Sunday, 28 December 2008

The invisible arm of the WJC

As the World Jewish Congress is set to meet for its general assembly in January, its European branch is entrenched in an ongoing cold war between its western and eastern delegates.
On December 17, Russian businessman Moshe Kantor was easily re-elected president of the lobby with 55 votes, beating French senior challenger Roger Cukierman who got 28, but the latter, a former leader of the French umbrella association CRIF, told me the battle was far from over.

“I imagine the ongoing war between the East and the West will end with the election of the new president ?” I asked Mr Cukierman hours ahead of the vote.
“Obviously,” he answered ironically “after the election, our differences will fade away – just like in the [French] socialist party!” he said, referring to the spectacular split of the French left wing party after its internal election in November.

The French, Austrian, Portuguese and German communities have been criticising Mr Kantor’s leadership and approach, in some cases even before the billionaire took over the head of the EJC 18 months ago. Some criticise the tycoon’s soft lobbying over the Iranian nuclear issue.
“It seems that it is Mr Putin who convinced Mr Kantor of the relevance of his policies rather than the other way around…” evaluated Cukierman.

Mr. Kantor pleads for a friendly approach – working along with Moscow rather than criticising its cooperation with Tehran…but his opponents argue his stance lacks results.
Others have accused him of focusing on commemorations (Kantor financed the massive 60th anniversary of the “liberation” of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Kristallnacht commemoration in Brussels) rather than on the challenges the Jewish community is facing today.

All four communities left the lobby in 2008 after a contested vote to stretch the president’s mandate from 2 years to 4.
Some of them even considered creating a new pan-European Jewish lobby, perhaps even a partnership with the American Jewish Committee. This absolute nightmare for the EJC was averted by a thread.

“The idea of creating another European body was indeed considered for a time,” confirmed Cukierman, “but we dropped the plan when we realised it wouldn’t be effective because we would be competing with the EJC.”

The four rebellious communities came back to EJC late 2008 after Kantor accepted to hold elections as planned around June 2009. They thought they would challenge his policies from the inside, even compete for the leadership of the lobby.

But once the communities returned to the EJC, the body - which widely relies on Kantor’s 900 thousand-euro yearly contribution - announced flash elections, and the debate was cut short.

“The EJC can become a strong and influent organisation, but since the day it was created, 20 years ago, it’s a sort of sleeping beauty. It doesn’t really do much of anything,” argues Cukierman. “Our lobbying isn’t well coordinated. Simultaneous initiatives are launched separately in different countries while we should work together. We have to be in permanent contact with decision-makers and with the media in order to inform the public. We should work with the WJC. The EJC used to be its European arm.”

I asked the EJC, for which I worked during a short period of time in 2007, to send me a review of its initiatives over the past couple of years to challenge Mr Cukierman’s remarks, but it failed to do so.
Its secretary general simply told me that the inner conflict was settled and that the vote was announced on time.

Regarding the UN-sponsored Durban II conference due to take place in Geneva in April, which several countries have decided to boycott, Serge Cwajgenbaum said the EJC was still holding meetings to decide whether it would take action or not…
“We have yet to decide whether we’ll participate in the conference or boycott it,” said Cwajgenbaum.

The lobby and the anti-Semitic epidemic

Anti-Semitism is still a major concern throughout Europe. The EJC often denounces anti-Jewish assaults but it lacks an efficient strategy.

The Jewish community in France faced the problem a few years back.

“When I arrived to the head of the CRIF at the beginning of the year 2000, a new wave of anti-Semitism had just erupted – twenty synagogues and schools had been burned down, rabbis had been attacked - yet the authorities, President Chirac and the Left-wing government refused to admit it. The attackers had to specifically write anti-Semitic tags when desecrating synagogues in order for the attacks to be considered anti-Semitic.”

Today, France has solid laws which worsen verdicts in cases of anti-Semitic attacks. The next step was to get actual convictions in court.
Education is another important part of the battle as anti-Jewish stereotypes have flourished in French schools. The media of coarse can't be ignored either. An unbiased coverage is essential to win over the war on the anti-Semitic drive.
This strategy has to be extended to the rest of Europe, especially in these times of crisis in which Europe’s Jewry fears a rise of anti-Semitism.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Tears and Champagne

American elections have often led Parisian voters to tears and excessive drinking.
As citizens of another country they can naturally not hope to participate in the poll, but a great number of them nevertheless stay up throughout the night, follow the vote, and, strangely enough, feel left out, like un-consulted, invisible citizens.

They gather in bars and in front of city halls, waiting for the results to fall in. In most cases, they helplessly watch the candidates they dread the most win over the vote.
This was the case in 2000 and 2004 when George W. Bush was elected. The French were probably the greatest Gore and Kerry supporters in the world. The two would have won a landslide victory had they been running for our presidential palace. That’s why Bush’s victories hurt them so deeply.

Four years ago I watched my husband’s leftist friends leave for election nights with desperate looks on their faces, I always wondered why they inflicted such pain on themselves.
Early the next morning, as the sun was rising and results came in, they wandered around downtown Paris, drowning their misery in a glass of Beaujolais in bars that remained open for the occasion.

This year’s election ended in even more alcohol and tears than in Bush’s days, but this time they were tears of joy accompanied by confetti and the cheap new Beaujolais was replaced by champagne and macaroons.

People didn’t even have to say the words. Everyone’s eyes projected happiness and relief. The French don’t disrespect John McCain, they were just relieved to see the end of the Bush era. They could now turn back into proud America lovers again.

At my TV station France 24, which aims to become France’s CNN or BBC, about 100 journalists were called up to cover election night.
They have so well anticipated Obama’s victory that many of them spent the night watching CNN.

As I was taking the subway back home, the commuters were all reading the free newspapers handed out in train stations.
A little 5-year-old black boy was looking at the main headline, next to his father. He broke the silence reading out proudly “O-BA-MA. BA-RACK O-BA-MA”.

France’s black minority looks up to the American vote, hoping to get someday similar results. Obama’s victory brought joy, satisfaction, hope to some of Paris’s impoverished suburbs, - “Maybe Obama can make a difference here too” some residents said - but a feeling of bitterness quickly emerged, as they realized the gap existing between the US and France.
A few decades ago African-Americans, such as James Baldwin, came to France to write and work freely. Today, many bright French blacks leave for the US to get the jobs they aim for, which they didn’t manage to get in their home country. They usually return a few years later to their neighbourhoods, share their experience and help the less fortunate residents.

Under the Bush administration, the US embassy in Paris made great efforts to attract minority suburban youth to appreciate the US. Washington financed special programs to bring young Arabs and blacks to the US. Dozens have participated in the program. But now, the stream has turned into a torrential flow. Suburban youth who used to despise the US, were won over and are now inspired by America and by what seems to have turned back into a dream.

Mainstream French Jews, whom are known for their traditionalist and pro-Israeli views, may have regretted Hilary Clinton and John McCain’s defeats more than the average Frenchman. Intellectual André Glucksmann wrote one of the rare op-eds criticizing Obama and those who endorsed him in Europe. But on the whole, the community quickly reconsidered and is now eager to discover Obama’s approach to the situation in the Middle-East and regarding Iran.

Breakthrough in a 30-year-old antisemitic bombing

It’s a major breakthrough in the investigation over one of Europe’s major anti-Semitic attacks.
28 years ago, a blast killed 4 people and injured 20 others in front of a synagogue in Paris’s 16th quarter, on Copernicus Street.
It was the first lethal attack against the Jewish community since World War II. Last Thursday, the alleged terrorist was arrested in Canada.

Hassan Diab, a sociology professor at the Ottawa University who has Canadian and Lebanese citizenship, claims his innocence. French authorities said they have solid evidence against him and asked for a quick extradition. This may happen within a few months according to Mrs Michèle Alliot-Marie, French Interior minister.

