French Jews Putting Down Roots in Eilat

By Brett Kline

Published August 27, 2004, issue of August 27, 2004.
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EILAT, Israel — Eloise Benchetrit and her husband just signed on the purchase of four apartments in the upscale Shachamon neighborhood of Eilat, Israel’s desert resort town on the Red Sea. “It is paradise here with the sea and the sun,” the Parisian computer importer said, echoing a phrase right out of a tourist guidebook. “This way, we have one foot in Israel and one foot in Paris.”

George Nahum, who runs a prosperous Paris trucking firm, just bought a house in the same district. He’s now investing $800,000 to open a kosher Chinese restaurant, a nightclub and an ice cream parlor in the Dan Hotel, along the highly developed beachfront. He has been going back and forth between Paris and Eilat for a year and a half.

“This is Israel,” he said, “I have friends talking about going to Miami, but I am a Zionist. Now seems like a good time to make a move, and Eilat is the hottest investment site in the country.”

Eilat may be hot, but to many Jews France feels hotter right now, and some have become uncomfortable enough to leave, or at least prepare a departure.

“We do not feel at home in Paris anymore,” said Benchetrit, 37, who attended one of France’s best universities, Science Po, and said she speaks French, Spanish, English and Hebrew. “There is a lot of antisemitism in Paris. Our boys’ friends have been beaten up right off the Champs Elysées by gangs of Magrebi youths. We are afraid. Everyone we know wants to leave.”

Benchetrit is clear about where she thinks the problems originate. “There have never been as many women wearing Islamic headscarves as now,” she said flatly.

The number of Jews leaving France is a matter of conjecture. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, more than 2,000 French Jews moved to Israel in 2003, and a similar number in 2002. Others are said to be heading for Canada or other destinations, though no figures are available.

The most commonly cited reason for leaving is antisemitism. France has experienced a huge upsurge in the past three years in attacks against Jews and Jewish property, including synagogues and schools. Nearly all the attacks are believed to have originated from within France’s Muslim population, which numbers an estimated 5 million, mostly ethnic Arabs of North African origin.

The largest in Europe and third largest in the world, France’s Jewish community numbers 600,000. Close to two-thirds — Sephardic Jews of North African origin — are believed to have suffered disproportionately from the attacks, partly because they tend to live in immigrant neighborhoods that are close to Muslim population centers.

Not everyone moving here from France is fleeing antisemitism, Muslim or otherwise. “I have never had problems with Arabs in France,” 48-year-old Nahum said. “Half the guys working for me are North African Arabs. We do hear of a lot of antisemitic incidents in France. But moving to Eilat has been a personal decision.”

The exact number settling in Eilat is hard to determine, but the numbers are significant, at least in local terms. About 50 families from France moved here in the last three months alone, said Lea Benchetrit, a consultant for francophone investment here and former director of francophone affairs for the mayor’s office. They join a population of about 750 families that have moved from France in the past decade. Eilat’s overall population is about 53,000.

An even larger number of French people is said to have bought apartments and houses without actually moving, though the total is difficult to calculate.

“French Jews are definitely coming here,” said Gaby Kadosh, the Likud mayor of Eilat from 1993 to 2003, who currently directs an investment management firm. “I think that Eilat will soon be the number-one francophone town in Israel, ahead of Netanya.”

Lea Benchetrit added that between 12,000 and 14,000 French tourists, almost exclusively Jewish, will visit Eilat during the summer as tourists. Some think about buying apartments, and they make contact with Jewish Agency or city officials. Some eventually buy homes, and others look into business investments.

Why do they pick Eilat? “There are several reasons, aside from the whole question of antisemitism in France,” he said. “Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are very expensive and are dominated by American investors. Netanya, for years the focal point for the French in Israel, is full and has been taken over by the Russians. But I think a major reason is that there are no terrorist attacks here — because there are no Palestinians. Aside from Israeli Bedouins who have always lived and worked here, there are almost no Arabs in Eilat.”

Part of the draw, observers agree, is the close cultural and familial tie between the Sephardic communities of France and Israel. The two countries were the main beneficiaries of the massive Jewish exodus from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in two communities that are linked intimately. Many in one country have friends and relatives — often siblings — in the other.

“The French Sephardim are continuing their road to aliya,” Kadosh said. “They went from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco to France, and now are coming from France to Israel. In some cases, it is happening in one generation.”

Eilat, with its cosmopolitan atmosphere and large population of Jews of French Moroccan origin, has particularly strong ties to France.

Still, the town has its downside. “Prices are inexpensive for French home buyers,” Lea Benchetrit said, “but life can be much tougher here than in Paris or the suburbs. Having the sea is a major attraction, but this is a provincial town, and the desert is all around us.”

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