Friday, September 03, 2004

For some French emigrants, Israel really is the promised land

Heading to the West Bank
(nowhere in the article does it say they live in the West Bank, so possibly Time considers Jerusalem to be "the West Bank" .)

Paul Zerah takes a break from his five-hour-a-day Hebrew class in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, just over a barren hill from the Palestinian town of Ramallah. Only two weeks ago, Zerah, 46, immigrated to the heart of one of the world's most violent conflicts. But he feels he's left danger behind — in Paris. "I was afraid for my children there," says Zerah, who brought his wife and two youngsters to Israel. "My son couldn't walk to the Jewish school with his yarmulke on."

Zerah followed his brother Marc who, in 1999, gave up a thriving gynecological practice in Paris's 12th arrondissement to move to Jerusalem with his wife and four children. Marc didn't publicly wear his yarmulke in France. Now he keeps it on all day. "It isn't just a physical immigration. It's spiritual," he says.

Paul says most of his Parisian friends are considering such a move, and the numbers back him up. In July alone, 800 French Jews immigrated. An Israeli university study recently predicted 30,000 will eventually make the switch. And they're being welcomed by an Israeli government facing demographic challenges from the region's Palestinians. In the 1990s, more than 1.2 million people emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union — a huge boost to a nation with 6.5 million citizens, fewer than Paris. But since Russian immigration dried up, Israeli officials have switched their focus to France.

Like most French emigrants to Israel, the Zerahs are Sephardic Jews, whose families went to France from North Africa; Marc Zerah was born in Tunis, and his family moved to Paris when he was 10. In general, Sephardic Jews lack the French roots of the more assimilated Ashkenazic Jews, who arrived from Eastern Europe centuries ago. Sephardic Jews tend to be more religious and traditional, which makes Israel an attractive prospect. Like his brother Paul, Marc Zerah first relocated to a West Bank settlement. He says he felt a strong connection to the ancient Israelites, who entered Canaan via nearby Jericho, too. Despite the difficulties of learning a new language in the middle of their high school studies, his children also approve. Ilanit, 20, doesn't dwell on the question of whether she feels French or Israeli. "In France, we were the Jews," she says, with a shrug. "In Israel, we are the French."

After five years, Zerah doesn't miss France much. He had little choice there over where to live — he had to be within walking distance of a synagogue — and he couldn't enjoy French cuisine because of kosher dietary restrictions. In Israel, synagogues and kosher restaurants are never more than a few streets away. "Here in Israel," he says, "I eat much better."