The Jewish community welcomed the news of the arrest with relief. Richard Prasquier, the President of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF thanked the police for its dedication to the case over such a long period. but the synagogue’s former rabbi Michael Williams said the investigation was only reopened last year.
“For 27 years we have been completely ignored, never questioned by investigators. We obtained no information, although we were there when it all happened.” The rabbi told the French news agency “and then last year, police investigators came to see me for the first time.” The rabbi was particularly shocked by the reaction of the French street and media. “They said we were whiners… that’s when I learned that word, ‘whiners’.”

The breakthrough may be another sign of the French authorities’ new dedication to battle anti-Semitism. Maybe a part of the Sarkozy effect.

There’s an obvious change of approach since the attack took place. The Jewish community was deeply hurt by former Prime Minister Raymond Barre’s hasty reaction after the attack.
He said “terrorists had targeted Jews on their way to the synagogue but hurt innocent French citizens in the street.”
Barre, who passed away a few months ago, never regretted his words.

The Jewish community felt quite isolated at the time. And it sometimes still does today.

Community leaders keep denouncing anti-Semitism in Paris’s northern neighbourhoods, where various gangs have been fighting over territories.
One of the gangs gathers Jews, and they’ve been confronting other minorities.
Several Jews have been wounded. One of them, Rudy Haddad, was left in a coma.

Jewish leaders claim the attacks are anti-Semitic and denounce a growing isolation of Jewish families in those neighbourhoods. But the media and public classified the incidents as ‘ethnic violence’ and said they’re by no means anti-Semitic.
A Jewish journalist from my station even told me the Jews are the thugs who triggered ethnic violence.

Whatever the exact situation on the ‘field’ may be, Jews have an entirely different perception of the events than the rest of society.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

« Zionists should move to Arizona! »

The first ‘Jerusalem Day’ to be held in Paris was banned by police on Saturday, following alerts on possible altercations and incitement.
Several anti-Israeli groups led by the Islamic Zahra Center were planning a joint rally next to the Eiffel tower to protest against “Zionism and imperialism”.

“We wanted to organise here in France Jerusalem Day, the event that was launched by Khomeini, but Zionist groups and media pressured authorities and police who banned the event at the last minute,” Zahra Center leader Yahia Gouasmi told me.

In a video posted on the organisation’s web site, Gouasmi says “Zionism is evil” and condemns the peace process in the Middle East.

“What right do they have to share Palestine? It’s not negotiable.” He says referring to the Palestinian Authority. “The Zionists won’t get a grain of sand. Let’s liberate our country! [...] Zionists, you still have time to leave. Move to Arizona!"

Palestinian officials in Paris gave no support to the initiative and have taken their distances in the past from various anti-Zionist groups, such as the Euro-Palestine list that ran for the European Parliamentary elections.

Actor and anti-Israeli militant Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a former member of the Euro-Palestine list, participated in Saturday’s initiative. M’bala M’bala, who used to be the partner of Jewish comedian Eli Semoun, hosted a press conference in his theatre.

Zahra Center leaders stressed they were strongly endorsed by “anti-Zionist rabbis such as Shmiel Modche Borreman from Brussels.”

But police forces were particularly alerted by the presence of an extremist group M.D.I which had been banned by French authorities twice. The faction led by Stellio Capo Chichi, known as ‘Kemi Seba’, has been disbanded in 2006 because of its anti-Semitic actions and incitement. It has since reformed twice using different names. Meanwhile, its members have multiplied.

“The police knows that whenever we participate in a rally there’s action. That’s why they cancelled the protest,” an MDI militant told one of his friends at the location of the rally Saturday.

The MDI (the Movement of those who are Damned by Imperialism) accuses ‘Zionists’ of “being responsible for injustice and imperialism throughout the world”. French courts have ruled that Kemi Seba’s repeated attacks on ‘Zionists’ are ill-disguised incitements against Jews.
Kemi Seba and his militants threatened Jews on various occasions. One such attack in the Jewish quarter of the Marais (central Paris) led to the ban of the group by then-President Jacques Chirac.

Kemi Seba managed to grow stronger ever since. Once the leader of a small, exclusively black faction, he opened doors to other militants and his movement now comprises an ‘African faction’ and an ‘Arab faction’. He also developed contacts with white nationalist groups.
According to Le Monde newspaper, Kemi Seba is lobbying the youth in various suburbs and in Paris’s 19th quarter where ethnic tensions rose in recent months.

Jerusalem Day organisers told me they were planning a major reaction on Wednesday.

Monday, 8 September 2008

"Suspected" anti-Semitism?

Three Jewish adolescents aged 16 to 18 were attacked on Saturday afternoon as they were returning home from the Synagogue in Paris’s troubled northern 19th quarter, where anti-Semitic incidents have increased over the past few years.
The beating took place only meters away from where young Rudy Haddad had been assaulted in June by a group of black and Arab youths and young men, among them a soldier.

The three youths, who were all wearing skullcaps, passed by a group of six young men, when one of them was hit with a small rock in the head. K. turned around and asked his attackers if there was a problem.

Challenged to a fight, he declined and was then beaten with his friends by the group, joined by nine other people.
The beating stopped when other residents approached the area.
All three youths were wounded and filed a complaint at police headquarters. On Monday they started identifying their aggressors.

Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said she was appalled by the “anti-Semitic attack on three Jewish adolescents on their way to the synagogue”, as did the mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe.

But Police investigators stressed they were not certain the assault was indeed anti-Semitic, arguing that "no anti-Jewish hate slogan was pronounced during the attack".
The press reported on the attack, saying it was a case of “suspected anti-Semitism”.

“There is no need for anti-Semitic slurs to identify the crime as anti-Semitic, just as there is no need for anti-Muslim slogans in order to define an assault on a veiled woman as a hate crime,” Sammy Ghozlan of the Vigilance Bureau against anti-Semitism told me. “The police are just trying to quiet things down to avoid a greater flare-up.”

The Jewish umbrella organisation CRIF agreed the assault was “obviously anti-Semitic”, and the Jewish student organisation UEJF pointed out that the three victims were serious quiet students, who had no prior experience of violence.

UEJF was referring to the case of Rudy Haddad, the boy beaten to a coma in June, who had participated in a previous street fight between Jewish and multi-racial gangs. Because of his past experience, Rudy’s attack was considered by many as a simple street battle and not a hate crime.

However they might be defined, racial hatred and increasing violence have exasperated residents of the neighbourhood. They feel the city is not doing anything to solve the problem, and many parents ask their children to stay at home to avoid trouble.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

French Cartoonist triggers national controversy with antisemitic jibe about Sarkozy's son

Nicolas Sarkozy’s son Jean is at the center of a national controversy after he was attacked by a satirist for allegedly planning to convert to Judaism.

In his article, cartoonist Siné mocked the precautious political agenda of Jean Sarkozy, who’s an elected official at 21 and implied the young man decided to wed a Jew and convert to Judaism in order to push forward his career.

“Jean Sarkozy, the natural son of his father and already councillor within his party, who was discharged at court in a hit and run accident with his motorbike. [...] Well, one must stress that the plaintiff was an Arab! And that’s not all: he just announced that he will convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, a Jew, and heiress of the founders of the Darty stores. This boy has some future!” wrote Siné on the July 9 issue of Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper, which had not been reviewed by the newsroom.

The affair could have gone unnoticed but journalist Claude Askolovitch denounced it as anti-Semitic and the newspaper’s manager Philippe Val agreed and requested an official printed excuse from the satirist. But the latter refused.

“Saying I’m sorry to Sarkozy and Darty? I might as well cut off my balls,” he replied, before being fired by Val.
The cartoonist got support from various public figures who argued he had the right to express himself. 3.000 people signed the petition in favour of Siné. They say the manager has double standards, because Charlie Hebdo’s satirical attitude is renowned. The newspaper had published the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad and was sued for doing so by various Muslim associations. Philippe Val pleaded for hours in court in favour of the controversial drawings.

But Val says “criticizing religion, any religion, is not the same as criticizing someone for what they are.” “That is an unspoken rule at Charlie Hebdo” he wrote in a column a week after the controversy broke out. He added that Sarkozy’s conversion to Judaism was a mere rumour.

