By ISABEL KERSHNER
FEBRUARY 15, 2015
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Sunday that his government was encouraging a “mass immigration” of Jews from Europe, reopening a contentious debate about Israel’s role at a challenging time for European Jews and a month before Israel’s national elections.
Speaking the morning after a Jewish guard was fatally shot outside a synagogue in Copenhagen in one of two attacks there, the remarks echoed a similar call by the prime minister inviting France’s Jews to move to Israel after last month’s attacks in Paris. Critics said then that the expression of such sentiments so soon after the Paris shootings was insensitive and divisive. Such sentiments also go to the heart of the complexity of Israel’s identity and its relationship with the Jewish communities of the diaspora, whose support has been vital.
“Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday in Jerusalem. “Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home,” he added.
But expressing the unease felt by many Jews abroad over such comments, Jair Melchior, Denmark’s chief rabbi, said he was “disappointed” by Mr. Netanyahu’s call.
“People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism, but not because of terrorism,” Mr. Melchior told The Associated Press on Sunday. “If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island.”
In a move that was planned before the attacks in Copenhagen — which left another man dead when a gunman opened fire as a Swedish cartoonist who had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad was speaking at a cafe — Mr. Netanyahu announced Sunday a $45 million government plan to encourage the absorption of immigrants from France, Belgium and Ukraine in 2015. Israel says it has seen a significant increase in the number of people interested in emigrating from these countries.
More than 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel in 2014, double the number from the year before. After the attacks in January in Paris that killed 17 people, including four Jews in a kosher supermarket, Israel was expecting an even larger influx.
For many Israelis, more Jewish immigration is an ideal embodied in the Hebrew word for it, aliya, which means ascent. The state was built by immigrants; its 1948 Declaration of Independence states that Israel “will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles.”
But the question of under what conditions goes to the core of Zionism and the essence of the principles on which the state was founded.
While some present Israel as primarily a refuge established on the ashes of the Holocaust, many Israelis prefer to view Zionism as a more proactive realization of the political vision of the Jewish nation.
Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli professor of political science, described Mr. Netanyahu’s call as “an intellectual and moral mistake” and accused him of taking a populist stance for electoral purposes.
“The legitimacy of Israel does not hinge on anti-Semitism,” said Professor Avineri, the author of a recent book, “Herzl’s Vision,” a biography of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. “It hinges on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the Jewish state.”
While Israel should always be open to immigration, he said, the suggestion that Israel is the only place where Jews can live safely “puts Netanyahu, and in a way Israel, on a collision course with leaders of the democratic countries and also with the leaders of the Jewish communities.”
Apparently piqued by Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks in January, President François Hollande of France pledged during a speech at a Paris Holocaust memorial to protect all of its citizens, and told French Jews: “Your place is here, in your home. France is your country.”
On Sunday, the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, visited the Copenhagen synagogue where the attack took place and said, “The Jewish community is a large and integrated part of Danish society.”
For some Israeli experts, though, Mr. Netanyahu’s call was a natural expression of the nation’s ethos.
“The raison d’être of Israel is to create a place where Jews can have a better quality of Jewish life,” said Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a research center in Jerusalem.
“In my view, Netanyahu is encouraging those who in any event intend to leave their countries of origin to move to Israel and not to other places,” Mr. Bar-Yosef said, adding, “Even if it is controversial, this is something that a prime minister of Israel needs to do.”
Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates migration to Israel, agreed, saying, “The general perception is that when Jews come under attack, it is the prime minister’s job to remind them that Israel offers them shelter.”
“The rest,” said Mr. Palmor, a former Israeli diplomat, “is a matter of tone and emphasis.”
Mr. Netanyahu has again weighed in on the subject at a fraught time, when Israel’s relations with the White House are strained over his address to a joint meeting of Congress on Iran’s nuclear program next month, two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.
In an election video posted Saturday on Mr. Netanyahu’s Facebook page, the prime minister gave a personal account of how important immigration to Israel has been for Europe’s Jews. Talking into the camera, Mr. Netanyahu tells the story of how his grandfather was beaten unconscious by an anti-Semitic mob at a train station “in the heart of Europe” at the end of the 19th century.
“He pledged to himself that if he survived the night he would bring his family to the land of Israel and help build a new future for the Jewish people in its land,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding, “I am standing here today as the prime minister of Israel because my grandfather kept his promise.”