In the past decade, according to official Israel statistics, 41,860 French Jews have resettled in Israel, a not-insignificant proportion of France’s Jewish population of roughly 500,000. As Matti Friedman observes, this wave of immigrants has begun to leave a mark on the Jewish state:
Because the condition of Jews is a barometer of events anywhere, and because Israel has always been a barometer of Jewish life in other places, in Israel you can sense events far away. Even without ever watching the news this year, for example, you’d notice unusual numbers of Ukrainians around, and young Russian speakers with fashionable sneakers just off the plane from Sheremetyevo, bewildered and traveling light, and you’d know that something fateful is happening in and around the Russian Federation.
[Now] the French have assumed a solid shape in the shared imagination of the Israeli public—not the older clichés of de Gaulle or Yves Montand, but that of a traditional Jew, less European than Mediterranean, Casablanca via Paris, God-fearing, life-loving, right-leaning, the imprint of a Star of David necklace sunburned onto the chest after too many hours at the beach. The beach at Netanya, of course, because with all due respect to Jerusalem, it’s Netanya, on the coast north of Tel Aviv, that’s seen as the holy city of the French. On a recent afternoon in a local playground there, nearly all of the young families seemed to be Francophone.
What brings these Jews to leave the land of their birth? One tells Friedman that he came to Israel as a teenager because moving there was his parents’ “dream.” Another simply says that he came because his wife wanted to. But there are other factors as well:
Tension in the neighborhoods where French Jews and Muslims had lived in close proximity built up to the 2006 incident mentioned in nearly every conversation with French immigrants: the killing of twenty-three-year-old Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped and tortured for more than three weeks by a group of young Muslims calling themselves the “Gang of Barbarians.” His body was found by a road on the outskirts of Paris, French authorities denied at first that hatred of Jews had anything to do with it, and immigration numbers more than doubled the following year.