The sign outside Ben-Gurion's Terminal 1 to greet those who had gathered before dawn Wednesday for Nefesh B'Nefesh's welcome party for 250 North American immigrants said "Celebrate Aliyah" and "Focus on your friends and family."
This was, according to one official, the organizers' way of saying, "Let's not get too political today."
Perhaps it was too much to ask on the first day of forced evacuation from Gaza, with Acting Finance Minister Ehud Olmert scheduled to address the crowd. In fact, Olmert had barely finished his first few words when a roar of taunting disapproval came back from many of the new arrivals and their guests.
The minister responded to the first wave of reproach with indulgence.
"I see some of you already fit right into Israeli democracy," he said.
"Traitor!" cried out a heavy-set man with an orange wristband. "You're stealing Jews' homes!" shouted another.
As the crowd got more provocative, Olmert responded with a taunt of his own, "Maybe if you or a few million of you had come earlier, we wouldn't have had to leave Gaza."
He tried to win the audience back with a strong finish, pounding the podium, "This place is ours and will remain ours."
"You re giving it away," the man with the orange band bitterly retorted.
The 250 new immigrants certainly picked a dramatic week to land in Israel, and disengagement was impossible to ignore even for Israel's freshest recruits. Robbie Frohlinger, who came from Boca Raton, Florida, and will soon settle in Ra'nana, said that he chose this week's flight to make a statement. "This is our land," Frohlinger said. "While fellows Jews are suffering, others are coming to ensure the future of Eretz Yisrael."
Aliyah from North America is reaching new levels. Tony Gelbart, the chairman and co-founder of Nefesh B'Nefesh, anticipates they will bring about 3,200 new immigrants this year, with even higher numbers in the future. Gelbert also saw significance in welcoming the newcomers at the height of the disengagement drama.
"From [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon to [MK] Effi Eitam," Gelbert said, "what they have in common is [enthusiasm for] aliyah." On the plane from New York, Gelbert told the passengers, "Right now we are torn apart. But aliyah is the glue."
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was far more popular than Olmert with the almost entirely religious crowd. "When Jewish homes are being uprooted, it's wonderful to see you building new homes in Israel," he said to great applause.
"When Zionism is bleeding," Riskin told the crowd, "you are the transfusion."
Despite the verbal beating Olmert took, he never lost composure and smiled throughout the whole encounter. In fact, after the ceremony he was still feeling confident.
"This has been what I expected," he told
The Jerusalem Post
. "There are many strong emotions and reactions. Had it not been so I would have considered it unnatural."
The worst was now over in Gaza, he said. Healing the nation after disengagement will be "a long process, because something significant has happened that has forced Israel to come to grips with fundamental and basic things about itself," he told the
"I hope we will deal with it. Not to confront, but to contemplate," Olmert said.
When asked how he felt about facing the hissing and jeers of the large crowd of new Israelis, he thrust his index finger into the air. "There was no crowd. It was all just one idiot."
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