PARIS (Mar. 13)
In a situation highlighting the tension between religious belief and national rights, France’s chief rabbi and the country’s interior minister are at loggerheads over the timing of municipal elections, which fall on the first day of Passover.
After Interior Minister Charles Pasqua refused to accommodate religious Jews, who cannot vote on a religious holiday, Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk issued a call in the Jewish weekly La Tribune Juive that French Jews should not vote in the March 27 elections.
“We had sought a special arrangement,” Sitruk announced in the newspaper. “But if the date cannot be changed, then it is regrettably my duty to call on Jews to not vote on this particularly important day of the Jewish calendar.”
Sitruk had previously asked Pasqua if observant Jews could vote by mail or be exempt from signing attendance sheets at the polls.
But Pasqua, a staunch secularist, said this was not possible.
“There is no state religion in France, where freedom of worship is absolute, but we cannot make exceptions,” Pasqua stated.
Sitruk subsequently called on French Jews to refrain from voting.
AIDES SAY RABBI WAS MISUNDERSTOOD
A similar situation recently surfaced in Italy, where general elections had been scheduled for the same day. The Italian government later decided to extend voting by a day to respect the needs of the country’s small Jewish community.
Pasqua said he understood the stance of French Orthodox Jews, but nonetheless was firm.
The French interior minister has recently been attempting to limit the influence of fundamentalism among the country’s Muslim community, and apparently wished to be consistent.
CRIF, the umbrella body representing French Jewry, refused to comment about Sitruk’s request.
“We do not comment on the declarations of France’s chief rabbi,” said Jacqueline Keller, director of CRIF. But sources close to CRIF made it clear the rabbi’s declaration was an embarrassment.
His aides said he was misunderstood.
“He acted becuase he is very attached to the republican duties: Jews must vote and he himself never misses a poll. This time, because the date of the vote will make it impossible for Orthodox Jews to accomplish their duty, the chief rabbi tried to find a solution,” another rabbi said.
Sitruk’s statement also prompted an angry answer in the influential newspaper Le Monde.
“In spite of the chief rabbi, I’ll vote on March 27,” wrote Guy Konopnicki, a Jewish writer and a former Communist leader.
“This day, as a Jew, I’ll observe the feast of Pesach. According to the tradition, I’ll tell my children about slavery in Egypt. ‘We were slaves in the land of Egypt,’ says the Haggadah,” he wrote.
He said he would add: “In the Republic of France we are” free, which “should incite the chief rabbi to be more prudent when he calls upon us not to accomplish our civic duty.”