Between two worlds: French Jews at a crossroads
As Jews question their future in France, growing difficulties are keeping them away from Israel; the main obstacle facing potential olim is employment, and while some manage to find creative solutions, recent studies have led to the troubling conclusion that the State of Israel is about to miss out on a huge wave of Jewish immigration.
“Some 500,000 Jews are at a crossroads. There are better days, there are worse days, but they face concerns about the future on a daily basis,” says Qualita CEO Ariel Kandel, who is very familiar with the French Jewry’s dilemmas.
On the one hand, things seem to have slightly calmed down since Emmanuel Macron was elected president. As a result, only 3,500 French immigrated to Israel in 2017—a considerable drop from previous years. On the other hand, France’s Jewish community is in distress and is constantly thinking about the next generation, about its children’s future.
“According to a comprehensive study conducted by the French government, 60,000 to 100,000 French Jews want to come to Israel,” says Kandel. “In other words, we have a huge opportunity here to bring a strong, high-quality immigration, rather than lose it in favor of the United States or Canada. I believe that in the event of cuts in the social benefits that are granted in France today, we’ll immediately see a considerable immigration. Many are staying simply because they’re afraid of losing their social rights.”
A symposium held by the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center, however, led to the troubling conclusion that the State of Israel is about to miss out on a huge wave of Jewish immigration from France.
According to some of the speakers at the conference, nearly a decade after the start of French aliyah, the State of Israel is insufficiently prepared to take in the immigrants and has yet to define a strategic plan that would make it possible to absorb tens of thousands of immigrants in the most optimal manner.
What is the main obstacle facing potential immigrants?
“First and foremost, employment. People often talk about mental differences and language issues, but these things can be solved and can be overcome with the advantages offered by Israel as a Jewish and advanced state. The employment issue is more significant. One of the solutions is to live in Israel and keep working in France.
“There are many people who fly to Paris every Monday morning and return to Israel on Thursday evening. It helps doctors, lawyers and other professionals hold on to their clientele in France but live in Israel. On the other hand, it takes a heavy toll on family life and makes it difficult to undergo a real immigrant absorption. Others succeed in managing their businesses from afar and flying to France only once a month or two.”
Another solution found by other immigrants, especially those with a business background, is to start new businesses in Israel. Entrepreneur Alexander Margi, for example, started a chain of “French-style” pharmacies and drugstores. According to Kandel, other big investors (like Laurent Levy, who created Music Square in central Jerusalem) are looking for business opportunities in Israel. The successful entry of French sporting goods chain Decathlon may prompt other French businesses to expand to Israel.
What happened to my euro?
One of the problems the immigrants are dealing with has nothing to do with Israel, but rather with fiscal changes. The sharp drop in euro exchange rates has somewhat affected new immigrants’ purchasing power.
Up until a few years ago, some of the new immigrants could afford to buy an apartment in Ra’anana or Herzliya. Now, some of them are moving to other cities like Hadera in the north or Ashdod in the south. Kandel says some even choose peripheral cities like Netivot or Ashkelon.
“The drop in the euro exchange rates has another impact, which is hardly considered—the pensioner population. Their entire pension comes from France, and after receiving X euros a month in previous years, they are now forced to settle for much less after converting the pension to shekels,” Kandel explains.
One of the problems in Israel, and immigrants feel it very well because they have something to compare it to, is the cost of living.
“Yes, that’s quite a difficult problem. People have gotten used to cheap prices in France for food and vacations and other things, and then they come here and have to pay much more for the same stuff. It’s true that things are somewhat easier for kashrut observers, because kosher meat in France is expensive, but in general they pay much more here.
“The answer to that, apart from proper financial planning and finding a way to earn a living, is that the current generation must realize it is sacrificing itself for its children. It must change its perception and understand that all the investment, efforts and sacrifice are primarily for the young generation. If you truly understand that your children have no future in France, you must provide them with other opportunities—and that can be found in Israel.”
How much is it costing us?
One of the main debates concerning aliyah focuses on the state’s need to invest in it. In other words, what do we gain from it? For example, shouldn’t the “absorption basket” grant and the other benefits received by new immigrants be given to needy people in Israel instead?
Apart from the basic answer—the State of Israel was founded to serve as a home for every interested Jew—there is an economic answer too. A study conducted at Bar-Ilan University reveals that the Israeli economy is expected to gain about NIS 65 billion (roughly $19 billion) in the years 2014-2026 from the absorption of French immigrants. The study’s assumption is that some 100,000 immigrants will have arrived from France by 2026.
