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Israel welcomes 200 french jews

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Israel welcomes 200 French Jews

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Ten days after straining relations with Paris by urging French Jews to move to Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has welcomed 200 immigrants from France to a new life.

At a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Sharon tried to mend beleaguered ties with France.

He said that while anti-Semitism threatens the Western world, he praised French President Jacques Chirac for efforts to combat it.

Sharon irked France when he said that French Jews should consider immigrating to Israel because of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France.

In a July 18 speech to visiting Jewish American leaders, Sharon told them France was host to "the wildest anti-Semitism."

"If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: Move to Israel, as early as possible," he said.

France was quick to call Sharon's remarks "unacceptable," with officials describing them as an "insult to France."

Chirac asked Sharon to explain his remarks and said that until he does, he would not be welcome in France.

Sharon softened his stance on Wednesday saying: "Jews must come to Israel not because of hatred or fear. Jews must immigrate because it is their homeland."

Emerging from the plane, the immigrants sang "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem," or "we bring peace to you," a traditional Hebrew song of greeting, according to The Associated Press.

A heavyset man with a beard, wearing a white shirt and skullcap, danced, his arms above his head, AP reported.

"Welcome to Israel," Sharon said, "welcome home."

The group included 50 children and 55 university students, according to the Jewish Agency, the body that deals with immigration to Israel.

About half of those who arrived on Wednesday's flight from Paris came under an Israeli government program initiated a year ago bringing French Jewish groups to Israel.

The other newcomers started planning to emigrate long before Sharon's speech last week, immigration ministry officials said.

'Unprecedented hostility'
While leaders of some French Jewish groups said the Israeli prime minister was not well-informed about events inside France, some French Jews agreed with Sharon that anti-Semitism was increasing.

Roger Cukierman, president of the Jewish Community of France, said French Jews were experiencing an unprecedented level of hostility.

"I was a child of four when the war started -- the Second World War. I have some 'souvenirs' of that period," he said.

"I could have never imagined that being a Jew in France would be a problem 60 years later."

More than 300 anti-Semitic attacks have been reported in France so far this year, which is more than in all of 2003.

Almost all of those attacks, the government said, were carried out by young, North African men.

Groups working to combat the problem say poor, jobless men from North Africa often take out their anger on Jews.

France has the world's third-largest Jewish community, which makes up 1 percent of the French population.

Muslims and Jews often live side-by-side in and around Paris, but Jews in France are outnumbered almost 10 to 1 by Muslims.

In 1980, a bomb outside a Paris synagogue killed four people. The then-Prime Minister Raymond Barre remarked that "two innocent Frenchmen were killed" -- implying the Jews killed were not French.

It was a slip of the tongue, but something the French Jewish community has not forgotten.

But despite the increase of anti-Semitic threats and attacks, Jewish leaders have expressed satisfaction with government efforts to mount education programs to reduce anti-Semitism and boost security for potential Jewish targets.

CNN's Jim Bittermann and Guy Raz contributed to this report.

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