Israeli Bureaucrats Learning To Say ‘Bienvenue’ Amid French Immigration Wave
Officials have a plan for recognizing French qualifications—to stop new arrivals from heading back to Europe
Karine Aziza, a 29-year-old physical therapist who recently moved to Israel, savors finally settling down. Since childhood, her family has straddled France and Israel, moving back and forth every few years. It was an experience, she says proudly, that endowed her with the necessary chameleon qualities to seamlessly code switch between languages and social mores. Of Ashkenazi and Algerian heritage, Aziza has always balanced various cultural identities while knowing that one day she would return to her “real roots” in Israel.
But when she arrived a year and a half ago—one of thousands of French Jews to join in a new wave of immigration to Israel prompted by rising anti-Semitism and a weak economy in Europe—Aziza discovered that Israel’s labyrinthine bureaucracy was less than interested in making her feel at home. Like other French-trained medical professionals, she was told that her four-year physical therapy degree, and the five years she spent working in her own private practice in Paris, are worthless in Israel.
According to figures by the Jewish Agency and Israel’s Ministry of Immigration Absorption, 2013 marked the first time in many years that French immigration surpassed that from the United States. But Israel’s system of immigrant absorption was designed for “rescue” aliyah, rather than “aliyah of choice,” said Dr. Alain Zeitoun, a spokesperson from the Israel-France Forum, an organization that serves as a vital line of communication between the French immigrant medical community and Israeli government ministries.
Now facing a striking 63 percent upswing in French aliyah last year—and with as many as 42,000 French Jews expected to arrive in the next three years—the Israeli government is taking steps to help Aziza and those like her integrate into the Israeli system. In an effort to accommodate both French immigrants already living in Israel as well as thousands more who have expressed a desire to come, a three-year plan is expected to go into effect in the coming months that will recognize French degrees in the fields of optometry, physiotherapy, and tax consulting—specialties in which French Jews are especially well-represented, both in the existing immigrant community and in France. The program will also help with job placement in the style of Australia’s labor immigration system.
“Anglo aliyah gets a lot more attention even though French aliyah is more consistent,” said David Gross, spokesman for Knesset member Yoni Chetboun, who recently launched the Knesset’s first caucus for French Aliyah and Francophones in Israel. “What we need to do is to increase those more established age groups and demographics, which in turn will contribute positively to (Israel’s) society and the economy.”
Aziza, who is slight and rosy-cheeked, works at a sleek but modest private practice in Raanana, just north of Tel Aviv. Her co-workers are entirely French; they greet each other with double-cheek kisses and talk about living inside a bubble: “Little France.” But the handful of physical therapy patients she sees—people willing to pay for treatment outside Israel’s universal healthcare system—don’t bring in enough money for her to live on.
Like other medical professionals, Aziza is grateful for the cheerful atmosphere and network of support but is waiting for the Israeli policy reform that will allow her to integrate into the country’s medical system and, consequently, into society at large. Though the coursework is almost identical, French physical therapists study in a diploma course, while Israelis receive their degree from a university. In order to work in Israel’s universal healthcare system, she had to choose between repeating four years of study and finding another job—so she started working at the private clinic and enrolled for a degree in Chinese medicine, which she hopes will help her improve her Hebrew and give her the chance to delve into a healing philosophy she’s long wanted to incorporate into her work.
She and her brother were both born in Israel, after their parents immigrated in the early 1980s. But her father served in Lebanon in 1982, and after the Gulf War Aziza’s mother became increasingly disturbed by the possibility of sending her son off to battle. When Aziza was 6, they moved back to Nice. Her parents moved back and forth several more times, but today they remain in France, where they now work as stem-cell researchers.
In France, Aziza had a successful private practice, while her husband worked in finance. Like their compatriots, they were driven by a growing sense of stagnation in Europe. “It’s not quiet in France,” Aziza said, referring to the 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse by a French-born Muslim of Algerian descent, Mohammed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children in what he claimed was an act of retribution for Israeli killings of Palestinian children. The past year has brought the quenelle and other episodes of anti-Semitism, which have only reinforced the concerns of the French Jewish community.
Both Aziza and her husband were fully aware that moving to Israel meant accepting an economic downgrade, at least for a while. “We quit our jobs, left behind a very good life in Paris, and really came here with nothing, because, honestly, there’s nothing like Israel,” Aziza—four months pregnant and chicly outfitted in a tunic dress—told me.
But today, they primarily live off what her husband makes—which puts them in a better position than other French immigrant medical professionals they know. One friend, 28-year-old Raphael, who asked his last name not be used to protect his privacy, moved to Israel three years ago full of Zionist idealism, sure that he would somehow find a way to make a living as a physical therapist. He learned Hebrew from scratch and tried to get settled, but after nine months of unemployment decided Zionism wasn’t enough of a reason to stay and returned to his practice in Paris.
But he said he’d be back in a heartbeat if he could go to work. “If I learn tomorrow that the government plan goes through,” he said by phone from his Paris office, “in two days I will be there.”
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But none of those charged with crimes have actually been apprehended—illustrating the limits of justice when dealing with terrorists