Sunday, July 04, 2004

French Aliyah Uptick: Trend or Blip? 

[Cross-posted at The Head Heeb]

The New York Times reports today that:
More French Jews have been immigrating to Israel or buying properties here as potential havens, and the Israelis and the French are debating whether the trend is a result of a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in France or just a cyclical oddity.

The Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body responsible for settling immigrants, reported a doubling in the number of French Jews who arrived last year and in 2002, to more than 2,000 each year, compared with about 1,000 a year in the previous three years. By contrast, worldwide immigration to Israel has sharply declined during the Arab-Israeli violence.

Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, said that as a result of attacks against Jews in France in the past three years, many Jews, particularly those whose religion is evident from their clothes, were feeling increasingly uneasy. Much of the tension has centered in working-class suburbs of Paris where Jews and Muslims mingle.

"If they're made to feel uncomfortable, this is the place they've always dreamed of coming to," he said.

Some Jewish leaders in France contend that the Jewish Agency has sent squads of "emissaries" to recruit Jews for aliyah, or the return to Israel. The agency denied the charge, saying that it has the same staff of eight recruiters and that they merely try to persuade Jews thinking of emigrating to the United States or Canada to consider Israel instead.
The article goes on to quote the French ambassador to Israel drawing distinctions between "French anti-semitism" a la the Dreyfuss Affair and anti-Jewish violence perpetrated by North African Muslims (a factually accurate distinction, if not one fitting comfortably with every notion of "France") and pointing out that previous France-Israel immigration peaks were hit during the Oslo accords years.

What's at stake here? It's not immediately obvious that an acceleration of an existing trend is really newsworthy material: short of a complete halt in immigration (or a sudden mass exodus), what do immigration rates tell us, and why might they be considered important? And why would it matter whether there were official Israeli attempts to influcnce the rate and direction of Jewish emigration from France?

I'd suggest that it's all about perception: if Israeli officials (or the WJC) can find the slightest hint of evidence to add to their case that the French state is not doing a good job of protecting Jews, or of tamping down anti-semitic sentiment, they will seize on it. If French officials hoping to defuse allegations of official or civilian anti-semitism can find a way to back up claims that Israel is manipulating the situation to gain negotiating strength, they will do so. I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience is for all these claims and counterclaims: world Jewry? High-minded rationalists on all sides of the issue? The French populace?

Are any of these claims worthwhile? My guess is that even given all the data he could ask for (100 years of immigration statistics, polling data, etc), an honest statistician would look at the small numbers and brief time period in question and say flat out that no conclusion about a change in the rate can be made with reasonable confidence. But as is so often the case, in sports reporting, in analyses of election polling and elsewhere, perception is at least as important as solid analysis.

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