French news papers are divided on the issue but most of them criticize Siné and point out that he had, in the past, been condemned for anti-Semitic remarks.

Those who defend the cartoonist say that he was fired for his far-left, pro-Palestinian political views and that his latest article was merely an excuse. They accuse Val of harassing his employees and defending pro-Israeli positions.

The Jewish umbrella group CRIF issued a press release in support of Val saying the controversy had turned into a hate campaign against the editor. Intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy wrote that people are focusing on Val’s decision to fire the cartoonist instead of trying to understand why Siné’s remarks were anti-Semitic.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Paris welcomes Assad — but Syrian leader snubs Olmert

Syrian leader Bashar Assad was a controversial guest of honour at France’s Bastille Day celebrations — and snubbed his fellow guest, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Mr Assad was among more than 40 heads of state at Sunday’s launch of the Union for the Mediterranean, a French initiative to bring together the 27 states of the EU with the Balkans and their Arab neighbours.

His presence in the front row of dignitaries watching the military parade the next day, one seat away from President Nicolas Sarkozy, created unease among opposition leaders, human-rights activists and members of the Jewish community.

French military veterans were also angered because Syria is accused of orchestrating a 1983 attack that killed 58 French troops in Beirut. Several human-rights activists were arrested as they tried to protest.

“Bastille Day is tainted by controversy,” said Socialist leader François Holland.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner himself said last month that he was displeased by Mr Assad’s invitation. Former president Jacques Chirac, who had been a close friend of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri — in whose murder Damascus has been implicated — chose not to attend the parade.

But for Mr Sarkozy, inviting Mr Assad to Paris was not negotiable. “Someone has to take chances,” Mr Sarkozy told a press conference, explaining a U-turn in French policy. He hopes that Syria will turn moderate once it emerges from its isolation, and hopes to launch direct talks between Jerusalem and Damascus.

However, despite weeks of feverish speculation ahead of the summit, there was no handshake between the Syrian and Israeli leaders.

On Bastille Day, Mr Olmert and Mr Assad were filmed on the stage, inches away from each other, but although Mr Olmert looked at Mr Assad, the latter avoided eye contact, let alone a handshake.

A French journalist told Mr Sarkozy at the summit’s press conference that Mr Assad had left the assembly before Mr Olmert’s speech, and that his foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, left before Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s address. Mr Sarkozy said he “hadn’t noticed”, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded: “So what? Assad probably had other things to do.”

Overlooking the critics, Mr Sarkozy said his initiative was a great success because of the European and Arab states which participated in the summit alongside Israel. Still, the only practical measures agreed were a handful of projects including taking action against pollution in the region and improving shipping routes.

Mr Sarkozy also announced he will visit Syria during the summer.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Ethnic gangs raise new fear in Paris

By Dana Gloger and Shirli Sitbon in Paris

As the latest young Jewish victim of a violent attack in France woke up from his coma on Monday, debate was reignited on the safety and future of the county’s Jewish community.

Rudy Haddad, 17, was beaten by up to 15 teenagers of African origin in an incident initially described by French authorities as antisemitic. One Arab teen beat Haddad with crutches. Others kicked and jumped on him. None of the suspects have been located yet.

The attack took place in Paris’s multi-ethnic 19th district, which has large Jewish, Arab and black populations.

It comes just three months after Mathieu Roumi, 19, whose father is Jewish, was attacked, held hostage and tortured in the Bagneux suburb of the French capital.

During his ordeal, his captors scrawled “Dirty Jew” on his forehead using correction fluid. Bagneux was also where Ilan Halimi, 23, was kidnapped and tortured two years ago. The telephone salesman had been held captive for three weeks in a crime which both police and Nicolas Sarkozy (then France’s interior minister) described as antisemitic. Mr Halimi died of his injuries shortly after, and the incident sparked fears of surging antisemitism in France, home to around 600,000 Jews.

In the latest incident, Police have revealed that the beating was preceded by gang fights in which two other Jewish teens were injured. According to witnesses questioned by police, Haddad took part in the last scuffle and was caught by his attackers while he was trying to flee the area. Witnesses say he slipped between two cars, while his friends managed to escape. Mr Haddad had been involved in a fight on a previous occasion after a rally for the release of Israeli soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Public prosecution opened an investigation on attempted murder charges with an anti-Semitic factor. Chief prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said investigators have ruled out the isolated attack theory.

Whatever the cause, the incident has provoked renewed debate in France about the safety of the Jewish community, with fears expressed that Saturday’s attack is indicative of a rising tide of antisemitism.

“We issued warnings earlier this month regarding dangerous gangs in this multi-ethnic quarter of Paris,” said Sammy Ghozlan, of the Vigilance Bureau against antisemitism. "The community doesn't understand why the media does not describe the attack as anti-Semitic but as a gang fight."

Even President Sarkozy, who was in Israel this week for a state visit, expressed his concern. Speaking at a dinner in Jerusalem, he said: “I was particularly shocked by what happened to a young Frenchman because he was wearing a kippah. Battling antisemitism concerns all French people, whether they are Jews or not.” He added that antisemitism was “a stain on the tricolour flag”.

Ariel Goldman, head of security for CRIF, the Representative Council for French Jews, said that Jewish people in the country, particularly those in northern Paris, had been left shocked and worried by the attack on Rudy Haddad.“Although everybody has to wait to see what conclusions the police will make, what is evident is that a young Jewish boy wearing a kippah had been attacked and very seriously hurt. People are now very upset and worried.”

One of Mr Haddad’s friends, who did not want to be named, said: “It is very difficult thinking about what happened. We are all very scared. There is violence like this against Jewish people all the time, and it is very hard.”

Most of France’s communal leaders stressed that while Jewish people in the country were safe, and that antisemitism had decreased in recent years, the nature of such attacks had become increasingly violent, leaving people ever more fearful.Serge Cwajgenbaum, of the European Jewish Congress, explained that the past year had seen a decrease in antisemitic incidents overall, but a rise in violent incidents. “It makes people very worried. While people are not necessarily more frightened of walking in the streets, parents are scared to send their children to a Jewish school for example, in case they are attacked.”He added that attacks such as the one on Rudy Haddad created a strong perception of rising antisemitism.

Guy Rosanowitz, who presents a talk show on France’s Jewish radio station Radio J in which callers discuss their concerns and recent events, agreed with Mr Cwajgenbaum.“Previously, when there have been attacks on Jewish people, there was a lot of talk about leaving the country to go to Israel or the US. This time, people aren’t saying this, but they are nervous after what has happened, especially as it’s not the first time that attacks like this have happened in these parts of Paris.” He added: “It generally concerns religious people more, and there has been some discussion of whether it’s best to wear a hat rather than a kippah in public.”

Others, however, claimed that the incident has not caused fear among the Orthodox community. Rabbi Hillel Benhamou, secretary of the Beit Loubavitch Centre in Paris, said: “It has not caused Lubavitch people to be any more worried about walking down the streets in their hats, or religious clothes. People are upset about what’s happened, but they are not scared to walk down the streets.” He added that the community’s main concern was how the incident would affect racial and religious tensions among young people.

Meanwhile, Raphael Haddad, president of the French Union of Jewish Students, said that, given the news that Rudy Haddad had been involved in previous fights, it was no longer clear if Saturday’s attack had been entirely antisemitic in nature.

He rejected suggestions that French Jews felt under threat: “People are not scared. They feel safer than they did two or three years ago.”One of the causes of the problem, according to Raphael Haddad, was that in the 19th district, groups of Jewish and non-Jewish youths “fight in the park every Saturday afternoon”.

France elects chief rabbi in US-style vote

France elected a new chief rabbi on Sunday after a lengthy presidential-style campaign described by one communal figure as “an unprecedented battle between two radically different characters”.

