JERUSALEM, Feb 23 (Reuters) Israel saw a sharp increase in new immigrants last year from France, where a wave of anti-Semitic attacks prompted a 2004 call by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for French Jews to move to the Jewish state.
While overall immigration to Israel was nearly flat from 2004 to 2005, the number of immigrants from France shot up by 27 percent in 2005 after gaining 12 percent in the previous year, according to an annual report released yesterday by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.
France is home to Western Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities and many recent anti-Jewish attacks have been blamed on Muslim youths angry at the situation in the Middle East.
The attacks prompted Sharon's appeal to French Jews to escape anti-Semitism by emigrating to Israel. Sharon's call briefly set back Israeli-French relations.
Concerns over anti-Semitism in France resurfaced this week after the torture and killing of a young Jewish man. French officials called it an anti-Semitic crime and police found literature linking some suspects to Muslim causes.
The annual immigration figures are closely watched amid Israeli concerns that without an influx of foreign Jews the country's Arab minority -- which has a far higher birth-rate -- could eventually outnumber the Jewish population.
Jews constitute 76 per cent of Israel's population of 6.99 million people while Arabs make up 20 per cent.
The Central Bureau of Statistics said there were 21,126 newcomers in 2005, up slightly from 20,893 in 2004. That followed a 10 per cent drop in new immigrants from 2003 to a 15-year low.
The influx of new immigrants has been well below the 70,000 to 200,000 a year that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
There was a sharp immigration drop-off in 2000 after the start of the current Palestinian uprising. A recession in the early part of the decade was also viewed as a factor.
In recent years, however, suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks have declined substantially while the Israeli economy has rebounded.
Over the last five years, some 203,000 people have moved to Israel. Nearly 1 million, mostly from formerly Soviet bloc countries, immigrated in the 1990s, the bureau said.
In addition to France, the number of immigrants from the United States rose 8 per cent in 2005. In contrast, immigration from Ukraine, Asia and Argentina declined the most.
Reuters PDS VP0437