New European Jewish Leader: Let Us Handle Our Own Challenges

On the wall of Pierre Besnainou’s top-floor office, next to the rooftop patio overlooking the Arc de Triomphe, hangs a painting of a desert-oasis scene showing elderly men in yarmulkes, a young Jewish woman preparing to cook, and their Arab companions bringing in the camels and setting up camp. The pastoral scene of Jewish-Arab cohabitation is obvious and striking, a direct throwback to Besnainou’s childhood and adolescence in Tunisia.

“I believe it and you have got to believe it,” says the dapper, dark-featured Besnainou, 50, who was recently elected head of the European Jewish Congress. “Jews and Arabs can live and work together and respect each other. We have always done it in North Africa, and until recently Jews and Arabs cohabited in France as well.

“Is there a lesson in this for Israel?” he continues. “I’d like to think so, but then again, maybe the painting is from another era. Maybe it’s not ‘l’air du temps,’ in the spirit of our era.”

While Besnainou may have doubts about the painting from the North African desert, he’s enthusiastic about his new job. He believes that his organization has a twofold mission: It must fight anti-Semitism in Europe, while explaining what Israel is about both to European politicians and the general public.

“Jews have always contributed to the construction of Europe, on philosophical, political, industrial, financial and commercial levels,” he says. “The old anti-Semitism, coming from the extreme right, seeks to ignore that. The new anti-Semitism, from the extreme left and from North African Arab communities, is more linked to events in the Middle East. Hence, we must work on establishing more Arab-Jewish dialogue here in France. This has been said and done before, but now I’m making it a priority.”

The European Jewish Congress is an umbrella organization of 38 Jewish communities in the European Union and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine and Hungary, as well as Russia, totaling about 2.5 million Jews.

Besnainou is no stranger to the organized community, having served as the EJC treasurer, the vice president of the French division of the World Jewish Congress, and as a board member of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewry, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce, and the Peres Peace Center in Tel Aviv.

A self-made multimillionaire, Besnainou never worked for major financial or industrial groups. He left Tunis for Paris at age 20 and immersed himself in the import-export business, specializing in electrical appliances from Asia.

Besnainou founded the Internet search engine Liberty Surf, which was acquired by the Italian giant Tiscali in 2001 in a deal worth some $600 million.

Besnainou has now left the business world altogether and is surfing the wave of community activism: Fighting anti-Semitism and explaining Israel to Europeans are a full-time job.

“I fully respect what American Jewish organizations have accomplished in America and how they have been able to explain what Israel is all about to the U.S. government and to the American public,” Besnainou says. But, he adds, “American Jews cannot explain Israel to Europeans. Very specifically, I think it’s inadmissible” that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee “tried to open an office in Brussels. Can you imagine the image” that American Jews would have in France? “And perhaps Jews in general?”

Some American Jewish officials feel that European Jewry has been too timid and disorganized to effectively counter anti-Israel propaganda and the growing anti-Semitism that has taken root since the Palestinian intifada began nearly five years ago.

But Besnainou says groups such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee shouldn’t be involved in European Jewish affairs.

“I think that the Americans have tried to overstep the European Jewish organizations,” he says. “The bridge between Europe and Israel is European Jewry, not American Jewry.”

Members of the French Jewish community generally agree with Besnainou’s position, but with several nuances.

Although AIPAC ultimately didn’t open a Brussels office, “the fact that they tried woke up European Jewish officials here,” notes Daniel Rouach, a professor at the European School of Management in Paris.

Rouach hosts “Israel Start-Up,” a high-tech radio program broadcast on a French Jewish station, which is widely listened to and respected in official circles in France. He also is actively involved in the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce and in exchanges between the European School of Management and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

“Besnainou is absolutely right in seeking to limit the American Jewish role in Europe,” Rouach says, “but French and European Jewish community officials have finally realized that they must move quickly to play a bigger role in the Middle East and in Europe itself.”

Yossi Haklai, a Paris-based official of the Jewish Agency for Israel, agrees with Rouach.

“European Jewish groups must play a greater role in worldwide Jewish organizations, including in affairs concerning Israel,” he says. “But to get there they must push for it, so I think Besnainou’s nomination is a good one. And the Americans should give more recognition to French and European Jews. Perhaps that will happen as the Europeans get better organized.”

Besnainou admits that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon isn’t his favorite politician.

“My guru, if you like, has always been Shimon Peres,” Israel’s dovish vice premier, he says. “I learned a great deal about the importance of dialogue from him, and he encouraged me to get involved in the EJC.”

Besnainou is also convinced that French Jews generally know Israel better than many of their American counterparts do.

“How many Americans have visited Israel even once?” he asks. “In France in 2004 alone, one-fifth of French Jews went to Israel, more than 100,000 people.”

Besnainou, for his part, tells the story of a recent meeting that he attended in Brussels, hosted by European commissioners. He told one commissioner about the success of a far-right party in recent elections in Bulgaria, a country being considered for membership in the European Union. The party had printed the names and addresses of the country’s 1,000 or so Jews on its Web site — which would make it much easier for extremists to find and attack them.

“It was a classic anti-Semitic act, and the European official was totally unaware of the list,” Besnainou says. “He thanked me and apologized for not knowing about it. For me, I was doing my job.”

Besnainou notes that only 1,500 Jews remain in Tunisia, but in late June the community’s president, Roger Bismuth, was elected a senator in the lower house of the country’s parliament.

“For Tunisia, that’s a first,” Besnainou says. “He was elected by Arab voters. I called the authorities in Tunisia and congratulated them.”

Besnainou gets back to one of his favorite themes: dialogue. He believes that solutions to intercommunal challenges always begin with dialogue.

“When people from both sides talk, they understand each other,” he says. “When they don’t talk, they hate each other.”

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