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Passion’ fuels French war of words

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The opening week of ´Passion´ in the United States brought crowds and controversy. (Rachel Pomerance)

The opening week of ´Passion´ in the United States brought crowds and controversy. (Rachel Pomerance)

PARIS, March 7 (JTA) — When distributors across Europe announced dates for premiere screenings of “The Passion of the Christ,” one country was noticeably absent from the list. Despite breaking some box-office marks in its first five days in the United States, no distributor could initially be found in France. Word quickly spread that the country’s Jewish community was deliberately seeking to prevent the film from being shown. The allegations proved to be unfounded and the film will premiere in Paris in April to coincide with the Easter holiday. But talk of a highly influential Jewish lobby intent on censoring material has suddenly become a subject of legitimate debate. Indeed, such accusations did not abate even when it became clear that major distributors in France were deliberately prevented from seeing an advance of the film by its producers, Icon, who appear to have utilized a premeditated marketing strategy to raise the film’s profile in advance of its premiere. The spat over Mel Gibson’s film — which a number of American Jewish organizations have accused of fomenting anti-Semitism — follows a similar debate over a well-known French comedian currently facing charges of racial incitement after he performed an allegedly anti-Semitic sketch on live, prime-time television. In an episode of the popular talk show “You Can’t Please Everybody” last December, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala entered the TV studio dressed as a fervently Orthodox Jew, then made a number of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments. He then exited to the word “Israheil” accompanied by a Hitler salute. Since the live sketch, and further comments by the comic describing Jewish leaders as “slave-traders converted into bankers,” Dieudonne has been virtually unable to perform in France. In addition, French-speaking venues in Belgium and Switzerland have also been reticent to allow him to take the stage. Initially, a number of Jewish organizations were behind calls to boycott the comic while the president of Likud France, Alex Moise, publicly admitted that he had influenced the cancellation of one of Dieudonne’s shows at the coastal resort of Deauville in northern France. Within a few weeks, Dieudonne appearances were canceled at other French venues. Although the comic did go ahead with a performance in Lyon, the event was interrupted when protesters poured acid on the stage. That act led to a highly publicized cancellation at the Olympia Theater in Paris last month after the theater said it could not guarantee the safety of its staff and audience. Taken together, the rows over “The Passion” and the Dieudonne affair have drawn widespread criticism. Some French media outlets have come close to labeling the disputes as Jewish attacks on freedom of speech. In an editorial in the leading daily Le Figaro, Michel Schifres wrote that France, a “Christian land and secular nation,” was doubly confronted by “an attack on freedom of expression.” While Dieudonne was unable to perform “not for lack of public but by a ban,” Gibson’s film was prevented “not by indifference but by a fault in distribution,” he said. Perhaps of more concern to Jews in France has been a recent tendency to satirize claims of anti-Semitism, as if the community were complaining too often and picking the wrong targets. That was exemplified earlier this month when the country’s most popular satire show led one of its episodes with a puppet representing a Portuguese building worker offering comments on Israel’s West Bank security fence. The comments were followed by a news-presenter puppet saying that the show had chosen the Portuguese worker because anti-Portuguese racism was OK while the show would have been accused of anti-Semitism if it had depicted a Palestinian instead. Some Jewish commentators have encouraged Jewish organizations to tread carefully in order to avoid inspiring anti-Semitism. Both the movie and the Dieudonne ban at the Olympia Theater had “a common denominator, anti-Semitism,” wrote Elisabeth Schemla, editor and founder of the online news site www.proche-orient.info. But that was not all they had in common, she said, because in both cases, French Jewish organizations had gone “blow for blow” with their aggressors and had won. This pointed to an efficient and new “Jewish lobby,” Schemla wrote. Nevertheless, even though these efforts by the French Jewish community have been successful in influencing people, they do not always appear to be winning friends in the process. Schemla further implied that this newly vocal pressure group should be careful not to incur a backlash by overstepping “the line between the tolerable and the intolerable.” For example, in the case of Dieudonne, initial criticism of the comic’s anti-Semitism soon turned him into a cause celebre for anti-Israel groups in France. Members of these groups were among the 1,000 people turned out to see him perform on the sidewalk outside the Olympia. In addition, a campaign by the Seine Saint-Denis Jewish Community Council in the Paris suburbs to prevent a local performance by Dieudonne had the opposite effect when the event went ahead anyway to a sold-out theater. However, recent failures to stop Dieudonne have not persuaded Jewish organizations from joining the call to prevent the showing of a pro-Palestinian film entitled “Route 181″ at a film festival in Paris this week. Those calls have been largely successful. The organizers of the festival at the Centre Pompidou cut a number of showings, citing fears of public order disturbances. In a statement, the center said that not only would it be showing the film only once, but that it would also be handing out leaflets during the performance to explain the dangers “of only presenting a single, unilateral viewpoint.” Attempts by Jewish groups to muzzle speech they see as hateful or hate-inducing come at a time when members of France’s Muslim and Jewish communities are increasingly setting themselves apart from each other. That showed itself in a particularly controversial event in Nice recently when the local CRIF Jewish umbrella organization was involved in preventing a pro-Palestinian debate from taking place in a neighborhood of the city with a large Muslim population. The featured speaker at the event was to be the senior Palestinian Authority representative in France, Leila Shahid. While the cancellation — brought about with the assistance of government pressure and elected officials — demonstrated the power of local Jewish groups, it also highlights fears among Jewish organizations that exposing French Muslim groups to pro-Palestinian opinions ultimately leads to anti-Jewish efforts. As Jewish community organizations have observed, supporting efforts to cut off speech they find hateful can become a two-edged sword. The same heavily Muslim neighborhood prevented a recent trip to Auschwitz by a local school on the grounds that it was “politically motivated” and organized in cooperation with Jewish organizations appears to confirm some of those concerns. And, as Dieudonne’s audience members applauded on the Olympia’s sidewalk, they called for a major Paris venue to refuse to stage a Jewish community charity event. On March 4, the Palais de Congres canceled a booking by the Association for the Welfare of the Israeli Soldier on the grounds that the organization’s annual charity event featuring the Israeli singer Rita could threaten public order.

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