Israelis get glimpse through French eyes

PARIS, Jan. 14 (JTA) — A group of French Jewish philanthropists has come up with a new initiative to win the hearts and minds of opinion makers. Buoyed by the success of trips that send French politicians and journalists to Israel to see things through Israeli eyes, the philanthropists brought a group of Israeli journalists to France this week to see things from the perspective of French Jews. According to Nicole Guedj, a principal organizer of the visit, France has been getting bad press in the Jewish state — much of it unjustified. “Some journalists in Israel present events in France in an excessive manner that does not correspond to reality,” Guedj told JTA. A senior member of the Paris Consistoire — the largest Jewish religious organization in Europe — Guedj is regarded as one of the closest Jews to French President Jacques Chirac. Last year, Guedj ran as a candidate for a National Assembly seat from Paris for Chirac’s party, the Union for a Presidential Majority. She was defeated when the capital bucked the strong swing to the right in the rest of the country. But that was only a minor blip in Guedj’s political career. Since then, she has been appointed as the Union for a Presidential Majority’s national secretary for human rights and has received France’s prestigious Legion of Honor award. However, while Guedj set up the political side of the journalists’ trip — which included meetings with Chirac, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and a host of top ministers and politicians — the idea for the enterprise came from a very different source. Worried by what he considers “negative images” of France in Israel, Rabbi Joseph Pevzner, director of educational institutions for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, started looking for local Jewish philanthropists to fund the visit. Pevzner said the main purpose of the visit was to create “more balance in the way France is presented in Israel.” He said, “We don’t speak enough about all the vibrant Jewish institutions and synagogues in France.” While admitting that there are anti-Semitic acts in France, he said they’re far from the whole picture. The scope of the visit and the level of the dignitaries with whom the delegation met left many French Jewish organizations somewhat shell-shocked. “We welcome any visit of this sort if it allows for a better understanding of the situation in France,” said Haim Musicant, executive director of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry. He agreed that Israeli journalists often exaggerate the gravity of the situation in France. “I think that sometimes they don’t have all the elements to analyze the situation,” Musicant said. “We would like them to have all the images, both good and bad.” Coming just a month before Moshe Katsav is due in France — the first state visit to France by an Israeli president since 1988 — the journalists’ trip also was welcomed by Israeli diplomats in Paris. The embassy held a reception for the visiting journalists. “There often is bad press in Israel for what’s going on in France,” an embassy spokesman said in an interview, “but we should remember that the last three years have been hard for Israel here, and France rightly has been seen as more negative toward Israel than other European states.” Nevertheless, he added, “we would want them to see things the way they are, which means they should see the good things as well as the bad.” That view was expressed at the reception by Ambassador Nissim Zvilli. The reality of the situation in France “should neither be embellished nor deformed,” he said. Less restricted by diplomatic niceties at the event, Guedj went further. “It’s clear that Jews live here in France in a peaceful country,” she said. “It should be made known that exaggerated descriptions” in Israeli media “are negative and damaging to the Jews of France.” Anti-Semitic attacks in France have soared since the launching of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, and Israeli newspapers have portrayed the situation here — and, in particular, among France’s leadership — in dire terms. Those attacks reached new heights recently when — after Chirac allegedly blocked an E.U. condemnation of anti-Semitic remarks by Malaysia’s then-prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed — Israel’s daily Ma’ariv published a large photograph of the French president on its front page with the caption, “The anti-Semitic face of France.” In a recent weeks, a number of community sources have talked about a tendency in the Israeli press to describe all attacks against Jews or Jewish property in France as motivated by anti-Semitism, even when there is no evidence to back up the claims. While many here were surprised by Chabad-Lubavitch’s role in the journalists’ visit, it reflects the strong personal links the movement has had with Chirac for years. Pevzner said the red carpet treatment that the journalists received — including a motorcycle escort on their trips around Paris — reflected “Chirac’s great efforts on behalf of the community over more than 20 years.” For example, when Chirac was mayor of Paris from 1978 to 1994, he attended Lubavitch-sponsored events, such as the public lighting of Chanukah menorahs, and he supported Lubavitch schools and nurseries. Pevzner said he simply wanted to give the journalists a chance to ask French leaders directly about their efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Guedj also said that Israeli media coverage of France was having a negative effect. “It doesn’t help the French authorities in battling anti-Semitism, and it certainly doesn’t help us in getting them to push things forward,” she said. But Musicant said the line between concern and paranoia often was a fine one. “For the last three years we’ve been in a new situation with acts of anti-Semitism, and we’re very grateful for the solidarity given to us from Jews around the world,” he said. “We don’t want it to be too little, but it also shouldn’t be too much.”

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