on the supermarket came two years after a deadly attack by a Muslim radical on a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse and has fueled a sense of insecurity among French Jews concerned about a rise in anti-Semitism, particularly among home-grown Muslim extremists.
According to the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel, the number of French Jews that moved here in 2014 jumped to about 7,000, more than double those that arrived in the previous year. Hundreds attended a previously-planned Israel immigration fair in Paris on Sunday, the agency said.
With a total population of about 500,000, France’s Jewish community is the largest in Europe, and Jewish agency officials say they expect immigration figures to reach 10,000 this year.
“Israel is not only the place to which you turn in prayer, Israel is also your home,” Netanyahu said Saturday, addressing the French Jewish community. “Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms. We will help you in your absorption here in our state, which is also your state.”
Netanyahu said a team of cabinet ministers would meet this week to discuss steps to boost immigration to Israel from France and other European countries “that are being hit by terrible anti-Semitism.”
The comments, which appeared to suggest that France could not ensure the safety of its Jewish citizens, ran counter to messages from French officials and risked offending Netanyahu’s hosts in Paris.
In remarks published on Saturday by The Atlantic monthly, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that a mass departure of French Jews should be regarded as a failure for France. “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure,” he said in an interview conducted before last week’s attacks. “The Jews of France are profoundly attached to France but they need reassurance that they are welcome here, that they are secure here.”
Along with mounting security concerns, the increasing departure of French Jews has also been driven by a lingering economic downturn in France that has fueled a general trend of emigration from the country. While some French Jews have chosen to move to Israel, others have resettled in other Western countries, such as Canada or Britain, according to Jewish Agency officials familiar with the trend.
Natan Sharnasky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, told Israel Radio on Sunday that the majority of French Jewish emigrants were now choosing to go to Israel and that nearly half of France’s Jews were known to be considering departure.
Gil Taieb, vice president of CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewry, said in a separate radio interview that the latest violence had prodded more members of the community to think about moving away.
“It’s not easy to leave France,” he said, “but we see that among people who never thought about it, it has begun.”
Working at a French pastry shop in Jerusalem on Sunday, Natalie Hayat, 38, said she had seen it all coming when she moved to Israel from Paris 10 years ago.
“I thought then that there would be problems there with the Arabs, and that there would be an explosion,” she said. “This is our land, a home for all Jews. We have nowhere else.”
As for the dangers of Palestinian attacks in Israel, Hayat said that “there’s no security anywhere in the world, but here we can take up arms and defend ourselves.”
Hayat added that after last week’s attacks she had received a stream of telephone calls from Jewish friends in France talking about plans to leave the country.
Moshe, another pastry shop employee who would give only his first name, said he had left a well paying job in Paris to come to Israel five years ago, convinced that it was the only place where he could live comfortably as a Jew.
“If you want to live a Jewish life, this is where it’s happening,” he said. “It’s a matter of ideology, we have to build this place, rather than Europe. And if you look around at what’s going on in the world, you can see the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.”
Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, and the anger Israeli actions have stoked among many Muslims was “just an excuse” for much deeper currents of anti-Semitism that are “wearing the mask of anti-Zionism,” Moshe said.
Taieb, the French Jewish official, said that the decision by families of the victims killed in the supermarket attack to bury them in Israel was a telling signal.
“This is a very strong sign that Jews don’t even want their dead to remain in France,” he said.