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In an Unusually Contentious Election, France’s Chief Rabbi Emerges As Victor

Following a bitter campaign that pitted traditionalists against secular modernists, French Jewry this week re-elected Rabbi Joseph Sitruk to a second seven-year term as France’s chief rabbi.

In voting that was open to delegates of the Consistoire Central, which oversees the religious needs of the French Jewish community, Sitruk won Sunday’s election by 121-75, with two abstentions.

Sitruk, 49, was opposed by Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, 42, a chaplain serving Parisian students.

Sitruk, who was born in Tunisia, had the backing of Sephardic Jews who emigrated to France from North Africa when their countries became independent in the 1950s and 1960s. Sephardic Jews now represent the majority of France’s Jewish community, which is estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000.

Bernheim, an Ashkenazic Jew from eastern France, was supported by the leadership of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewish communal groups.

The campaign was marked by charges from CRIF leaders that Sitruk was increasingly leading the community in the direction of his own brand of Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism.

Observers believe his election victory may result in a widening gap between the Orthodox and secularist branches of French Jewry.

‘A PAINFUL, DIFFICULT DAY’

"This was a very painful, very difficult day," Sitruk said after his re-election. "The community is hurt, and I now see as my goal the beginning of a deeper and more fruitful dialogue.

"I now want to take this community, without dividing it, to where it needs to be taken," Sitruk added.

Challenger Bernheim said after the election that there was neither a winner nor a loser.

"The only winner is the Jewish community," he said, adding, "I wish mazel tov to Chief Rabbi Sitruk."

Sitruk had triggered several controversies during his first term in office.

During the campaign, there were charges that he had been cavalier in his handling of funds and that he had created his own financial network that bypassed the Consistoire Central’s fiscal controls.

Another stir arose last month after the French weekly Globe Hebdo revealed that the tuition of at least seven of the chief rabbi’s nine children was paid for by the Consistoire even though none of them attended schools supervised by the Consistoire Central or the mainstream French Jewish Social Fund.

Sitruk would not comment on the charges.

While Sitruk’s alleged financial improprieties were kept relatively secret until recently, some of his political pronouncements have been a source of widespread controversy.

Sitruk’s announcement in March that the country’s Jews should not vote in this year’s local elections because they were held on the first day of Passover angered many who thought he was driving a wedge between French Jewry and the government.

Likewise, his cool stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule accord, along with his criticism of any land-for-peace deals in Israel’s negotiations with its Arab neighbors, angered many French Jews, including former Chief Rabbi Rene Sirat.

"One cannot at the same time salute the Oslo achievement and declare that each square inch of the Holy Land is sacred," Sirat said, referring to the series of secret meetings in the Norwegian capital that led to the signing of the self-rule accord last September.

Despite the criticisms, Sitruk is widely acknowledged as a charming and gifted speaker who has succeeded in attracting huge crowds to his public appearances.

In a recent interview with the French Jewish weekly Actualite Juive, Sitruk voiced some criticism of the chief rabbinate’s seven-year term, saying that it should be left to his own discretion when to step down.

The suggestion was greeted less than enthusiastically by the Consistoire Central.

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