Israel gains as Jewish entrepreneurs give up on France

Emigrants bring skills, education, wealth with them

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TEL AVIV, Israel — With a degree from the prestigious HEC Paris business school, five years at a global consulting firm, and a three-floor “dream apartment” in the French capital’s 10th arrondissement, Mickael Nadjar had a comfortable and prosperous life in his native France.

Four years ago, he left it all behind and headed for Tel Aviv. While he initially came to lead a business project in Israel, Nadjar ended up staying because he was tired of the daily frustrations and slights endured by practicing Jews in France. After the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket this month, Nadjar says, more friends have started contemplating a similar move.

“I would not raise my children in France,” said Nadjar, 32, who now lives in Tel Aviv’s gentrifying Florentin neighborhood. “When I was growing up, to say you’re a Jew in France wasn’t a problem. Now, I’m not so sure.”

Since his move, Nadjar has obtained Israeli citizenship and launched a technology startup that employs six people. His trajectory indicates an expected influx of French Jews to Israel may have an economic impact that goes beyond better baguettes and increased imports of Bordeaux grands crus.

Some 7,000 French citizens emigrated to Israel in 2014, more than people from any other nation. The Jewish Agency expects that number to roughly double this year due to a sluggish French economy, high taxes on top earners, and increasing anti-Semitism.

With experience in fields ranging from telecommunications to biotech to finance, those people could have an effect not unlike the Protestant Huguenots driven from France in the 16th and 17th centuries, who became an economic engine in the United States, Canada, and several European countries. France’s Jews are on track to be the biggest infusion of human capital in decades to a country that has long seen its growth closely linked to what’s called Aliyah — Hebrew for “ascendance” and a word that has come to mean Jewish immigration to Israel.

“In the past decade, there’s been migration from France for financial reasons,” said Avi Mayer, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit group aimed at boosting immigration to Israel. “Over the past couple of years, though, we’ve seen more and more people cite growing insecurity about terrorism.” Since the recent attacks, he said, inquiries have tripled.

Dov Maimon, a French émigré who studies migration as a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, expects as many as 250,000 French — about half of France’s current Jewish population — to come to Israel in the next 15 years.

“This is a huge opportunity for Israel — from an economic as well as a cultural perspective,” said Maimon, who is working on a plan to lure the affluent with tax benefits and grants. “One of the biggest drivers of economic growth in Israel has always been immigration.”

Maimon says the challenge for Israel will be to attract wealthier, more secular members of the community, who are more likely to move to the U.S. or Canada — or simply stay in France. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association, points out that many Jews in France remain tied to jobs and family there and view life in Israel, where war breaks out every few years, as inherently risky.

Israel’s history has been defined by waves of immigrants. The “first Aliyah” in the 1880s brought agricultural settlements to what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Nazi rise in the 1930s spurred the arrival of affluent Germans, who helped shape everything from academia to politics to architecture. And Russian migration in the 1990s bolstered the country’s high-tech industry.

Israel was established on the assumption that Jews have always yearned for their homeland, and net migration is a key barometer of Zionism’s success. At least 11,000 more people came to the country than left every year from 2010 to 2012, the most recent data available.

The French are Israel’s fastest growing immigrant community since almost 1 million Russian-speakers arrived in the 1990s. A majority of France’s Jews are descendants of North Africans who fled that region in the 1940s and ’50s as the French empire collapsed. As a community, they never felt fully at home in France, according to Esther Schely-Newman, a Hebrew University professor who has studied their migration to Israel.

It is these migrants — middle class and conservative in their religious outlook — who make up the bulk of those now considering a move, Schely-Newman said.

People chased out of North Africa often “saw France as a station on the way to Israel,” she said. “You can call them Zionist. They see Israel as a viable choice.”

Though it’s difficult to assess the economic impact of even thousands of arrivals in a $273 billion economy, many French immigrants have risen to positions of prominence. Michael Golan’s Golan Telecom Ltd. has shaken up the country’s mobile phone market. Julien Assous is chief executive officer of a top financial services company, Israel Brokerage & Investments. And angel investor Jeremie Berrebi has funded 28 Israeli startups.

“The French represent a brain gain for Israel,” said Mickael Bensadoun, who in 2006 founded Gvahim, an organization that seeks to help educated immigrants find work in Israel. “It is not always easy to find quality employment for them, but many are coming with strong education, ready to contribute.”

Unlike Jewish migrants from less developed places such as Ethiopia, French Jews would typically be welcomed by any of dozens of countries. Ben Adhoute’s family, for instance, has close relatives in Los Angeles and his father runs a biotechnology company in Paris. Yet when the Adhoutes decided to leave France six years ago, they didn’t hesitate to move to Israel.

“We grew up in a Zionist home, where the State of Israel was always a major part of our lives,” said Adhoute, 23, who served in the Israeli army and now studies international relations at Herzliya Inter-Disciplinary Center. “In the end, our family just felt that we belonged here.”

The new influx of French Jews could also nudge Israeli politics toward the right. After grisly attacks on France’s Jewish community such as the 2006 kidnapping and killing of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi and the 2012 murder of three schoolchildren and a teacher in Toulouse, the community has grown more conservative politically.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standing for re-election on March 17, has recognized the importance of the French community. He seized on this month’s terrorist attacks to advance his campaign theme — the threat of radical Islam — and to encourage French Jews to come to Israel. Hundreds of people cheered Netanyahu at the Grand Synagogue in Paris, and when he visited the grocery where four Jews were shot dead, the crowd chanted his nickname, Bibi.

“It’s going to be hard for you to find leftists in the Jewish community in France,” said Adhoute, who said he would likely vote for a “center-right” party in the next elections.

Even as the French change Israel, the country’s culture is molding the new immigrants. Nadjar, for instance, was transferred to Tel Aviv by his Paris employer, Boston Consulting Group. But he quickly latched on to the city’s more relaxed culture and decided to found his own company. In 2013, he quit BCG, ditched his tailored suits for flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts, and started Costockage, which he insists can become “the Airbnb of storage.”

“I saw people working in cafes on their laptops, relaxed, doing what they want and when they want,” Nadjar said. “Had I stayed in France, I would have never discovered this Israeli startup attitude.”