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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 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 at 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 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, the 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, but 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.”