French aliya headed toward record numbers


Against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in France, the first two planeloads of French Jews making aliya with the support of the AMI fund will arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport Monday.

The 330 immigrants will push the total of French arrivals toward an anticipated 30-year high of 3,300 immigrants this year. Immigration from France has already risen 30 percent so far compared to the same period in 2004, continuing a three-year trend.

The AMI fund is a private venture, started with seed money from the Jewish Agency, intended to support French immigrant to Israel and to encourage aliya.

Those involved with French aliya said the boost in numbers had as much to do with the appeal of funding and services AMI provides immigrants and Israel's new program of "community absorption," where immigrants settle together in neighborhood clusters around the country, as with the push given by anti-Semitism.

"The main reason is an ideological reason, a Zionist reason," said Arieh Azoulay, chairman of the Jewish Agency's aliya and absorption committee, pointing to intermarriage rates over 50% which threaten the next generation's ability to retain its Jewish identity.

"The wave of anti-Semitism [only] enhances the Zionism of Jews in France," he said.

"We know that the potential is enormous" when it comes to French aliya, said AMI director Avi Zana. "We decided in this last year to create AMI because we know a lot of people have decided to make aliya but are waiting for somebody to help them take this very important step."

Families on the flights, arriving from Paris and Marseille, will get an average of $6,000, while the 70 students on board will be receiving scholarships for study in Israel.

One third of the immigrants – 70% of the families – will be participating in "community absorption" programs in Jerusalem, Netanya, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Eilat and Netanya.

Most of the immigrants arriving, according those helping with preparations, are either Orthodox or traditional in their observance.

At the welcoming ceremonies to be held at the terminal Monday, officials from the Jewish Agency and AMI will be on hand, as well as Labor MK Colette Avital, who chairs the Knesset committee on immigrant absorption. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who welcomed immigrants on the similar North America-based program Nefesh B'Nefesh earlier in the month, will be absent, as will newly appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Zev Bielski.

According to the Jewish Agency, Bielski is currently in the US and will be flying directly to France to join Sharon on his visit with French President Jacques Chirac at the end of the week. Bielski's presence in France, one Jewish Agency official said, should counter-balance his absence at Monday's event, as well as demonstrate that Sharon has maintained his commitment to encouraging aliya. "The fact that Bielski's part of the entourage just proves that he [Sharon] is not toning down anything," the official said.

According to Zana, the next AMI flight will be arriving at the end of the summer.