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Sharon told Immigration and Absorption officials in Jerusalem last week that his government has always prioritized Aliyah and "will be making an effort to redouble our work to bring Ethiopian immigrants to Israel."

He spoke even as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned that his nation faces a worse famine now than that of 1984 ? which claimed nearly a million lives.

An estimated 20,000 Ethiopian Jews are waiting to come to Israel, but the current pace of immigration is considered by advocacy groups as painfully slow ? less than 2,500 have arrived this year, several hundred less than in 2001, according to the Jewish Agency.

Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin said the situation of the Ethiopians waiting to come is complex, because it is unclear how many of them are Jewish and thus eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return. Many are considered Falasha Mura, from families that converted to Christianity for economic reasons while preserving some of their Jewish traditions. But the question of their identity must be answered, Gissin said. They are living there in dire conditions, with very little food.

Because the nation wants to preserve its status as a Jewish state and to serve as a refuge for endangered Jewish communities abroad, Israeli immigration laws are uniquely geared to encourage Jews in the Diaspora to come live in Israel.

But some leftist Israelis are saying the country should welcome more non-Jews as well. Friday's edition of Ha'aretz carried a four-page indictment of Israel's attitude to non-Jewish "asylum seekers," mainly from Africa.

But the article also brought the crisis of demography into sharp relief; with the erosion of the Jewish character of Israel comes the undermining of its founding purpose, to be a homeland and safe haven for the persecuted Jews of the Diaspora.

In 1999, then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered the admittance of 100 Muslim refugees from the Kosovo conflict, stating, "When we were a persecuted people no country offered us help."

But many argue that Israel, whose very right to exist and protect itself as a Jewish state is continuously under assault from the international community, let alone its Arab neighbors, has a sufficient mandate in absorbing worldwide Jewish refugees, without accepting others.

Sharon, whose efforts to negotiate the safe passage of Ethiopian Jews to Israel are well established, is keen to intervene. As Defense Minister in the 1980s, he embarked on a secret mission to meet the President of Sudan to ensure the safe passage of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who made the dangerous journey to Israel by foot.

Under Sharon, the Israeli Government has reached out to help Jews in economic distress from Argentina, Uruguay, and even Brazil to return "home." He now has persuaded his cabinet to abolish the distinction in government aid given to immigrants from wealthier Western countries and poorer "nations in distress." From December 1, married couples from Western Europe and North America will also receive a $6,000 grant in their first 8 months, like those Sharon is looking to rescue from the impending Ethiopian famine.

But there is, perhaps, a more pressing reason for Sharon's focus on Aliyah ? which has significantly slowed since the onset of the armed Palestinian intifada over two years ago. From violent anti-Israel riots on the campuses of American universities to attacks on synagogues in France, many Jews fear a new global trend of anti-Semitism, sometimes hidden under the cloak of pro-Palestinian activism.

Just last week, Oxford Professor Tom Paulin had an invitation to speak at Harvard University rescinded at the last minute week, after sparking widespread controversy in a poem calling the IDF, the "Zionist SS." Speaking to the Egyptian online magazine Al-Ahram in April, Paulin said Brooklyn-born Jews who reside in the territories "should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them." Oxford declined to discipline Paulin for fear of contravening his right to "freedom of speech."

The warning signs from the West may yet be as stark as those so painfully highlighted by famine-threatened leader of Ethiopia.

"Immigration," according to Sharon "is the true solution to Israel's security and economic problems." It is a "holy work" which by 2020, could result in the majority of world Jewry living in Israel.