The victor, Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, the 56-year-old rabbi of Paris’s La Victoire Synagogue, beat Chief Rabbi Joseph Haïm Sitruk, 63, who led the French rabbinate for 21 years.

According to communal figures, the election had “turned American”, with a campaign that included video clips on the internet showing the younger rabbi jogging through Paris, comments on social-networking site Facebook, and advertising in the Jewish press. France’s main communal organisation, the Consistoire, responsible for electing the chief rabbi, had never seen such effort and cash invested in an election. One of the 300 members eligible to vote said: “I never got so many phone calls. The chief rabbi [Sitruk] himself left a message on my mobile phone and asked what he could do for me to get my support.”

Rabbi Sitruk was seen as the traditional candidate, “friendly and always ready to tell a joke”, and with a keen interest in business opportunities, such as the launch — during his term of office — of his own kashrut label in competition with the Consistoire label, a move which provoked fierce criticism.

A philosopher and academic, Chief Rabbi Bernheim is widely regarded as an intellectual. However, his supporters say his main quality is his inclusivity. “Bernheim is an open man,” said Jacques Garih, president of the Future of Judaism association. “Let’s face it, 99 per cent of the French are not Jewish, so it’s quite important to have interfaith dialogue. And he’s also open to Jews who are not Orthodox.” He is also expected to resolve the problems facing the Consistoire: “It is going through a tough crisis because Sitruk didn’t take matters in hand and Bernheim presented a serious programme to get the Consistoire back on track and improve its rabbinical school,” said religious and social-studies scientist Martine Cohen. “And Bernheim doesn’t address men exclusively. This is further progress.”

After his victory on Sunday, Rabbi Bernheim told Rabbi Sitruk that “it was time to unite” and offered to “work together”. One of Rabbi Sitruk’s students shed a tear. And as one voter told the JC, “the election was some show”.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Gang beats Jewish adolescent to a coma - all leads investigated

A 17-year-old Jewish adolescent, Rudy Haddad, was beaten to a coma by a group of adolescents on Saturday night in the north of Paris in an attack initially described as anti-Semitic by French authorities.

“A gang of 15 adolescents attacked the young Jew with metal bars as he was walking down the street wearing a skullcap,” Sammy Ghozlan, from the Vigilance Bureau against anti-Semitism, told the JC. “We have issued warnings earlier this month regarding dangerous gangs in this multi-ethnic quarter of Paris.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said “the aggressors had to be severely punished”. However, police has yet to determine the exact circumstances of the incident.

The attack occurred in a neighbourhood where rival black, Arab and Jewish gangs confront each other regularly and police revealed that Saturday’s beating was preceded by scuffles, apparently over a stolen motorbike.
They also revealed that Haddad had, in the past, participated in a fight and investigators are trying to determine whether the boy, who came out of the coma on Monday, took part in the street fights that preceded his beating.
“The exact motives of the assault haven’t been determined yet,” said police sources.

France’s new chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim said “investigators had to complete their inquiry” but evaluated that “there is no doubt the attack was anti-Semitic”.
Police have detained five black adolescents spotted during the beating.

Racial violence and anti-Semitic assaults committed by ethnic minorities have multiplied in France in recent years.
In 2006, a gang kidnapped and killed 23-year-old phone salesman Ilan Halimi. In 2003, only streets away from the area where Haddad was attacked on Saturday, 23-year-old DJ Sébastien Selam was murdered by his neighbour who told police he would go to heaven because he killed a Jew. The murderer pleaded insanity.

There’s an ongoing debate over Jewish gangs, such as the Jewish Defence League and Beitar, which confront other gangs in the Paris area. One of JDL’s leaders, who presents himself as Michael Carlisle, told me in April that his gang participated in street battles but he said JDL only “fought against gangs that threaten Jews”.
The Jewish community has never openly condemned gangs such as JDL, although the topic was debated in April in the national and Jewish press.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Sarkozy gets cosy with Assad

Jewish institutions and opposition parties have criticised the welcome extended by French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to Syrian leader Bashar Assad to the summit launching the Med Union on July 13 and to the next day’s Bastille Day celebrations.

“It is not the invitation to the summit itself we are criticising, but the honours given to Assad the next day when he’ll be the nation’s guest at the presidential tribune for the national celebration,” a spokesman for the Jewish umbrella body CRIF told the JC.

But the invitation is seen by others as an opportunity to push negotiations with Syria further after Jerusalem and Damascus revealed their own indirect talks.

Paris has sent two emissaries to Damascus, among them Jean-David Lavitte, France’s former ambassador to the US.

“If the Israelis are talking to the Syrians… let’s not be too smart about things, I think it’s important to talk to people on opposite sides,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

“If Sarkozy obtained information about developments and a change in the Syrian approach, then there could be a breakthrough,” political analyst Raphael Drai told the JC.

“But this diplomatic effort will be very complex and difficult to push through.

“There are in fact three negotiations in one: there’s the Israeli-Syrian process, the Lebanon issue, and the attempt to draw Syria away from Iran. Syrians argue that if they accept western demands and move away from Iran, they should at least get in return major advantages in Lebanon and land restitution from Israel in the Golan.”

According to Reuters, Israeli officials said Jerusalem was trying to set up a meeting between Mr Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will participate in the same events on July 13-14. The Israeli embassy in France told the JC it did not wish to comment on the media reports and that it was currently focusing on Mr Sarkozy’s own trip to Jerusalem, due to take place in a few days.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Slander star loses slander case

Is slander time over for French controversial comedian Dieudonne ?

Over the past 5 years, the enigmatic figure of Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, better known as Dieudo, turned from a sympathetic popular actor teamed up with Jewish comic Eli Semoun into an obsessed anti-Zionist militant portraying Jews as soulless gold diggers.

Today (July 17) - he lost a libel suit against Jewish lawmaker Julien Dray. Dieudonné accused Dray of slander after the latter said he was indirectly responsible for the murder of 23-year-old Jewish salesman Ilan Halimi in 2006.

Dieudonné, was one of the local Jewish community’s most preoccupying problems over the past few years. He represented the new anti-Semite who could freely attack Jews using the anti-Zionist arena. The problem was that he had the popularity, stage and screens to spread his message and that because he is a black man no one would suspect him of true hatred.

The big blow occurred in December 2003 with an unexpected sketch in which Dieudonne was disguised as a Nazi orthodox Jew on a TV talk show. Dieudonné executed a Nazi salute while saying “Isra-heil”. The aftershock came the next day, when the Jewish community realised nobody else was moved by his performance.

Dieudonné’s portrait of Jews, accusing them of orchestrating the slave trade and spreading AIDS in Africa, instilled new hatred against the community.
An anti-Semitic black gang called the Tribu Ka met at Dieudonné’s theatre and later threatened Jews in various occasions.
A young black man who came to a meeting for Judeo-Black friendship told me he heard that Jews had been slave traders and he didn’t know whether to believe it or not. “Is Dieudonné right? Nobody tells me otherwise.”
Jewish associations tried to take legal action and put a stop to Dieudonnée’s slander campaign, but lost their case each time.

All that changed two years ago, when Dieudonné made a few major mistakes that revealed his true intentions. The main one was his meeting with extremist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Their handshake shed a new light on Dieudonné, and cut his bond with the mainstream black community.

And now he is quite alone.

Jews: "slave traders turned into finance sharks"

I saw him in court several weeks ago during his trial against Jewish MP and Socialist party spokesperson Julien Drai who had accused him of being indirectly responsible for the kidnapping and murder of young Jewish phone salesman Ilan Halimi by a gang in February 2006.

The gang said it had kidnapped Halimi “because he was Jewish and Jews have money.”
It went to the center of Paris on a Saturday and checked which stores were closed. The following days the gang sent girls to hit on phone salesmen in these shops, figuring they would be Jewish, and that their kidnapping would generate easy cash.

According to Drai, Dieudonné had indirect responsibility in this tragedy because he spread these old stereotypes on Jews.

