Adding to an already ugly history of anti-Semitism, France hasn't exactly endeared itself to Jews lately. Between cozying up to Arab dictatorships, consistently siding with the United Nations against Israel, and several years of increasing anti-Jewish attacks (to which authorities have been slow to respond), France has acquired a reputation among Jews as a place to be avoided.



So it was rather ironic when the French government worked itself into a tizzy last month, all because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dared to point this out. Sharon was giving a speech to the leadership of the United Jewish Communities, when, in response to a question about rising anti-Semitism in France and Europe, he urged French Jews to immigrate to Israel "as early as possible." Judging by the reaction, he hit a nerve.



The French Foreign Ministry immediately issued a statement calling Sharon's remarks "unacceptable," while French President Jacques Chirac declared him persona non grata in France. Such indignation is rather puzzling, considering that the French themselves claim to be aware of the problem. In fact, according to a CBS News report, the "latest French Interior Ministry figures show 510 anti-Jewish acts or threats in the first six months of 2004 - compared to 593 for all of last year." And although authorities have finally started taking action in response, it may be too little too late.



For despite all of Jacques Chirac's protestations, Jews are fleeing France and heading to the one place that they feel safe in the world: Israel. Israel - the land besieged by hostile neighbors - is now seen as safer for Jews than France. Fueled by anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated mostly by Muslim youth, French Jews are "getting out of Dodge." In fact, since the start of the second intifada, the number of Jews emigrating from France to Israel has doubled to more than 2,000 annually.



But not all Jews immigrating to Israel do so under duress. Many are fulfilling a commitment known as "making Aliyah". Aliyah is a Hebrew word that means "to ascend." The term "making Aliyah" is defined on several levels, the simplest being to immigrate to Israel. In a larger sense, Aliyah describes "the return of the Jewish People from the exile in the Diaspora back to the Land of Israel." On a cultural level, Aliyah serves to strengthen Jewish identity in the face of worldwide assimilation. The spiritual meaning of Aliyah, is "growing in the knowledge and understanding of God by climbing a spiritual ladder." Legalistically, Aliyah is based on Israel's Law of Return. Written in 1950, the law stipulates that "Every Jew is eligible to make Aliyah to Israel." For Israel itself, Aliyah is the lifeblood, providing a future in the ongoing demographic struggle with its Arab citizens and neighbors.



Whatever their reasons, new Israelis, or Olim, are welcomed in their adopted homeland with open arms and much fanfare. Also, various organizations exist within Israel to ease the transition. One of them, Nefesh B'Nefesh, helps American and Canadian Jews in particular wishing to make Aliyah. With their assistance, 405 North American Jews arrived in Israel just last month. Mostly observant Jews, they traded in the promise of America to give their children a new life in the Holy Land. And they are not alone. In 2003, Nefesh B'Nefesh helped 1,000 American Jews immigrate to Israel and plans to bring 1,500 by the end of 2004.



Other immigrants come from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and even South America. In 2003 alone, 6,000 Argentine Jews made Aliyah, no doubt in an effort to escape that country's legacy of anti-Semitism. Although numbers overall appear to have declined over the past 15 years or so (they peaked with the fall of the Soviet Union), on a philosophical level, making Aliyah may be making a comeback.



Far from deterring Jews from supporting Israel, the failed Palestinian intifada has had the opposite effect. Sympathy for their beleaguered homeland had led to a renewed appreciation for Israel. The perseverance and bravery of the Israeli people in the face of such a relentless adversary reminds Jews of their potential strength. And, of course, the rise in worldwide anti-Semitism has forced them to reconsider their place in the world. Whether they choose to make Aliyah or not, the Holy Land beckons and Jews are once again hearing its call.



So it should have come as little surprise when 200 French Jews arrived in Israel the week following Sharon's remarks. The usual apologists within the French Jewish community tried in vain to get them to stay. Evoking the pre-Holocaust years, they urged their fellow Jews to "remain calm" and "not overreact." But the crucial difference between then and now is the existence of Israel. Indeed, this should serve as a reminder to the world exactly why Jews need a state of their own.