Feud Between French Jewish Groups Has Sephardi-ashkenazi Undercurrent

A feud has erupted between two leading figures of the Jewish community in France that includes Sephardic-Ashkenazic undercurrents and arguments over affiliations.

At the core of the dispute is the question of who will represent French Jewry on a variety of issues. Pitted against each other are Jean Kahn, head of CRIF, the umbrella political body representing French Jewry, and Jean-Pierre Bansard, president of the Consistoire Central, the organization caring for the community’s religious needs.

Six years ago, the Consistoire removed itself from CRIF because of a dispute about affiliation with the World Jewish Congress, which is seen as an American-dominated group.

CRIF, an acronym that stands for Representative Committee of Jewish Institutions in France, is a member of the European Jewish Congress and its parent body, the WJC. Kahn is president of both CRIF and EJC.

Bansard was elected to head the Consistoire last year and promised to rejoin the WJC. But he did not take the promised step.

He has made no secret of his displeasure with the way CRIF is run, describing it to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as “a one-man operation.”

There are an estimated 700,000 Jews living in France.

Bansard earlier this year proposed a kind of triumvirate to represent the French Jewish community. It would include himself, Kahn and the head of Fonds Social Juif Unifie, the largest Jewish charity and Jewish lay organization.

But Kahn called the suggestion “totally unworkable and unethical.”

“The president of CRIF is democratically elected for three years by the General Assembly, in which the Consistoire Central has six seats, meaning six voices. If they do not fill them, it is a great pity, but it is their decision,” said Kahn.

“The Jewish community in France must speak in one voice, and the president of the Consistoire Central must respect the rules enacted long before he came to head this institution,” he said.

FRENCH MEDIA TAKE NOTE OF THE BICKERING

Decades ago, there were few interorganizational rivalries because, for most of the time, the heads of the three organizations belonged to the same family, the Rothschilds.

Since Bansard was elected to the Consistoire, he has been outspoken on various political issues, and his statements have infuriated Kahn.

Bansard said he would be willing to rejoin CRIF, “but under one and only one condition, that I keep my freedom of speech.”

The clash between the two leaders erupted when a French weekly newsmagazine, L’Evenement du Jeudi, published a long story on how the mutual recognition pact between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization had its origins in the strong desire of Sephardic Jews for peace.

The article spoke of the reluctance of Ashkenazic Jews, at least in France, to see any agreement reached with the PLO. The article, by a Jewish reporter, was critical of Kahn, who is Ashkenazic, and laudatory of Bansard, a Sephardi.

What really set matters on a collision course was the fact that the anti-Kahn article was written by a journalist working for Radio Shalom, a Jewish radio station broadcast from Paris. The fact that Bansard was about to acquire a large chunk of shares of Radio Shalom induced some to think the article was inspired by Bansard himself.

The Bansard-Kahn dispute received wider coverage when the respected Paris daily Le Monde published an article about “the crisis within Jewish institutions.”

As a result, all French Jewish leaders made declarations geared to maintain unity within the community and condemning the attempt of L’Evenement du Jeudi to divide French Jews along Ashkenazic and Sephardic lines.

Before the High Holidays, Bansard invited the leaders of the major French Jewish organizations for an informal lunch in order to establish greater cooperation among the groups.

Michel Zaoui, president of the Federation of Jewish Associations in France, wrote to Bansard: “I’m sorry to turn down your invitation.”

“Our community is longing more than ever for unity and I particularly regret that the Consistoire Central hasn’t reintegrated (within) CRIF as it promised to,” Zaoui wrote.

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