PARIS — In an overcrowded conference room in the heart of Paris’ 14th arrondissement, a hundred French Jews are losing their patience.
They have gathered at the Paris office of the Jewish Agency for Israel to hear a lecture on immigrating to Israel, but the agency staff is running behind schedule. Its 20 staffers are coping with a 57 percent jump in the number of French Jews moving to Israel over the last year and a surge of applications. In addition to four weekly public talks, they are struggling to conduct 30 applicant interviews each day.
“It’s hot and stuffy, we had to go through a ton of security just to get in the door and our appointment is 30 minutes late,” one potential emigrant remarks loudly. “[It's] a good preparation.”
But the crowd in the office last week were not in the mood for jokes. Many are moving imminently and have pressing questions about the validity of their Jewish marriage contract and Israeli taxes on their cars. Others still harbor resentment over a perceived lack of security for French Jews that ultimately has led them to seek safe harbor in the Jewish state.
Their stories paint a portrait of a community rich with educated professionals who are finding it increasingly hard to envision a future in France amid rising anti-Semitism and a stagnant economy. Some profess a deep desire to become part of Israel’s vibrant society and economy.
Looming in the background is what many Jews here refer to simply as “Toulouse,” the 2012 slaying of three children and a rabbi by an Islamist at a Jewish school in the southeastern city. Many of France’s estimated 600,000 Jews, the third-largest Jewish community in the world, live in the shadow of the attack.
“Since Toulouse, my family and I worry every day that my grandchildren go to school,” says Menache Manet, a 64-year-old Parisian who will be leaving for Israel in several weeks with his son and four grandchildren.
“I grew up in a civilized country,” he adds, his voice trembling with anger. “Nowadays, I take off my kippah on my way to synagogue.”
According to a European Union survey of nearly 6,000 Jews from nine countries released last month, France ranked second only to Hungary in the number of Jews contemplating emigration because of anti-Semitism, with a staggering 46 percent of 1,137 French Jews polled. France also was second in the number of Jews who feared self-identifying as such in public, with 29 percent.
The figures correlate with an explosion in anti-Semitic attacks registered last year: A total of 614 recorded incidents that constituted a 58 percent increase from 2011. Some 40 percent of the increase happened within 10 days of Toulouse.
Ariel Kandel, the head of the Jewish Agency’s France bureau, said the figures play a role in the surge in aliyah, among other factors. Kandel would not name a figure ahead of his annual report, but said that more than 3,000 Jews will have made aliyah by January — an increase of at least 57 percent from last year and a 31 percent jump from the annual average between 1999 and 2012.
Before this year, annual French aliyah totaled more than 3,000 people just four times, most recently in 2005. Since the spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France during the second intifada in 2002, the average annual French aliyah has increased by some 60 percent, from 1,357 immigrants per year in 1985-2001 to 2,194 in 2002-12.
The latest surge began last year and caught the Jewish Agency by surprise, says Kandel, himself a French Jew who made aliyah when he was 17. In 2012, his office handled a few dozen applicant interviews each month. In November, it handled about 500.
In parallel, French participation in Israel’s Masa program, which sends Jewish students to study in Israel for periods of up to a year, rose by 25 percent in 2013, from 750 last year. Kandel says 70 percent of French participants make aliyah within months of finishing the program, compared to less than half of American participants.
“There are more than 5 million Jews in America and about half a million in France, yet aliyah from France may surpass American aliyah,” he says. “That tells you the story right there.”
While security fears seem to play a determinative role in French aliyah, community leaders say the scale has been exaggerated.
Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella body of French Jewish communities, acknowledges the discomfort of French Jews but insists that aliyah does not amount to an exodus.
“It is still within the normal spectrum of 1,500 to about 3,000,” Cukierman says.
Yeshaya Dalsace, a well-known Conservative rabbi from Paris, is more outspoken.
“It’s a total exaggeration,” Dalsace says. “There is a worrying reality, but by and large Jews are leaving for the same reasons other Frenchmen are leaving.”
Frenchmen, especially the young, are indeed leaving, according to a Le Figaro report this week showing that the number of French citizens under 35 seeking work in Canada and Australia jumped by about 10 percent over 2012.
Sociologists attribute this to the recession in France, which this year registered a growth rate of nearly zero. Among professionals under 24, the unemployment rate stands at 24 percent. These and other factors led Standard & Poor’s to lower France’s credit last month, the second cut this year.
All this is felt on the ground in the French capital, where luxury businesses are closing down and many once-popular cafes are trying to lure clients with discounts and what some are calling “crisis menus.”
“I’ve been cursed at in the metro a few times because I wear a kippah, but so what,” says Olivier Cohen, a university graduate in his 20s who wants to move to Israel. “Look around, there is no movement, no prospects, no jobs. I want to go a dynamic environment.”
To Cohen, life in Paris provides a stark contrast with Israel, where despite lower median incomes than in France, the projected economic growth rate of 3.8 percent is more than triple the average among countries in the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria.
“Aliyah needs to be examined against general globalization trends in French society, whose younger generation is more open to the world and speaks better English than the previous ones,” says Avi Zana, director of the Israel-based Ami Israel association, which encourages French immigration to Israel.
The wider exodus of French Jews is hard to quantify.
Kandel says he has heard reports of synagogues with growing French memberships in London, New York and Miami, though his agency has no precise figures. But Israel has an additional card to play, according to Zana: A 2008 tax reform gives new immigrants a 10-year pass on revenues earned abroad.
“Compare that to France and other European countries where income tax can reach 75 percent, and you see why aliyah is tempting for free professionals,” Zana said.
Zana estimates the reform has kept the number of French immigrants who return to France at approximately 10 percent, though the Jewish Agency could not confirm that figure. But for some soon-to-be immigrants, such considerations are of little consequence.
“In truth, I have no pressing reason to make aliyah,” says Albert Zeitouni, an investment consultant in his 60s. “It’s an emotional thing. I already have the Jewish identity. It’s time I take up the Israeli one.”