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.