JERUSALEM — Soon after four Jewish men were killed in a hostage-taking siege at a kosher market in Paris last week, the Israeli leadership leapt to offer refuge.
“To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray; the state of Israel is your home,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address.
If a new wave of French Jews move to Israel, they will join what was a record 7,000 compatriots who made the journey last year. But that movement is already rekindling debate among Jews, who ask: Is it better for French Jews to come to Israel or stay home and insist that French society, including the country’s swelling Muslim population, accommodate them?
The debate comes with a contemporary twist: If Jews abandon France in large numbers, are they not doing just what Islamist extremists want — ridding France of its Jews?
“I think what we are seeing now is the old Zionism, the idea that the only place to be is Israel,” said Smadar Bar-Akiva, executive director of JCC Global, an umbrella group of more than 1,000 Jewish community centers worldwide.
“Aliyah is wonderful. We would love to have more Jews in Israel,” Bar-Akiva said, using the Hebrew term for immigration, or “ascending,” to Israel. “But I’d also like to have strong Jews all around the world. I think that it is self-defeating for us to tell them to pack their bags and leave France.”
The rising numbers of Jews leaving France for Israel are not fleeing war or annihilation, like the founding generation that came before and immediately after World War II. Nor are French Jews like earlier waves of Russian-speakers and Ethiopian Jews who fled the collapse of the Soviet Union and the poverty of Africa in the 1980s and 1990s — a phenomenon characterized as “crisis aliyah.”
The coming of the French Jews, said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is “a unique historical phenomenon” that poses new challenges and opportunities for Israel.
“We are moving from an aliyah of rescue to an aliyah of free choice,” Sharansky said.
For the first time in Israeli history, Sharansky said, more than half of the Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel last year came from Western-style democracies, with migration from France at the top.
Some commentators in Israel complained that the leadership was tone-deaf to the realities of Jews living in Europe, who feel deep allegiance for the countries of their birth.
“I don’t think the European situation is such that it requires a massive exodus to Israel,” said Elie Barnavi, a history professor at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to France. Barnavi said French Jews who make aliyah should be propelled by a love for Israel, not by panic.
“Not only is the government not anti-Semitic, the French public and the press are not anti-Semitic either. It is not comparable to the 1930s,” he said.
“We are talking about people who now come here by choice. Most of the people will choose to stay in France because life is comfortable,” Barnavi said. “It is not easy to leave behind your culture, your language, your friends.”
Others defended Netanyahu for his offer.
“I am sorry to tell you the truth: The terrible crime Netanyahu committed is called Zionism,” Boaz Bismuth, a former correspondent in Paris, wrote in the newspaper Israel Today.
Yair Lapid, head of a centrist political party and no friend of Netanyahu, said: “European Jewry must understand that there is just one place for Jews, and that is the state of Israel.”
What the newcomers will find when they arrive in Israel and how they will change Israeli society are big, open questions.
Before the killings in Paris, more than 7,000 French Jews chose last year to leave Europe’s founding democracy, a liberal, multicultural, modern nation that provides ample government services — education, health care, pensions — to its citizens, including Jews, who have lived in France since the time of the Romans. The most common reasons cited for leaving: the weak European economy and rising anti-Semitism.
This year, Israeli authorities forecast that 15,000 Jews from France will arrive in Israel, and many more may seek visas to Canada and the United States. Total immigration from all countries to Israel has averaged about 20,000 Jews per year over the past decade.
Dov Maimon, a French-born Israeli at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, said he thinks that half of France’s 500,000 Jews will leave the country over the next 15 years.
“This is a historical opportunity for Israel,” Maimon said.
But it requires a new approach, he said: These French Jews must be wooed. Zionism — the international movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland — might not be enough.
“In the old model, people came in distress, from Ethiopia and Morocco, and were put in Dimona,” a drab town in the middle of the Negev desert. “Now if Israel did that, the French would just leave,” he said.
“If we do not plan properly, the wealthy Jews will move to somewhere else," he said. "The most integrated Jews will assimilate and remain where they are. And only the traditional, ideological and underprivileged Jews will come to Israel.”
In recent years, Israelis have stereotyped the French arrivals as cliquish snobs who buy big condos on the beach and don’t bother to learn decent Hebrew. But the reality is that many French newcomers are middle-class wage-earners who struggle like most Israelis with the high cost of living here.
“You have to lower your standards,” said Jean-Charles Bensoussan, 62, a French physician who arrived five months ago and now works as a dentist.
Here in Israel, he said, a French accountant gets a job as a bookkeeper. An international textile merchant runs a call center.
The salaries are low. Professional accreditations from France — diplomas and licenses to practice law, medicine, architecture — are not accepted.
The rents are sky-high, the housing stock is poor. The prices are as steep as in Paris, Bensoussan said. The language is hard, especially for those who are middle-aged.
“You feel like a dummy,” he said.
Bensoussan is from Lyon, where he said he was beaten up on the street twice by Arab immigrants, whom he described as having grown more religious and more hostile to Jews.
“If you wear a skullcap on the streets of France? I tell you, it’s suicide,” he said.
Emmanuelle Ohnouna, 36, lived in Paris, where she worked as a pharmacist. She is now studying Hebrew alongside Bensoussan and a dozen other new friends at a school in Jerusalem’s city center.
The Israeli government provides immigrants with a little help — some job counseling, a break on import duties for the purchase of one automobile, low-interest mortgages and six months of Hebrew lessons.
“We didn’t move to Israel because we were afraid,” Ohnouna said. “We wanted the best for our children.
“If you wanted to be in a country that is safe, we would have gone to America or Canada. We know the problems here, and we are ready to live with them.”