Dieudonné said he was shocked and that his life changed the day Drai pronounced his accusations.
“People attacked me in the streets accusing me of Ilan’s abduction. It’s all your fault!” said Dieudonné in court.

“It’s not my fault, it is the result of all of your repeated actions and declarations!” answered Julien Drai.

Dieudonné looked at the judge and said “He doesn’t realize the consequences of his words. I was physically attacked.”
And the judge answered “Oddly enough, this is precisely what Julien Drai is accusing you of : triggering violence with your declarations.”

Today the court discharged Dray.

A thousand Jews marched in Paris days after the Halimi murder, when police and officials kept denying it was a hate crime.

Days later, tens of thousands marched down Voltaire Boulevard, where Ilan Halimi had been approached by his kidnappers.

Friday, 13 June 2008

No prince charming for non-virgin bride

Non-virgin Muslim brides beware! Even in France, the country that heralds secularity, freedom and equality, you might not find a groom!
That’s what we’ve learned from last week’s news:
It’s the story of a French court that decided to annul a marriage because the bride had lied about her virginity.

The case started in the northern town of Lille, on the wedding night, two years ago.
The 30-year old groom was shocked to discover that his newlywed had had a previous lover and asked her to leave their home instantly.

After pleading her case, the bride decided to move on and accepted the annulment.
The judge was surprised at first by the request. She asked the man why he wouldn’t file for a divorce. He said “he refused to divorce because that would mean there was some kind of failure on his behalf – whereas he considers the marriage was flawed from the start”.
Indeed, why argue?

Eventually, the judge figured that this was not just any couple, this was a Muslim couple and according to her, Muslim standards and values are not the same as the ones of the genuine French population’s. So she concluded this was the best way to go and made the annulment official on April 1st.
The case was unprecedented.

Until Monday, only a few feminists were shocked by the affair, which failed to move public opinion.
Justice Minister Rachida Dati herself said “the annulment was a way of protecting the people involved”. Meaning: the young woman was better off without that husband so why bother criticise the decision?

The idea of asking the man to file for a divorce didn’t cross anyone’s mind.

Few officials reacted to this decision. Among the half dozen who did, was the
mayor who pronounced my own wedding, Hervé Mariton. He approved the decision and called Dati to support her.
“The lie justifies the annulment of the wedding” Mariton told reporters “The bride should have been honest. Instead, she lied.”

Fadela Amara, a Muslim women’s rights militant and junior minister in charge of impoverished suburbs, said the story was presented upside down.
“The problem is that these women are forced to lie and put up with such impossible situations. The fact that they have to accept these conditions is the whole problem.” “The court ruling is a fatwa against women’s rights and emancipation” she said.
French feminist Elisabeth Badinter said she was worried for Muslim girls who would now be pressured furthermore “The Republic is supposed to protect these girls not pressure them” she said, warning of a legal precedent.

Their call was heard, and the affair took another turn on Monday, when French authorities stepped in. The case was far too embarrassing and preoccupying for the future.

French PM François Fillon said the state will appeal the annulment “to prevent the creation of a disturbing legal precedent for annulling marriages on grounds of virginity.”

However, the bride in this particular case is anything but enthusiastic over the attention she got. Her lawyer says “she accepts the annulment although it is not the best solution on a moral level”. “She just wants to break all ties with this marriage and move on with her life”.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Court backs claim that al-Dura killing was staged

The second French channel lost its case against Philippe Karsenty, who accused the station of staging its report on the death of Mohammad al-Dura.
Click here for article in Hebrew

The eleventh chamber of the Paris appeals court discharged today Philippe Karsenty in a libel suit launched by French TV after Karsenty claimed the station and its correspondent in the Middle-East Charles Enderlin broadcasted a staged report on the death of Mohammad Al-Dura on September 30, 2000.

The disturbing images of the al-Dura incident were shown around the world, raising a storm of controversy. In the France-2 report, the boy and his father were crouching in front of a wall amid an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants at the Netzarim junction in Gaza. The report shows the father Jamal al-Dura gesturing to try to stop the shooting - then cuts to a shot of the boy lying on his father's lap, with Enderlin saying he was killed by Israeli fire.

In November 2004, Phillipe Karsenty wrote on his website Media Ratings that al-Dura's death had been staged, accusing Charles Enderlin - who was not on location during the clashes - of using images doctored by his Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma for propaganda purposes.
The French station sued Karsenty and won a first trial in 2006. But Karsenty appealed the decision and the second trial turned to his advantage when the judge asked to view the rushes.

Karsenty defended his case in a February 2008 hearing, saying the footage doesn’t show the boy getting killed. He provided a bullet report from a French ballistics expert, indicating the shots fired over the al-Duras came from the Palestinian position and he pointed out that several scenes before the al-Dura incident appeared staged.
The judge agreed in that hearing that some scenes did not seem genuine.

However, Enderlin insisted that the images were no different from the clashes he had witnessed repeatedly and the prosecution reminded the court that a dead Palestinian boy had been buried after the Netzarim junction incident and that Jamal al-Dura gave his consent for DNA tests that could prove the boy was his son.

No official from France 2 or Charles Enderlin appeared in court on Wednesday. The station announced it will apeal the ruling.

“This is the victory of truth against the lies broadcasted by France 2. The honour of France has been saved,” Karsenty told me.
Speaking to reporters in the courthouse, Karsenty called on France 2 to apologise officially and on the evening news. “This is a victory French society over lies,” he added.

“France 2 must recognise its mistake! If it does not do so, it will bear responsibility for the hatred and incitement launched by this report.”

“Incitement against Israel, Jews and the West in the Muslim world must stop! This hatred led to violence and the death of Daniel Pearl.”

Karsenty told me that the fact that Israel kept its distances and did not support his position complicated his defense strategy.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Iran stars anti-nuclear rally

Iran was the guest of honour in a French anti-nuclear meeting this weekend… No one was really interested except the Israeli press which mentioned the incident, reported by the Iranian news agency IRNA.

The Iranian ambassador Ali Ahani – also known as the only official in Paris who ignores Israeli journalists at press conferences - was invited to deliver a speech at the third ‘International rally for nuclear, chemical and biological disarmament’.

Addressing the local audience, Ahani said “Iran was the biggest victim of weapons of mass destruction” during its conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and accused Israel of being “a major threat to world peace”. He denounced France, Britain, the US, Russia and Germany for trying to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. Two other Iranian diplomats participated in the event, along with a Cuban and two Vietnamese embassy advisers.

The event was in fact organised by an anti-nuclear association, Citizen action for nuclear dismantling, in the western town of Saintes, and not in Paris, as reported in the Israeli press. This detail is quite significant, since the town’s relative isolation explains how the Iranian diplomat turned out to be the star of the show.

The organisers flooded the capital’s embassies with invitations. But as expected, no serious official could take the time and travel to Saintes for a militant conference. No official except the Iranian ambassador and his colleagues who figured this could be a good opportunity for some PR activity.

The organisers, who present their meeting as “international”, were relieved and proud to host an ambassador and perhaps didn’t fully seize the controversial and ironic character of their ‘pacifist’ rally.

“World leaders meet in big capitals. We, the militants, gather in our home towns!” the association wrote on its internet site.
“Saintes may only have 30.000 inhabitants, but we don’t need to be millions to know what billions want: peace, justice and life!”
The French media did not cover or even mention the event, but the Iranian news agency turned it into an important conference.
The same day (Saturday), the French Parliament hosted a meeting on nuclear disarmament - but no Iranian official had been invited.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Journalist discovers JDL elephant in the room

Jewish Journalist Frederic Haziza dropped a bomb last week when publishing an opinion editorial in national newspaper Liberation demanding the dismantling of the French Jewish defence league, a small group affiliated to far-right ideology and claiming to protect ‘Jewish interests’.

So far widely ignored by community officials, the French JDL has raised the ire of the ‘organised community’ recently when it sabotaged an event organised by the Jewish umbrella group CRIF in the honour of Israeli president Shimon Peres, during his state visit in France.
While M.Peres was addressing the community, in the presence of French national officials, a dozen militants interrupted his speech by shouting repeatedly “traitor” at the Israeli president. M.Peres responded promptly, but the CRIF condemned the sabotage in a press release, calling the militants ‘thugs’.

