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 for a lecture on immigrating to Israel, but the agency staff is running behind. 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 finish 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 is 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 see 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 here 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.