According to the study, “While the average budgetary cost for encouraging the immigration and absorption of an immigrant is about NIS 43,000, the average benefit per immigrant in terms of an addition to the GDP is estimated at NIS 644,000, and the additional income from taxes as a result is NIS 161,000.”
The nurse and pharmacist barrier
For years, medical professionals were forced to take certification tests upon arriving in Israel. There are thousands of doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists in Israel who were unable to keep working in their professions because they didn’t pass the local certificate tests.
On the one hand, the state insisted that people who were not certified in Israel could not be given a license to work in medical professions. On the other hand, new immigrants with certificates and decades of experience were banned from practicing their profession in Israel.
After years of struggles, most of the problems have been solved, but some professions have yet to be recognized by the Israeli authorities. One of them is nursing. According to Kandel, some 100 Jewish French nurses are still waiting to be recognized by the Health Ministry. Only following long battles, the ministry decided that the nurses would have to pass a practical test, after which they would be trained to work in Israel.
Pascal Cohen, who has been in Israel for three years, faced difficult bureaucratic barriers too. “I’m a family medicine specialist with decades of experience,” she says. “I knew there would be a number of stages before I could work in Israel, but I never thought it would be so difficult. I studied for a year at Tel Aviv University and did another internship year, but the Scientific Council still refuses to recognize the ‘family physician’ title. They agree to recognize the certificates of people who received their degree after 2007, but not earlier, and they’re demanding that we take another test.”
Cohen, who works today as a de-facto family physician, is offended by the fact that she hasn’t earned the status and salary that should be attached to her professional position and years of experience.
“On the one hand, I’m practicing my profession, but on the other hand, the discrimination in recognizing the degrees is unbearable, and so is the fact that after everything I’ve been through they still want me to take another test. I’m 50 years old, I have a job and a family. I can’t afford to study for a test like a young student. We may have to seek the High Court’s help in the end to solve this problem.”
Have you had second thoughts about your decision to make aliyah?
“Sometimes I feel it may have not been worth coming, but if you look at the full picture and at the children’s absorption and future—the balance is positive after all. It’s without a doubt more difficult than I expected, but there are big advantages here, and it’s easier and nicer to be a religious Jew in Israel today than in Paris.”
Honey trap: Live here, work there
The Qualita organization is trying to solve the employment barrier by creating a new center with hundreds of job offers. Its members connect the immigrants to different workplaces and try to make successful matches.
Another solution, which is mainly available in cities with a large French population like Netanya and Ashdod, is to live here and work for companies there. These cities have dozens of call centers that provide services to French companies. The centers employ thousands of new immigrants in sales and customer service jobs for businesses in France. For example, selling insurance or a newspaper subscription to customers in France from Ashdod.
In a recent symposium, Dr. Karin Amit of the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center presented a study on immigrants who keep working in their native language.
“This is a relatively new phenomenon, which we haven’t seen before,” she says. “In the 1990s, immigrants from the Soviet Union worked in low-paying jobs, and advanced in the employment world only after learning Hebrew. Now, some French immigrants keep working in French and skip entering the Israeli labor market.
“On the one hand, globalization has made it possible to work from far away and maybe even earn a nice living, but on the other hand, it’s a sort of honey trap. You don’t bother making an effort to really integrate into the Israeli market, and it has its implications.
“Another problem is that there are immigrants from high-skilled professions who find themselves in these call centers, either because they didn’t have the energy to go through the whole process of translating their degrees for the Israeli market, or because of how easy and convenient it is to find a job and make a living in these places.”
Why is it a problem that immigrants find quick employment solutions?
“Making a living is important, but there are other aspects too. These are unstable places, where the managers can ask employees to do things that are not as acceptable in organized and stable workplaces. Furthermore, the fact that the parent generation doesn’t learn Hebrew affects the children too and the quality of their absorption into the Israeli society. The immigrants aren’t really disconnecting from their native country. They’re both here and there—moving between the two worlds.”
But if they don’t learn Hebrew, it’s their own responsibility.
“I agree that every immigrant is responsible for his own fate. They made a decision to come to Israel and there are things they can do to ease and help their absorption. Clearly, absorption failures cannot be blamed on the state alone, but because people come here with different backgrounds and different abilities, it’s clear that not everyone will take advantage of the resources offered by the state. Some of them, due to lack of ability or knowledge, will face difficulties.”