Who hasn't yet heard about increasing European anti-Semitism driving up Aliyah numbers? It seems that every Jewish publication and its competitor has written about it…
Considerably less, however, has been said about the much broader, more positive picture of Aliyah to Israel – and specifically about how the majority of world Jewry is gradually shifting to the Holy Land, in perfect corroboration of religious Jewry's prayers and dreams.
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of the Holy City of Tzfat (Safed) and son of the late saintly Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliyahu, phrased it very dramatically. Meeting over the Sabbath with two groups of out-of-town youth in his home – one from the rocket-besieged town of Sderot, the other from Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa – Rabbi Eliyahu told this story:
"I was speaking to some American visitors recently, and when we finished, some of them were crying – and later, a few of them called me and said that as a result of our talk, they had decided to make Aliyah. And all I had done was show them how the 'historic graph' of the People of Israel points straight to the Land of Israel."
He explained that in the 1800's, the Jews living in the Holy Land totaled roughly one-half percent of world Jewry. By the late 1930's, after the arrival of tens of thousands of Zionists (and even after many of them left…), the percentage began to reach 2%. In 1948, with world Jewry slashed by the Holocaust by more than a third, to roughly 11 million, the number of Jews in the newly-declared State of Israel was approximately 600,000 – or some 5% of all Jews. By 1975, the proportion had more than quadrupled, to well over 20% – and today, for every Jew living in the Diaspora, another Jew lives in Israel. That is, half the world's Jews live in Israel!
"What will be in 20 years? Or in 30?" Rabbi Eliyahu asked with the characteristic twinkle in his eyes. "The conclusion is simple: History is pointing us in one direction: Towards Eretz Yisrael – exactly as the Torah teaches."
French Aliyah Sharply Up – and Climbing
Aliyah to Israel is nothing new, of course, but these days it is clearly undergoing one of its frequent upswings. Let's take France, for example. In 2012, over 1,900 French Jews came to Israel; the year after, some 3,200 arrived; and in the first half of 2014, the number was already 2,600, expected to top 5,000 by the end of the year.
In fact, smack in the middle of the war in Gaza last month, some 400 French Jews, including many families with young children, came home to Israel.
Notably, last year was the first since 2005 that more Jews immigrated to Israel from France than from the United States. This, even though the U.S. has at least ten times as many Jews as France.
And this is only the beginning, according to the Jewish Agency. "I look forward to seeing the number [of new French immigrants] grow to 6,000 and beyond in the near future,” declared Agencv Chairman Natan Sharansky recently. Even more ambitiously, Israel's government plans to launch a new French Aliyah program with target goals of 12,000 new immigrants in 2015 and 24,000 in 2016.
Why? What's behind the sharp increase in French immigration to Israel? The answer: both negative and positive factors. On the one hand, both unemployment and anti-Semitism in France are taking their toll. More than one out of every ten Frenchmen is out of work, and one of four of the under-25 age group. Anti-Semitic violence also plays a role: In 2012, there were 614 such attacks, up nearly 60% from 2011. Earlier this year, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, thousands of Frenchmen marched in Paris chanting anti-Semitic slogans and goading Jews to "get out!" An EU survey showed that fully 85% of French Jews see anti-Semitism as a problem, and 46% considered emigrating because of safety concerns.
Zionism Has a Better Idea
The Jewish People have always been expert at overcoming obstacles and difficulties, and anti-Semitism and unemployment alone are probably not enough to uproot a community, or even significant parts thereof. Rather, the overwhelming reason that French Aliyah is on the rise is that French Jewry is Zionist!
Consider these facts: A thousand French high school seniors visited Israel in December 2013; 18 French Birthright groups are scheduled to arrive in Israel in 2014; 1,000 French young adults will spend more than five months in Israel this year on the Jewish Agency's Masa Israel Journey.
One of the newest immigrants to Israel from France is 30-yr.-old Aharon Amar, who arrived with his wife and three children. He explained that the Jewish community in France is very connected to the Land of Israel. "Even in the more haredi-like Jewish schools," he said, speaking from his two-week-old home in Beit El, "the students are encouraged to study in Yeshiva in Israel – although it must be admitted that if there were better yeshivot somewhere else, they might go there."
His brother-in-law Yonatan, another French oleh (immigrant), who has been in Israel for several years already but returns to France for periodic teaching trips, adds that the French Jewish community is "very patriotic towards Israel, and identifies greatly with what happens here."
French Jewish Schools are a Key
Significantly, most French Jews send their children to Jewish schools, even if they are not religious. These schools actively teach about Jewish holidays, kashrut, Israel Independence Day, and generally work to enhance the students' Jewish identity.
Aharon explained that many of his peers in France have become more religiously observant, and that this is another reason leading them to move to Israel. "They see that they have no future in France, both financially and Jewishly. They want to be in a country where they can be with Jews and feel openly Jewish."
Asked why he decided to move to Israel at this point in time, Aharon said, "An important factor was that our oldest son is starting first grade, and we knew that now was the best time for him; if we delayed any more, it would be much harder to come."
And he didn't even hear Rabbi Eliyahu speak of the People of Israel's "historic graph" pointing to Israel!
The Two Barons
Rabbi Eliyahu concluded his talk with this story: "About a century ago, there were two wealthy and generous Jews who wished to help the Jewish People: Baron de Hirsch and Baron de Rothschild. They both saw the millions of poor, persecuted Jews living in Russia, and sought solutions on an international scale. Baron Hirsch chose to found the Jewish Colonization Association, which oversaw large-scale immigration and settlement of Jews in Argentina. Baron de Rothschild, on the other hand, established the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, promoting industrialization and economic development for the Jewish People in the Holy Land.
"Now, let us consider," Rav Eliyahu said. "At one point, the Argentine Jewish community was truly prosperous, and even numbered over 300,000 in its heyday in the early 1960's. Now, however, it is perhaps 60% of that, and the number of Jewish institutions is declining as the population decreases. In Israel, on the other hand, the Jewish population is now 7 million and constantly climbing! Which of those two do you think made the better investment for the Jewish People?"