“The next day, several CRIF officials examined whether the French JDL could be dismantled.” Frederic Haziza, the Jewish radio’s political editor, told me. “It is intolerable that these extremists sabotage such an event, give a bad name to the community with their racist ideology and accuse Shimon Peres of being a traitor. These are the same words as the ones shouted against Isaac Rabin before his murder,” added Frederic Haziza. “The president of CRIF Richard Prasquier congratulated me for my editorial as well as the Israeli ambassador Daniel Shek.”

However CRIF is far from unanimous. It has never requested officially a ban of the JDL, saying it respects the militants’ liberty of speech, and according to JDL and CRIF sources the militants have occasionally assisted the umbrella organisation in the battle against anti-Semitism.
“JDL militants have occasionally informed us on anti-Semitic groups which they have been watching, or on racist internet sites,” said Samy Ghozlan, the head of the Vigilance Bureau against anti-Semitism.

“They have never worked with our community security services officially, but certain CRIF leaders did meet with JDL militants in the past,” a CRIF official confirmed.
Blackmail against the 'organised community'
A JDL leader who presents himself as ‘Michael Carlisle’ told me that the CRIF was now seeking to have them dismantled, but said his group would pressure CRIF to abandon its plan.
“We recorded some conversations that we have had with CRIF officials in which they express their support to our activities. If CRIF decides to denounce us we will release the tapes,” said Carlisle.
JDL, which claims up to 200 members, has been accused of a series of assaults, mainly against anti-Israeli and revisionist figures or in demonstrations, but it denies any implication in the incidents.

“Whenever there is an incident involving Jews, the JDL is accused, without any evidence proving its implication,” said Michel Zerbib the editor in chief of the Jewish Radio J, which has distanced itself from Frederic Haziza’s call against the JDL. “They have never been condemned and they have denounced several assaults which they have been accused of.”
“The JDL is small and not organised. It is insignificant, inoffensive,” judged Samy Ghozlan. “Its dismantling wouldn’t change anything for the Jewish community.”
A JDL supporter who sent two threat letters to Frederic Haziza has been heard by the police during the week after the journalist filed a complaint.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Israel and France are back to normal

Israeli President Shimon Peres has seen it all.

Almost any man would have been confused by the series of unbelievable mishaps that erupted out of nowhere during his visit in France, from anti-Israeli rallies and boycotts to a sabotage of his speech by right-wing Jews, to the collapse of an installation just inches over his head at the mid-March prestigious annual book fair where Israel was the star guest.

But not President Peres. He didn't appear moved at all. To the contrary. Like a quick tennis player, he anticipated the attacks and threw the ball back to his advantage, winning the PR match.

His message was clear: Sarkozy's policy of close friendship with Israel is not a new or original trend after three decades of somewhat colder ties, but rather a return to the natural state of affairs between the two countries -- albeit one that must be encouraged. Peres repeated over and over that after Israel's War of Independence, when Israel was desperately looking for any kind of ally in order to defend itself and survive, France was the only country that agreed to sell warplanes and weapons to the Jewish state.

"I came to France at the time and discussed [this] with its great leaders. That was the France of the Resistance, the one we respect so much," Peres said in his speeches. "I say we owe France our thanks. Thank you France!"

One of the striking things about Peres' visit is the disconnect between him and the local Jewish community, which is often more allied with the Likud Party. The non-Jewish public appreciates him, yet most Jews don't share that enthusiasm (though they pretend they do when speaking with non-Jews). By contrast, when Ariel Sharon visited France a couple of years ago he made whole audiences of traditional French Jewry cry and laugh to tears. The same people didn't even bother to attend Peres' address to the community.

One girl told me "I admire Sharon; I worship Rabin; I don't care for Peres." Some right-wingers attended the ceremony only to interrupt Peres and call him "traitor" for a dozen minutes.

Peres was not moved.

"I'm used to your kind of people, those who try to turn any meeting into a political protest," he said. "I'll tell you one thing: Whatever you may attempt, we will not halt our efforts to encourage Mr. Sarkozy in his policy on the Middle East. He understands what the dangers are, and together we will fight terror and the Iranian threat and bring security to the whole region."

"Being a Jew is not just having a Jewish mother. It's raising one's children to become Jews, and I mean with Jewish moral values. This means one does not want to rule [over] or control any other people."

The protestors were ejected from the hall by security.

The next day, the Jewish community issued a press release saying, "All French Jews are united behind Shimon Peres."

Something has definitely changed in France regarding Israel. Maybe it's the Sarkozy effect. As both Ehud Olmert and Peres say, the French president is an extremely rare example of a political leader who maintains his enthusiasm toward Israel, even after his election.

A few years ago, France, at best, tolerated Israel; on some occasions Jacques Chirac said Sharon was not welcome in Paris. Obviously, things have since improved, but Sarkozy's election pushed the friendship further, turning the relationship into genuine support.

And indeed, the French president kept his promise and honored Israel by inviting Peres as his first official guest on a state visit. He defended Israel's right to defend itself and its right to live as any other state and be -- for instance -- the guest of honor at the Salon du Livres de Paris, the international book fair. He sent his son Jean, a newly elected local representative at 22, to Peres' meeting with the Jewish community.

In embracing Israel, the French president has on several occasions been the victim of anti-Semitic jibes, and, indeed, the French book fair was boycotted by several Arab countries because an Israeli leader was a guest star. France could have tempered its support to the guest, but it didn't. The boycott was seen as an outrage, and the Presidential Palace's spokesperson repeated its position. The affair was of national importance. Through all that week, thousands of Israeli flags were seen floating across the French capital to honor Peres and Israel.

All the signs are there: France is changing. Or perhaps, as Peres puts it, things may be simply getting back to normal.

The 8th Israeli Film Festival of Paris is taking place this week (March 25 to April 1st). The event, launched eight years ago by Charles Zrihen, propelled precious collaborations between French producers and Israeli directors contributing greatly to the Israeli 7th art industry, said French producer Sophie Dulac. Israeli films were a joke here 10 years ago. Today, French intellectuals won't miss them for anything.

The festival is organized by Charles Zrihen's association ISRATIM (

If you have visited the Jewish quarter of the Marais in Paris, you have seen a piece of history. The old Jewish Rue des Rosiers, where the community has been present for centuries, has slowly disappeared as luxurious fashion stores, art galleries and gay clubs have replaced synagogues, restaurants, kosher butcheries and bakeries.

Some of the new stores agreed to keep old ornaments on the walls, and when walking in the Rue des Rosiers, one can still spot some drawings of boys studying for their b'nai mitzvah and other such scenes.

A group of Jewish residents launched a petition to stop the building of a major clothing store on this street, but the initiative is not the first of its kind, and none of the preceding ones achieved their goal.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

New attack in Halimi murder suburb

French prosecution sources revealed that a 19-year-old adolescent of Jewish descent was attacked and sequestrated in Bagneux, the impoverished suburb where 23-year-old Ilan Halimi was tortured to death two years ago.

The six alleged attackers, aged 16 to 24, were all arrested and indicted for “violence against a person because of his supposed race or religion and his sexual orientation, organised kidnapping and acts of torture and barbarism [...]”, the prosecution announced last Tuesday.

The attack occurred on February 22, when Mathieu Roumi followed his neighbours to an apartment to settle what appears to be a dispute over the theft of Mathieu's cellular phone and a video player.

The thugs started at this point to brutalise Mathieu and to write anti-Semitic and homophobic insults on his face. They then moved him into a lock-up garage and tortured him for nine hours until one of the attackers, whose family owns the facility, had to go and refused to leave the others behind.

Traumatised Mathieu is set free after his aggressors threaten to kill him if he denounces them to police.

