PARIS, July 20 (JTA) â€” Encouraging immigration to Israel is part of any Israeli prime ministerâ€™s job, but Ariel Sharonâ€™s latest attempt to convince French Jews to make aliyah has angered both French politicians and Jewish community officials in France. Sharonâ€™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.
The sharp responses to Sharonâ€™s remarks point to fault lines not only between Israel and France, but between Israeli leaders and Diaspora Jews.
French President Jacques Chirac was reported to have sent a letter to Sharon on Monday, saying 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.”
However, in a statement issued late Monday, however, the Elysee Palace denied that Chirac had sent Sharon a formal letter. Instead, the palace said, “a possible visit to Paris by the Israeli prime minister, for which no date had been fixed, will not be examined until the explanations demanded have been furnished.”
The controversy erupted after Sharon told a visiting delegation from the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group in Jerusalem on Sunday that French Jews should move to Israel immediately in order to flee rising anti-Semitism.
“If I have to advise our brothers in France, Iâ€™ll tell them one thing â€” move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there, I think itâ€™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, Israelâ€™s charge dâ€™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 â€” such as the speaker of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debre â€” are generally supportive of the Jewish state.
Sharonâ€™s remarks were “a travesty of reality and express hostility toward our country,” Debre told the French radio station Europe One. “What Ariel Sharon said shows clearly that he canâ€™t keep his mouth shut.”
While Sharonâ€™s remarks could have been expected to draw flack from politicians, those fighting anti-Semitism in France also expressed dismay.
Patrick Gaubert, president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, said that Sharonâ€™s remarks “would not bring the calm, peace or serenity which we all need. It would have been better for Mr. Sharon to keep quiet.”
Gaubertâ€™s views were echoed by Richard Prasquier, chairman of the French section of Israelâ€™s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Sharon “poured oil on the fire in an unacceptable manner,” Prasquier said.
Yves Kamami, an executive member of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, told JTA that he feared Sharonâ€™s remarks could have the effect of “cutting ourselves off even more from the general community.”
“We are becoming more and more isolated,” said Kamami, a former president of Bâ€™nai Bâ€™rith France.
The national media were no more forgiving.
The leading conservative daily Le Figaro headlined its Monday edition “Sharonâ€™s affront to France,” and suggested that Sharonâ€™s comments were not motivated only by concern over anti-Semitism.
Sharon wants “to neutralize the influence of France, the country regarded by Israel as the most pro-Palestinian in the European Union,” the paper said.
Israeli officials quickly moved to douse the flames. Government spokesman Avi Pazner told French radio that Sharon had been misunderstood.
Pazner pointed out that Sharon also had praised the French government for its actions against anti-Semitism, while his remarks “should be seen in the context of his opinion that the place for Jews is in Israel.”
Similar comments came from an Israeli diplomatic source in Paris, who said in an interview that the remarks “were little different from what Israeli prime ministers usually say,” adding that he considers the reaction from France “very exaggerated.”
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.
Moreover, Sharonâ€™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 Franceâ€™s Jewish community â€” which, at around 600,000, is the largest in Western Europe.
Some commentators drew parallels with other periods in Jewish history, particularly since Sharonâ€™s remarks were uttered close to the July 18 commemorations across France marking the infamous 1942 Vel dâ€™Hiver roundup of French Jews by the Nazis.
Writing in the pro-Israel online journal Proche-orient.info, Jewish journalist Elisabeth Schemla said that Sharonâ€™s choice of date had been “indecent.”