NEW YORK (Nov. 8)
Jewish political influence in France has grown “tremendously” since the end of World War II, but French Jews are increasingly concerned about the rising political strength of French rightwing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was reported by Jean-Paul Elkann, president of the Consistoire Israelite de France.
In an address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Elkann noted that French Jewry now numbers approximately 750,000 persons — triple the pre-war population, the result in large part of an influx of Jews from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia after those countries gained their independence.
With the growth in population has come “strong support for Israel from all of French Jewry, along with a stronger political profile,” Elkann said, Current relations between the French Jewish community and President Francois Mitterrand were “extremely good,” he said, noting that the Mitterrand government, like previous governments, provided generous support to Jewish cultural centers and other communal institutions.
In addition, he said, government cooperation on the right and supervision of kosher slaughter was “very gratifying.”
Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the Conference, who presided at the meeting, welcomed what he termed “the close and evolving relationship between the Conference and the French Jewish community.” Last year Julius Berman, then Conference chairman, and Yehuda Hellman, executive vice chairman, visited Paris at the invitation of major French Jewish organizations. Elkann’s appearance before the Conference was a “return visit,” Bialkin said.
FRANCO-ISRAELI RELATIONS ASSESSED
The French Jewish leader, whose organization was called into being by Napoleon in 1808 to represent the Jewish religious communities of France, said that relations between France and Israel had improved considerably since the election of Mitterrand in 1981. However, he said, French policy toward the Jewish State was still influenced by three “negative factors”:
The large Arab financial deposits in French banks, which are helping to prop up the weakening French Franc; the heavy export trade of the French armaments industry, whose major customers include arms-hungry Arab states; and the continuing effort by France, a former colonial power, to improve relations with its former colonies in Asia and Africa, resulting in French advocacy of Third World positions.
Elkann noted that while PLO chief Yasir Arafat has not been received by Mitterrand or any of his predecessors — the result, he said, of strong representations by French Jewry — numerous ministers have met with the PLO and continue to do so.
At the same time, however, Elkann noted that Mitterrand was the first French President to visit Israel, a visit that created a “more cordial” atmosphere between the two countries.
On the rise of Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, Elkann said the phenomenon was due in part to a jobless rate of 10 percent and a resulting “anti-foreigner” feeling. In last summer’s national elections for the Parliament of Europe, the National Front won II percent of the vote and as 22 percent in some parts of France, Elkann noted. The Front won 10 seats in the Parliament. While Le Pen himself denies being an anti-Semite, he is “surrounded” by some of the most anti-Semitic figures in French political life, Elkann said.
How to deal with Le Pen confronts the French Jewish community — and anti-conservative forees in the country — with a “very serious” dilemma, Elkann said. From the Socialist Party’s point of view, he said, Le Pen’s strength splits the conservative forces and therefore can be lived with politically. There is also the view that “the more attention you pay to Le Pen, the more you build him up,” Elkann observed.
SHORTAGE OF RABBIS
A more immediate problem to the French Jewish community, the Consistoire leader said, was a shortage of rabbis. “We lack rabbis in 21 Jewish communities in France,” Elkann said, “and we have very few students in our Jewish seminary.” He disclosed that efforts are now being made to “borrow” French-speaking rabbis from Israel.
Elkann paid tribute to former Grand Rabbi Jacob Kaplan, “who at the age of 90 still possesses his old vigor of mind and spirit,” and his successor, Rene Sirat, the first Sephardic chief rabbi in the history of the French Jewish community. He said that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish communities have equal representation in the Consistoire, and that “there is no problem whatsoever between the two groups. “Within the groups, however, Elkann added with a smile, “we do see problems from time to time.”