The same night, Mathieu is hospitalised and the next day he files a complaint at the police station, leading to the arrest of his torturers who confirmed his version of the story.

Jewish and anti-racist associations were shocked by the new hate crime, however, investigators rather remain cautious and avoid comparing the new case to the Ilan Halimi murder.
Halimi did not know his kidnappers, who organised his abduction simply because he was Jewish and they assumed Jews were rich. On the other hand, Mathieu knew his attackers and had apparently an issue to settle with them.
“We must wait until police investigators get to the bottom of the case, and determine what was the exact role of anti-Semitism” said Richard Prasquier, head of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF.
Others believe that the case is clearly anti-Semitic and homophobic.
“They are trying to fool us by imputing this on a financial issue” between the victim and his aggressors, said the head of the anti-racist movement LICRA Patrick Gaubert to the AFP.
The attackers even told Mathieu they admired Ilan Halimi's murderers the "Gang of Barbarians" led by Yousouf Fofana.

After Halimi’s murder in 2006, the prosecution, media and political officials refused at first to consider the attack as anti-Semitic, saying the murderers were only trying to get some money out of the abduction. Nicolas Sarkozy was among the first to state publicly that the murder was anti-Semitic.

Jewish officials told me they were deeply concerned by the global atmosphere in France.
“Although anti-Semitic attacks were down by 30% in 2007 compare to the previous year, the anti-Semitic stereotypes are spreading out,” said Richard Prasquier.

“The scary thing is that the youths in these neighbourhoods don’t even think that what has happened is all that terrible,” Sammy Ghozlan, the head of the Vigilance bureau against anti-Semitism said. “I talked to Mathieu’s neighbours after the attack and they were completely unmoved. They said that “things got a little out of hand”. Whenever attacking a Jew or someone with a Jewish name, thugs get much rougher and uncontrollable.”

Ilan Halimi z"l

Friday, 22 February 2008

85% disapprove Sarkozy's new plan to teach Shoah

French split over plan to teach Shoah

Jewish community officials are divided over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial new plan to teach schoolchildren about the Holocaust.

The project, announced by the president during the umbrella Jewish group CRIF’s annual dinner last week, consists of “twinning” French pupils with the 11,000 Jewish children deported from France and killed in the Second World War.

Mr Sarkozy’s goal was to catch children’s attention by telling them the true stories of those their own age, an initiative inspired by the great educational success of Anne Frank’s diary.

However, the plan was widely and immediately criticised by professors, psychologists and several Jewish community leaders who considered the burden of history and possible feelings of guilt to be too heavy for children to bear. Accusations also came from one of Mr Sarkozy’s political allies, Simone Veil, a survivor of Auschwitz and honorary president of the Shoah Memory Foundation.

“I am furious and I don’t understand how this initiative was even considered by the president,” Ms Veil told the JC. “These victims are not symbols, they were real children and this initiative will not do them justice.”

But Serge Klarsfeld, the French lawyer who battled throughout his career to find and try former Nazis, said he approved of Mr Sarkozy’s initiative.

“From my experience, children of 12 to 13 listen carefully and give so much attention when they are told about the Second World War. This is the right age to talk to them about the Holocaust,” said Mr Klarsfeld, who for years has gathered thousands of documents about children killed in the Shoah. “I will give all of the information I gathered for this new project.”

Mr Sarkozy’s advisors said the president came up with the programme himself out of concern for the transmission of information on the Shoah to future generations.

CRIF, which deemed the controversy to be “artificial”, suggested that pupils do not focus solely on the victims but also on righteous gentiles.

Mr Klarsfeld also suggested that the project could be extended to cover other historical events and other victims.

According to a poll by IFOP survey institute, 85% of the French disapprove of Sarkozy's project on Shoah study - an exceptionally strong opposition.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Letter from France: The hottest ticket in town

The Judeo-political happening of the year, the annual dinner of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France (Council of Jewish Organizations of France, better known as CRIF), is about to take place on Feb. 13 in one of Paris' glamorous venues, the Pavilion d'Ermenonville, and all of its aficionados are wondering whether this year's edition will stand up to the competition of preceding ones.

Last year, the Jewish community dinner was the only event attended by both presidential candidates, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, and no guest could ever forget how the two managed to avoid each other while moving through the packed lounge, shaking hands with everyone else. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, officially the star guest, was completely ignored by the crowd.

This year Sarkozy, one of the dinner's regular guests, will attend the event once again. Only this time he will be in attendance as France's leader, the first president to do so.

CRIF press director Edith Lenczner told me that organizing the dinner has been even more delicate now that Sarkozy is coming, and she hopes to keep the press in a separate hall with a giant TV screen to watch the speeches. Some would say this sounds like an idea Sarkozy himself would have suggested.

The CRIF annual dinner was never meant to become a central political event of national importance; it started out as a simple distinguished meeting between Jewish leaders and political officials where the CRIF shared its fears, ideas and projects. Throughout the years, though, an increasing number of public figures have attended the event. High-ranking leaders, the whole government and the opposition, TV stars, singers, ambassadors of numerous countries -- from China to Tunisia -- and even controversial figures wouldn't miss the event and press their Jewish friends to get them in. Jacques Chirac's lawyer, Francis Szpiner, called his most influential clients to get a seat, without managing to do so. The dinner, speeches and cocktail reception are even broadcasted live on French TV, because everyone knows this is the place to be, and that an important message will be delivered.

In 2002, Roger Cukierman, the excellent former CRIF leader, denounced the growing anti-Semitism in France at a time when Lionel Jospin's government was still denying its existence.

In 2003 Cukierman criticized the "Brown-red-green alliance," implying that the extreme left had joined the extreme right and fundamentalist Muslims, symbolized by the color green, in an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic allegiance. The speech launched a great controversy, because the audience misunderstood Cukierman and thought he was attacking the Green environmentalist party, whose leader Gilles Lemaire left the dinner angrily. Cukierman never openly cleared up the misunderstanding, and some of his enemies within the Jewish community accuse him of enjoying the attention and headlines too much to admit he never intended to attack the nature-friendly Greens, who do tend to strongly criticize Israel at times.

Every year the CRIF tries to impress by inviting a special guest involved in some recent news event. Robert Redecker, the philosophy teacher who had to run for his life after criticizing Islam in a newspaper column, was invited along with anti-terror judge Bruguière, Ilan Halimi's family and the policeman who saved a young Jewish soccer fan from an enraged crowd of Jew-haters trying to lynch him, etc. This year's special guest will be a newlywed couple: top model Carla Bruni and Sarkozy himself.

Sarkozy's participation is appreciated by the CRIF, but some observers, such as the newsmagazine Marianne, criticize the move, arguing that it shows once again that Sarkozy is encouraging religious communities to lobby for their interests in a strongly secular state.

"We shouldn't be ashamed to lobby for Israel, against anti-Semitism and in favor of inter-religious dialogue," Pierre Besnainou, the former head of the European Jewish Congress, told me last year when he was still running the organization.

French observers, mainly the left-wing press Liberation, Charly Hebdo and Marianne, fear that the Jewish annual happening will open Pandora's box, strengthen other communities, including Muslim extremists, and weaken the French secular identity, the nation's apparent immunity against fundamentalism and terror.

The process they dread so much had already begun when Sarkozy created a few years back the CFCM (French Muslim Council), an Islamic CRIF. From this Muslim council emerged the UOIF (Islamic Organizations' Union of France), a fundamentalist body.

"Sarkozy the bigot is endangering secularity" was Marianne's main headline last week. The magazine printed a series of articles and a picture of Sarkozy with a white-bearded rabbi, mistakenly identified as the French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, when he was in fact David Messas, the rabbi of Paris.

Sarkozy's favorable attitude toward religion; as well as his speeches in the Vatican, where he pleaded for a "positive secularity," and in Saudi Arabia, where he said religion saved civilization from man's extremism, shocked French observers.

Those who criticize his position don't accept the concept of positive or negative secularism, saying secularism is an intrinsic notion; they don't accept the growing importance of communities and say that the republic should be lobby-free.

