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With Israel Challenged, French Jews No Longer Afraid to Speak out Strongly

For French Jews, the past 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence have had one positive side effect: The French Jewish community has found its voice.

Within the last month, the community assembled more than 7,000 people to protest the visit of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Paris, and later held a series of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Finally, French Jews launched a pro-Israel assault on the French media and publicly protested Europe’s often unbalanced impact — in favor of the Arabs — on the Middle East peace process.

All of which prompted Sharon to describe France’s Jewish community as the “most militant” in Europe.

Standing in dramatic contrast to their reputation a generation ago as often fractured and timid, the title of “most militant” is one French Jews are proud to claim.

“We are now the best organized and most activist” of Jewish communities in Europe, said Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire, the umbrella group of religious French Jewish organizations. “This has given the French Jewish community another dimension.”

The French community’s response to misinformation and boycotting threats in Europe since Israeli-Palestinian violence began last fall has marked the end of the community’s timidity — a reticence extending to World War II or even earlier, when French Jews didn’t dare speak out for fear of appearing disloyal to the government.

The French Jewish community has been organized for centuries, having established the Consistoire during the days of Napoleon. But it is only now beginning to show its promise.

“We are much better situated now than just a few decades ago,” said Haim Musicant, director of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations. Though CRIF deals with political matters and the Consistoire deals with religious issues, the two groups often work in tandem.

Musicant traces the community’s modernization to the wave of Sephardic immigration from North Africa that began in the 1960s, the majority of whom left their homeland due to anti-Israel animus.

Before that, the French Jewish community numbered 300,000. Today it numbers at least 600,000, the largest Diaspora community after those in the United States and the former Soviet Union.

But Musicant noted that the demographic change needed a generation to be fully felt. The immigrants’ most pressing initial concerns were economic, as many arrived in France after being stripped of nearly all their possessions — a mandatory charge they had to pay for “permission” to leave their country.

However, after generations as second-class citizens in the Muslim world, the Sephardic communities that arrived in France were eager to display their Judaism openly.

They first got the chance in 1967, when the Six-Day War erupted. Some 100,000 Jews rallied in support of Israel in the heart of Paris, still the largest Jewish demonstration ever held in Europe.

It also marked the first time the France’s Jewish community challenged its government — though it turned out to be something of an isolated event. Then-President Charles de Gaulle already had shown French support for the Arab league against Israel, a policy that many French Jews feel exerts a heavy influence on the government even today.

“It was the beginning of our conscious political development,” Musicant said. “From then on we were able to affirm” our “devotion to Israel even when it went against the policies of France.”

Kahn added that the French government also has had something of a change of heart, and he now finds himself called upon by President Jacques Chirac to speak out in forums where Jews are maligned.

Chirac has asked Kahn — on behalf of France, not just the Jewish community — to attend next month’s U.N. conference on racism in South Africa that is expected to harshly criticize Israel.

Musicant also acknowledges the Jewish community has finally reached a privileged status in relations with many French politicians.

A few decades ago, the community was considered of little more than a marginal political interest to French leaders. But “now I can call Chirac, set up a rendezvous, and it’s no problem,” Musicant said.

The most significant change in the community’s relationship with the government came when Chirac went before the community in 1995 to recognize, for the first time, France’s Holocaust guilt.

It was a seminal event that Jewish leaders recount to visitors as much as to themselves — as if to confirm that the apology, so long in coming, actually was made.

As French Jewish political identity solidifies, the organizational infrastructure of the community is coming under pressure to perform well. So far it seems to be holding up, despite the fact that the community’s financial means and membership pale in comparison even to a medium-sized American Jewish community.

The Jewish communities of many midsize American cities have bigger budgets and more staff than the entire French community.

“When we compare the power, the membership and the budget of our institutions with our counterparts in America, it is crazy. We are not even close to a comparison,” Musicant said.

The community has seen an explosion of construction — a Jewish museum, a central community center and the Foundation for the Shoah were built in the past two years — but many feel the new operations are understaffed, with meager budgets and the barest of public relations departments.

Indeed, most French Jewish institutions are just learning to court the media. Even so, the fledgling media efforts represents a dramatic shift for the community.

Musicant notes that as recently as the early 1980s, CRIF waited three days to denounce a violent attack on a Parisian synagogue, fearing the media attention.

“Now we would denounce it in two minutes,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that the Jewish community has made enough strides toward organizing itself.

“Twenty years ago, there was more of a possibility to express ourselves,” said Serge Benattar, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Actualite Juive.

“It’s true we can mobilize much quicker, but we probably don’t mobilize as we should,” Benattar said. “Everyone does his own action, but we don’t have any grand organization. There are so many little events that the people become tired. The community itself is in pieces.”

Musicant also acknowledges that the community faces several challenges if it is to develop to its greatest potential. Most importantly, it “needs more leaders, more members and more money,” he said.

It’s a tall order but not an impossible one, community leaders insist. While fundraising in the community is dominated by a few legendary families such as the Rothschilds, the United Jewish Appeal in France succeeded a few years ago with a campaign to help poor Jewish families and unemployed members of the community.

Still, Musicant concedes that “the average Jewish family hardly gives at all to the general community.”

Among the first projects on CRIF’s wish list is sponsoring trips to Israel for non-Jewish journalists, hopefully helping to diminish what many see as the French media’s anti-Israel bias.

Other plans include a major reunion with French-speaking Jews in Belgium, whom Musicant says he meets only once or twice a year.

Finally, he wants to set up projects linking Jewish communities in France and the United States. Jewish tourists to Paris generally visit only the historic quarters of the community, which French Jews themselves hardly frequent.

The majority of the community lives and works outside of these quarters, and Musicant wants tourists to be exposed to rest of the Jewish world.

“The community is in the midst of expansion, but at the same time it needs to reflect on itself,” Musicant said. “It needs a vision of what all these things — the CRIF, the Consistoire, the radio station, the museums, the community center, etc. — should transmit to our children.

“For a while, everything turned around Israel,” he said. “The communities now need to speak among themselves to find out where they are going.”

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