France, Israel try to mend ties after Sharon remarks

paris | Encouraging immigration to Israel is part of any Israeli prime minister’s job, but Ariel Sharon’s latest attempt to convince French Jews to make aliyah has angered both French politicians and Jewish community officials in France.

Sharon’s call, made in Israel to a visiting delegation of North American Jewish officials, was based on the increase in anti-Semitism that France has experienced in recent years.

In response, French President Jacques Chirac said Sharon is not welcome in France. In a letter to Sharon on July 19, Chirac said that “after a number of weeks of contacts concerning your visit, it appears that it is impossible and you will not be welcome following your statements.”

The sharp responses to Sharon’s remarks point to fault lines not only between Israel and France, but between Israeli leaders and Diaspora Jews.

The controversy erupted after Sharon told a visiting delegation from the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group in Jerusalem on July 18 that French Jews should move to Israel immediately in order to flee rising anti-Semitism.

“If I have to advise our brothers in France, I’ll tell them one thing — move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there, I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately,” Sharon said.

Sharon also chose to point the finger at what he said was the primary cause for the “wildest anti-Semitism” in France.

“In France today, about 10 percent of the population are Muslims. That gets a different kind of anti-Semitism, based on anti-Israeli feelings and propaganda,” he said.

The comments drew immediate criticism from French government officials, and Jacques Revah, Israel’s charge d’affaires in Paris, was called in to the ministry to account for the remarks.

The reaction was equally acerbic from senior political figures in France, some of whom — such as the speaker of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debre — are generally supportive of the Jewish state.

Sharon’s remarks were “a travesty of reality and express hostility toward our country,” Debre told the

Recorded acts of anti-Semitism in France have spiraled this year, and the Jewish community is still dealing with the fallout of a widely publicized hoax last week that originally was thought to be an anti-Semitic attack on a woman and her baby. The woman recently apologized on French television.

Moreover, Sharon’s remarks also follow recent reports that the Jewish Agency for Israel is set to step up its campaign to persuade French Jews to immigrate to Israel by sending hundreds of representatives into large Jewish communities in the Paris area. The Jewish Agency has denied the reports.

Aliyah from France has doubled over the past three years, with more than 2,000 French Jews now immigrating annually to Israel. But the figures still represent only a small percentage of France’s Jewish community — which, at around 600,000, is the largest in Western Europe.