High housing costs, difficulty in finding work that matches their skill set and cultural differences are the classic challenges faced by new immigrants to Israel. Shmuel Trigano, a Paris University emeritus professor of sociology of religion and politics, meanwhile, says that another less obvious challenge is the intellectual one.
Trigano, 69, was born in Algeria and moved to France as a teenager at the conclusion of the Algerian War of Independence. He co-founded the non-profit organization Dialogia with Max Benhamou; the two are both French citizens who immigrated to Israel.
Dialogia seeks to create an intellectual bridge between French immigrants and Israeli society. The two say that the number of immigrants from France to Israel is on the decline, despite the rise in anti-Semitism in their country and continent of origin.
Their data show that a third of those who do end up immigrating don’t remain. They instead liquidate their assets in the Jewish state and return to French. They bring with them negative stories of their failed integration into Israeli society, which circulate amongst potential immigrants and may dissuade them from immigrating themselves.
Trigano spoke with Ynet on the subject.
What failures do you identify in the absorption process?
“Of course, this is made up of a number of elements, but one of the most prominent failures in the absorption of immigrants from France is its unique character. This is not an immigration of distress, but rather of middle class people who come from a country that is one of the most developed and civilized in the world, with a magnificent intellectual history. …
“This population is drawn to geographical areas with a concentration of the Israeli middle class—mainly to the Dan region—where the housing crisis is reaching huge proportions. Today, none of the immigrants wants to buy another apartment at exorbitant prices, or alternatively to put down roots in a system that has no protection for tenants, when every year the landlord can remove the tenant from their home or raise the rent. That’s a hard way of life for many families.”
But you’re describing a problem that concerns the whole of Israeli society. Even young Israeli-born couples face the same problem.
“True, this is a general Israeli social problem that affects the new immigrants directly. There are a number of problems in Israeli society that concern new immigrants and make it difficult for them.
“The immigrants have ideals and thoughts about the Jewish state—ideas that are not realized in Israel. Israel is very dear to the immigrants’ hearts. They don’t describe to themselves the real situation. They have an idea in their hearts in terms of a Jewish people, and the Israelis do not connect to it.
“Many Israelis don’t make an internal determination about their identity. It’s enough for them that they are Israelis, Jews and that they live here. For those who come from abroad, carrying a much more complex identity, this country doesn’t always suit their idea. …
“(Those engaged in liberal professions) are finding it difficult to get recognition, as if France were a Third-World country in relation to Israel. The professional future that the Israeli market offers young university graduates, or those who are still lacking a profession, apart from elite technologies or media centers, is also a problem.
“The difficulties of the younger generation are also expressed among ‘secular’ young unmarried people. As the survey conducted by Masa Israel showed: 36% of them would prefer to leave the country.”
A problem of identity
The past few years have seen record highs for the number of immigrants from France, where more than 450,000 Jews live.Many immigrant communities have flourished in Netanya, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Ra’anana.
Trigano claims that Israelis are misunderstanding French Jews. “They come from a French, not an Anglo-Saxon, world, which is more similar to the Israeli way of thinking,” he elaborated. “Their Judaism does not always find its place in Israeli settings. This challenged has not been sufficiently addressed.
“The Jews of France did not really know that they existed as a group, that they were different from Israelis. The expectation was that the Jewish people would be realized within the nation of Israel, and that expectation requires profound clarification.
“They have an identity problem in Israel that requires a solution. A person cannot succeed in his immigration if he doesn’t know who he is, who the Israelis are that he’s facing and where we are going together.”
Is this a clarification that they can make even before immigration? An identity that they could form in France?
“It’s important to prepare people from this perspective, as well. Of course there’s a material aspect that needs to be dealt with, but there is also an internal, an identity-related experience here, in which a man asks himself, ‘Where do I belong? To which country do I belong? What do I expect from the Jewish people? And how will I respond when it’s not exactly as I had thought?’
I think that if the immigrants succeed in this, they can also bring a fresh and innovative cultural-social message for all of Israeli society. I hope we can be an intellectual bridge to Israeli society. French Jewry has a lot to contribute in these respects, and it would be a shame to lose an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.”
Immigrant Absorption: ‘a critical challenge for Israel’
The elections in France, where the far-right leader Marine Le Pen got through to the second round, could be another catalyst for French Jews to emigrate. Trigano commented, , “You are wrong to think that the Jews of France are fleeing from anti-Semitism. That’s not accurate. They’re leaving France because French society no longer carries the Jewish identity model they once held.
“In their view, the country’s leadership has long denied the danger threatening them and abandoned them in the field. You have to understand this, and if Israel doesn’t want to lose this immigration, the government must be able to formulate a comprehensive national absorption program and deal with some of the main problems affecting immigrants.
“The challenge of absorbing the Jews of France joins the deciding challenge of Israel's future, and for this future they can make an existential contribution to its social and intellectual dimensions.”