Support for Activist Group Shows Debate over Role of Jews in France
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Support for Activist Group Shows Debate over Role of Jews in France

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A recent meeting between a French Jewish lobbying group and an American Jewish organization highlights competing visions over how to deal with anti-Semitism and attitudes toward Israel in France.

The Union of French Jewish Employers and Professionals, known by its French acronym UPJF, met leaders from the American Jewish Congress earlier this month in New York.

Set up in 1997, the UPJF has chosen to remain apart from the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry, which groups some 60 Jewish organizations representing most Jewish religious, political and cultural groups. UPJF officials say the group has some 1,000 dues-paying members.

Neil Goldstein, the AJCongress’ executive director, said the group reached out to the UPJF precisely because CRIF and other established groups do not appear willing — or able — to lobby effectively on issues of concern to the Jewish community, such as anti-Semitism and support for Israel.

“CRIF is not equipped to handle this issue. The response we keep getting from CRIF is a very subdued one,” Goldstein said. “We were looking for a very activist group to act in the same way that American groups have acted since World War II, and the UPJF is leading the effort to make that change.”

CRIF President Roger Cukierman rejected accusations that his group has not been active enough.

CRIF has “always defended the community against anti-Semitism and was uncompromising in its support for Israel,” he said.

Cukierman said he was not concerned by the fact that the AJCongress had gone around French Jewry’s organized communal leadership, adding that the AJCongress “is not the most important” of the many American Jewish organizations.

In addition, he said, the UPJF is “not so important as to pose a problem.”

“They have a certain freedom because they don’t have to act for the whole Jewish community,” Cukierman said. “What cannot be denied, though, is that all the major Jewish organizations are part of CRIF.”

The UPJF’s initial purpose was to engage the Jewish business community and its resources in social welfare projects in the Jewish community, but the group has taken a much more political role since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

Earlier this year, for example, UPJF sent a delegation to visit the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an organization that UPJF executive member Yves Kamami told JTA he would like to emulate in France.

“The role of CRIF is too official and because of its constitution, it is unable to exert pressure on the government,” Kamami said. “CRIF can’t do the job of AIPAC, and a lobbying organization has never existed in France.”

Kamami, a former president of B’nai B’rith in France, said CRIF acted as if a “too visibly pro-Israel line risked anti-Semitism in France “

Kamami conceded that CRIF had changed under Cukierman, a man he said was “closer to the view of the community” than his predecessors in espousing a more “centrist” position vis-a-vis Israel.

Still, he said, “If we don’t do anything about anti-Israel disinformation, nobody will do anything about it.”

The UPJF’s contacts with the AJCongress come against the background of recent tension between the congress and the organized French community.

Last year, the AJCongress suggested either boycotting the Cannes Film Festival or using it as a platform to oppose French anti-Semitism. The suggestion angered French officials — and elements of the organized Jewish community, who considered the move too provocative.

Goldstein, however, said CRIF’s line — that it can effect change better by befriending the French government than by challenging it — has been too conciliatory.

“They should be friends,” Goldstein agreed. “But friends shouldn’t just like you, they should respect you. And they respect you if you have clout.”

The UPJF has devoted much effort to lobbying against anti-Israel disinformation and demonstrating a strong stance against the rising tide of anti-Semitism in France, says Helene Keller-Lind, a journalist from the leading Jewish weekly Actualite Juive.

One of UPJF’s members, Pierre Rehov, has made a number of films exposing how the Palestinian Authority skews media coverage of the intifada.

Alain Goldmann, president of the Paris-region branch of CRIF, described the UPJF as “quite a recently formed organization” that had not asked to join CRIF.

“At the beginning of the intifada a lot of people wanted to do a lot of things,” Goldmann said. “By being free of official Jewish organizations, it’s a lot easier for them to talk. They are not bound by being part of an official Jewish organization, they can do what they want.”

The implication was that its freedom allows the UPJF to take on projects that more established community organs might not — but that it also could lead some in the community to view the UPJF as loose cannons.

UPJF is one of the backers of the Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism, an organization set up by former police commissioner Samy Gozlan. The bureau virtually mirrors the official CRIF security group, the Jewish Community Protection Service, or SPCJ.

A recent attack on a Jewish school in Paris serves to illustrate the point.

Both Gozlan and Goldmann spoke to the press after the event. Gozlan claimed the attack had been motivated by anti-Semitism, while Goldmann, following the official CRIF line of waiting for the police investigation, said it could just as well have been an attempted burglary.

Goldmann, who also serves as spokesman for the SPCJ, said there are major differences between the two bodies.

“They have a certain local presence in the suburbs but they are much smaller and don’t have the funds” that the SPCJ has, Goldmann said. “We are the only organ which is recognized by the public bodies and the police and has the ability to intervene.”

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