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Anti-Semitic attitudes in the UK are a leading factor in encouraging aliya for British Jews, according to many of those who arrived here Wednesday.
Some 140 Britons, 140 Canadians and 240 Americans touched down together at Ben-Gurion Airport on flights sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh in partnership with the Jewish Agency.
The trip from Stansted was the first from the UK, and came amid a backdrop of heightened security following arrests of British Muslims accused of plotting a massive terror attack.
Several Jews coming from the UK said the terror threat hadn't dissuaded them from traveling and that other recent developments, notably the response in Britain to Israel's actions against Hizbullah, had increased their desire to leave.
"I believe there is no future for Jews outside Israel," said Yossi Vardakis, 19, while en route from London to Israel, where he plans to study rather than face hostility at a British university. "You don't feel really welcomed being Jewish [in England]. You're attacked for supporting Israel... You see this hatred coming out."
Since hostilities erupted between Israel and Hizbullah, British Jews have experienced a doubling in the rate of anti-Semitic incidents - most in the form of vandalism and threats - according to the Community Security Trust. Many members of the Jewish community have also accused the British media of incendiary coverage of the conflict.
Leila Segal, a writer and editor, described herself as living in a "mental ghetto" in London, where she felt she was "always censoring" herself when it came to her Jewish identity.
"I'm not running away from that, because we have to confront it," she said. "But I really think that coming to Israel and living in Israel, that's a very strong act we can take to affirm our existence."
Shachar Navon of the Jewish Agency's London branch said the influx of immigrants would contribute to an expected 550 British olim in 2006, the highest number in the last decade and a continuation of a trend which has seen about a 50 percent rise in British newcomers in the last few years.
She attributed that increase largely to antagonism felt by British Jews: "They say they are not fully secure here in the UK and that there are anti-Semitic acts all the time. They say they want to live in a place that welcomes them instead of looking at them as strangers."
Standing amid a sea of friends, family and IDF soldiers waving Israeli flags to welcome the new immigrants to Ben-Gurion, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski said the pull is so strong that the recent violence has not deterred them from coming. In fact, some 4,000 immigrants have arrived since the beginning of the war.
"People came to the conclusion that never mind Hizbullah, never mind [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, we are coming here because this is the only Jewish state we have," he said. "It's the only country in the world where the prime minister waits at the airport to welcome new immigrants."
Soon afterward, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the crowd, which gave him a muted welcome. He noted the difficult experience the country has recently been through, but said, "One thing that really strengthens this country is aliya."
He told the audience of teary immigrants, boisterous children and squealing pets, "When more than 500 Jews on this day come to the State of Israel, what they say to the world is, 'We are afraid of no one, because we trust the State of Israel, we believe in the future of Israel and we will build the State of Israel with all the Jewish people.'"
Debra Kalms, 44, who came from London to join her daughter here, said the current events only strengthened her resolve to come.
"It's a very historic time in our people's history," said the former executive director of Hadassah in the UK, sitting in Stansted airport with her 13-year-old son before their departure.
"To come at this time and help be a part of the country and [contribute] to our people and our faith, I feel very privileged to be in that position."
Daniel Robinson, 19, making aliya on his own from London, said the reports of Katyusha and army casualties had made him "rethink how hard it would be" to live in Israel, but "hasn't for a second made me question my plans to make aliya."
In fact, he said that when he heard Nefesh B'Nefesh was launching its first UK flight, it pushed him to come ahead of schedule.