Prime Minister Ariel Sharon welcomed some 200 French Jews to Israel on Wednesday, less than two weeks after angering the French with his call for the country’s 600,000 or so Jews to emigrate to escape what he called the “wildest anti-Semitism.”
Sharon made his comments on July 18 in a speech to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. While he also acknowledged French government efforts to stem anti-Semitism, his remarks caused outrage.
At a welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Sharon appeared to try to correct the damage from his earlier statements. He said anti-Semitism threatens the Western world, without singling out France.
He went on, “We therefore very much appreciate the determined actions of the French government, as well as the French president’s stand against anti-Semitism. We hope that his determination will serve as an example to other countries as well.”
Softening his appeal to French Jews based on anti-Semitism, Sharon said, “Jews must come to Israel not because of hatred or fear. Jews must immigrate because it is their homeland.”
Emerging from the plane, happy immigrants danced and sang “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem,” or “we bring peace to you,” a traditional Hebrew song of greeting. A heavyset man with a beard, dressed with a white shirt and skullcap, danced a solo jig, his arms above his head.
Carol Ben Guigui, 41, carrying a little dog in her arms, said, “In five or 10 years, all the Jews of France will be in Israel because of anti-Semitism.”
“Welcome to Israel,” Sharon said, “welcome home.”
Also at the airport to greet the immigrants were opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and Israel’s two chief rabbis.
A government official said earlier Wednesday that Sharon’s reception was not meant to send any message to the French government but reflected the importance attributed to aliya, or Jewish immigration to Israel.
“Whenever immigrants come, and Sharon has the time and the ability, he will go and meet them,” government spokesman Ra’anan Gissin said. “His stance comes not from politics, but conviction and belief.”
“Nothing that Sharon said was directed against Chirac,” Gissin said. “Sharon meant solely to say to Jews that the only place in the world where Jews have the right to defend themselves, by themselves, the ability to do so, is here.”
France soon sought to put an end to the dispute, with Chirac passing a message to his Israeli counterpart Moshe Katsav that as far as he was concerned, the row was over.
More Jews leaving than a few years ago
France, home to Western Europe’s biggest Jewish and Muslim communities, has been troubled by anti-Semitic attacks and more Jews are leaving than a few years ago.
France registered 67 attacks on Jews or their property and 160 threats against Jews in the first quarter of 2004 versus 42 attacks and 191 threats in the last three months of 2003.
Some attacks on Jews and Jewish property are blamed on tensions over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Despite the impact of violence on daily life in Israel, the Agence Juive organization, which assists emigration, expects some 3,000 French Jews to begin new lives there this year, up from 900 in 2001.
Some five million Muslims live in France, many tracing their roots back to the post-colonial emigration from North Africa.