In April 2016, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced an ambitious government plan to spend 100 million euros ($107 million) on a program to combat rising anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in France. About 500,000 to 600,000 Jews live in France, comprising the largest Jewish community in Europe, but according to a January report titled “Breaking the Cycle of Violence” by the Human Rights First non-profit, anti-Semitic incidents in France have doubled to 851 in 2014 from 423 in 2013.
In large part due to anti-Semitism, there has been an increase in the number of French Jews making aliyah, a trend that has not gone unnoticed in France. About 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel in 2015 alone.
In May, the French newspaper Le Monde decided to invert the discussion on French Jews making aliyah by asking French-Jewish readers who had made aliyah, but later decided to return to their native country, about their reasons for deciding to move back to France.
Seeing a kind of “malice” in the request by Le Monde, a writer for the French-Jewish news website rootsisrael.com asked readers to instead inundate the newspaper with responses by people who have made aliyah and stayed in Israel. The news website later published one such letter by Alexandre Kassel, which he originally posted on Facebook. The letter then went viral and was shared more than 2,000 times. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth has also featured the letter, which it translated into Hebrew.
In the following excerpts from the letter, as translated from French and edited by JNS.org, Kassel recounts his “terrible” experience as a French immigrant in Israel:
I grew up in Paris in the 19th district, in the shadow of the picturesque Buttes-Chaumont (park), in the incomparable and unparalleled cultural richness of the City of Light.
Being Jewish, Israel quickly occupied a central place in my education. From the earliest age every year I had to celebrate the anniversary of its independence dressed in blue and white, and devouring falafels. I was shown films of brave early Zionist pioneers. As soon as we spoke of Israel, we conjugated all adjectives in the superlative. Israel was idealized; the El Dorado in (Voltaire’s) “Candide” really seemed dull in comparison.
When I reached the age of 17…I was finally ready to implement 17 years of extensive Zionist education, and the Jewish Agency took over to promise me a heavenly life, so I made the jump.
I'll be honest, the first few weeks [in Israel] and even the first few months were a dream. Discovering a new country, especially a special country like Israel and its new culture is a real opportunity. But soon I realized that I didn’t come just to sightsee and had to start building my life [in Israel] as well. That's when the wine turned sour, the apple revealed its worm, the carriage became a Cinderella pumpkin, and Israel, as Melissandre (a character in “Game of Thrones”), withdrew her magic necklace and revealed herself in her ugliest nakedness.
Let's begin with the weather…10 months out of 12, you can beg it to give us a bit of the good old Parisian gloom, so we can feel a little of the melancholy of the poets from our rich French literature, a little gray depression that blends perfectly with our Ashkenazi genes. Oh no! Day after day, week after week, the sun insisted to bring our morale up…It's like living in the world of the Teletubbies and Care Bears. Every morning when leaving, the black coat purchased from a Paris boutique gave me an unbearably taunting look.
Outside, as in Paris, I proudly wore the skullcap on my head. It took me a moment to realize that something was wrong. I realized that…Oh misery...no one was giving me acidic looks. I walked in the street, anonymous, as a member of the whole population, [and] the yarmulke was no longer an object of attention but naturally blended into the landscape. Do you have an idea how hard it is to become a Mr-all-the-world once you’ve been used to being the target of all the bitterness within one kilometer?
But the Israelis do not stop at that! Not only did they not hate me, but they all told me that I was their friend, or worse—their brother. You know that in Israel, no one uses the family name or "Sir." Either they call you by your first name, or you are jovially called "brother" as if you did not even have a first name.
Under the blazing daily sun, how do you not pine for the refreshing coolness of French politeness? How do you not pine for the natural distance that all citizens put between them, giving everyone the privilege, perhaps illusory, of being a stranger in their own country? (I understood that it's worthwhile to be a stranger in France.)
Those were the first difficulties, but I did not give up and went forward by beginning my studies in a secondary school deemed the toughest in Israel: The Technion in Haifa. Having had a relatively easy schooling, I needed tougher challenges.
To my amazement, when I saw how my friends stayed in France to face the walls of intolerance, with crucial exams falling on a Saturday (Shabbat) or a [Jewish] holiday without alternatives, the Technion proposed a program that made it ridiculously easy to avoid taking examinations on those days. The only difficulty allowed to be imposed on us is the high level of education.
And besides, it's crazy there at the Technion and in industry. Instead of respecting the principle of inertia by resting on their laurels and wallowing in existential immobility, as France knows to do so well, they (Israelis) have only one word in their mouths: Innovate….[and] "innovate more" and then continue…
Here in Israel, we don’t know the beautiful and pleasant feeling of going for a coffee or to the theater while the country crumbles around us. They (Israelis) understand nothing of life.
And worse, you know, when we talk about Israel on television, it’s like living in an open, actual-size Call of Duty. The truth is that walking down the street in Israel is rather like child’s play. Certainly there are attacks, but otherwise it feels even too safe. No one has to spy out of the corner of one’s eye to find bands of scum and figure out how to pass by with the least damage. No, we just walk straight like idiots directly towards our goal.
Heck! There was a school just next to my home, where the kids are Jews and there's not a single damn soldier. What kind of life is it where Jewish kids do not need an army to be left to live?? You tell me.
But you know what? When a bloody attack does happen, there are headlines in the local newspapers the next day such as “A TERRORIST committed an attack and killed lots of Israelis." Yes do not worry, there are also some journalists justifying the act, but this does not prevent them from daring to call these poor people terrorists. I felt myself compelled to take out my wallet and buy the French press, which arrived two days late but at least stated the facts correctly by writing "a Palestinian killed in an attack in Jerusalem."
In short, as you have understood, with all this it seemed natural that I needed to return to France. And I returned to France, even many times, two times a year on average "for the holidays”…to see my family and remember what I left behind, and then returned to Israel with the inevitable confirmation that aliyah is by far and by far the best decision of my life.
Oh and I forgot the cheese in Israel has no taste. Just saying.