However, fundamentalism does exist in France as well as fundamentalist lobbies. They are also active in European Union bodies.

Maybe Sarkozy's "positive secularism" is a way of battling against extremists while recognizing a community's right to defend its security and interests.

Maybe it begins by trying to understand religion, the right to practice and by avoiding mixing up all rabbis and imams.

Maybe then would France's cherished secularity be truly protected.

Monday, 4 February 2008

France wants Israel in Mediterranean Union


The French Jewish community is preparing to devote all its energies to ensuring Israel is included in any forthcoming Mediterranean Union.

“The Mediterranean Union project and the possible absence of Israel is our first concern today,” Richard Prasquier, the head of French umbrella Jewish organisation CRIF, told the JC.

A Euro-Mediterranean free-trade zone is due to be launched in 2010, as envisaged by the 1995 Barcelona Process. The Mediterranean Union would have increasing involvement with the EU, eventually sharing common institutions with it.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy — described by Israeli premier Ehud Olmert as “one of the rare heads of state to maintain an unchanged enthusiastic attitude towards Israel even after his election” — remains a close ally of the Jewish state. He is expected to participate in the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations and supports a Mediterranean Union counting Israel among its important members.

But the Jewish community wonders whether Mr Sarkozy will remain firm in his plans. Several Muslim countries such as Libya have demanded it be excluded.

“We know that some officials are trying to undermine Israel’s importance in the Mediterranean region and we must stress that the Jewish nation played throughout history a central role in Mediterranean countries. Israel’s place is therefore unquestionable,” continued Mr Prasquier.

The Mediterranean Union, which could eventually take over from the Barcelona Process, will take centre stage at the annual CRIF dinner next month, where Mr Sarkozy is expected to address the community’s concern.

“We do not want the Mediterranean Union to turn into a new Francophonie, the International French-speaking Organisation, from which Israel is absent, although hundreds of thousands of Israelis speak French,” explained Mr Prasquier.

Former president Jacques Chirac failed to put an end to the “boycott” of Israel by the International Francophone Organisation, which includes over 50 states. In October 2002 the French-Israeli journalist Gideon Koutz, who heads the Foreign Press Association in France and was covering the Francophone summit, was expelled from Lebanon for holding Israeli nationality. “We must avoid a second such situation,” said Mr Prasquier, who is expected to accompany Mr Sarkozy to Israel in May.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered one of the obstacles that blocked the Barcelona Process, next to the unrest in the Maghreb and troubled Muslim-Christian relations.

However, Israeli officials remain confident over the Mediterranean Union.

“French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner assured us we were ‘inside’ the project, and since the initiative is led by the French, we are not concerned,” Israeli embassy spokeswoman Nina Ben Ami told the JC. “We’re in favour of the project. Anything that brings closer civilisation and religion is viewed positively by Israel.”

If successful, the Mediterranean Union could boost relations between Israel and Arab countries and give a new platform to multilateral talks on trade, industrial and scientific cooperation.

“Entering the Mediterranean Union would have psychological implications first because Israel would be recognised by its Arab neighbours,” political scientist Raphael Drai told the JC. “And there are economical implications, since North African markets would open up and deals would be sealed with countries that produce raw materials.”

Although building a consensus over the union might take time, he said, “this union […] will assist North African development, so the populations would remain in their countries of origin and not immigrate massively to Europe. The union would bring security and stability.”

Friday, 1 February 2008

Gunmen attack Israeli embassy in Mauritania

With AFP

The Israeli embassy in Nouakchott was attacked on Friday before dawn by gunmen who opened fire at the building, wounding at least three passersby, all French nationals. The embassy was empty at the time of the attack and none of its employees was wounded.

I called Boaz Bismuth, the Israeli ambassador in Mauritania, who used to work here in Paris as a journalist up until three-four years ago, to know more about this attack at a time when Mauritania is facing an increasing terror threat. (article for France 24)

In the interview, the Israeli ambassador in Mauritania Boaz Bismuth declared: “We heard the shots at 2.20 AM, when the streets of Nouakchott were quiet and the embassy was empty.”
“According to our sources," Bismuth added, "a sole gunman opened fire at the building."

The attack, described as an “act of terror” by Israel, comes one month after the murder of four French tourists by men who claimed to belong to Al Qaeda and after France cancelled the Paris-Dakar rally for security reasons. However, the Israeli ambassador remains cautious:

“We can’t say the shooting was a minor incident; this kind of attack against an embassy never is. But we are not planning to increase security measures, which are already quite intense.” Boaz Bismuth said “We are examining the exact circumstances of the incident before issuing a statement on its nature."

Israel is not planning to repatriate employees of its embassy in Mauritania, one of the rare countries of the Arab League to maintain diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The ambassador stressed that Israel attaches great importance to its relations with Mauritania.

“We have excellent relations with Mauritania which is one of the three Arab countries, with which we have full diplomatic ties and I am pleased by the numerous messages of solidarity we have received since this morning from Mauritanians,” added the ambassador.

The attack occurred in the middle of the night. According to a source quoted by the AFP, a Mauritanian witness, Ali Fall, reported there were five wounded, among them a “foreign woman." According to the news agency, this was in fact a French national.

A group of men “came out of a car and walked up to a restaurant near the embassy” said the witness. A few minutes later “they shouted “Allah Akbar” and shot” at the embassy, added the witness. The guards posted in front - all Mauritanian soldiers – returned fire immediately, and the assailants left the area.

"It is a clear act of terrorism that entered the long line of attacks that have targeted our diplomatic representation abroad for several years," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel told AFP.

The attack occurred at a time when protest is growing in Mauritania for a suspension of the diplomatic ties with Israel which were established in 1999 under President Maaouiya Ould Taya, who was since overthrown in the 2005 military coup.

Friday, 11 January 2008

The diary that could explain Vichy to the French

French newspapers have praised as exceptional and “literary event of the new year” the diary of Helene Berr, which was published last week, 62 years after her death in the Bergen-Belsen death camp.

Life appeared very promising for Helene Berr at 21. From a wealthy Parisian family, she was an excellent student, a talented violinist, and engaged to be married to a man she loved.

Then came the Nazi occupation of Paris. The resulting destruction of Jewish life, suffering and discrimination was meticulously recorded in a diary Berr kept from 1942 until her deportation to — and eventual death at — Bergen-Belsen in 1944.

The publication of this diary, which the media have compared to that of Dutch teenager Anne Frank, has stunned the French public.

“With this diary, we seem to understand for the first time the horror and absurdity Jews had to face every day in occupied Paris,” wrote the Liberation newspaper.

Berr, whose father was a successful businessman, was a bright English student whose ambition was to teach, until the law banned Jews from becoming professors.

Berr lucidly describes the chain of downfalls and discrimination she experienced, the yellow star of David she was forced to wear, the stares of the “non-Jewish” French, those who felt sorry for her and those who blocked her from entering the underground trains or the garden she wanted to linger in with her fiancé Jean Morawiercki.

Six months after they met, Morawiercki enrolled in the Free French Forces, leaving Berr in Paris, where she devoted herself to helping other victims. Working with orphan children who had no chance of survival, Berr described the toddlers’ pathetic situation, their sickness and lonely lives.

She recounted how one boy, Bernard, whose mother and sister were deported, told her: “I’m certain they won’t come back alive.”

Berr’s last words in the journal, before her deportation, were: “Horror, horror, horror!” She died in Bergen-Belsen, beaten to death, according to some witnesses, or from typhus, according to others. Only days later, the US Army liberated the camp.

Berr wrote she needed to transcribe her feelings and thoughts so that her fiancé Jean Morawiercki would know everything she went through, and the document was kept in her family until her niece, Mariette Job, decided it was too important to remain private.

She launched steady efforts to get her family’s approval and have the diary exhibited. Her efforts lead to a fist exhibit of Berr’s story at the Shoah memorial in 2002 and to the publication of Berr’s diary today, at last.