In southern France, Jews paying a price for the government’s effort to curb extremism


MARSEILLE, France (JTA) — As a soccer fan and treasurer of Maccabi France, Jean-Marc Krief is more preoccupied with his team’s legwork than with God’s work.

So Krief was dismayed to learn that government officials in southern France were stripping the Marseille branch of the Jewish sports association of longstanding state subsidies because of its “religious affiliations,” as one official put it.

Krief, who met his wife 10 years ago on a hiking trip organized by Maccabi Marseille, says the association’s local branch used to receive about $3,000 annually from the regional government. After several inquiries, he was told that to preserve its funding, the organization would have to include non-Jews on its board. His argument that Maccabi’s activities were secular and open to anyone, Jewish or not, fell on deaf ears.

“We have been receiving a modest subsidy for many years now until August,” Krief said. “The rules for applying stayed the same, but we’ve been declined funds because we are suddenly considered ‘religious.’ We don’t have enough money for activities in 2014.”

French Jewish organizations have long relied on public assistance to finance their core operations. But eight groups in the southern French province of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur have been informed that they will not receive any public financing in 2013, according to the CRIF, the umbrella group representing French Jewish communities. In each of the last two years, the groups received a total of $180,000 annually in public subsidies.

Local officials would say little about why the Jewish groups are being denied public support. Gerard-Jose Mattei, a spokesman for the president of the PACA regional council, told JTA only that funding would be given to “organizations that are not religious in essence.”

But to local Jewish leaders, concerns about church-state separation are a red herring. Only Muslim and Jewish groups appear to be affected by the government’s cutbacks, with local Catholic charities that consume a far larger proportion of public support seemingly unaffected. Maccabi and other groups, the Jewish leaders say, are collateral damage in the government’s wider effort to counter Muslim extremism and rein in the religious sectarianism that has helped fuel the rise of the French right.

That effort was declared policy under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose center-right government banned face covering in public spaces, among other controversial laws, but gained new impetus after a Muslim radical murdered four Jews in Toulouse in March. The government of current President Francois Hollande has since introduced new anti-jihadist legislation, deported some Muslim clerics and shaken up France’s domestic intelligence agency.

Michele Teboul, head of the local CRIF branch, says Jewish interests and freedoms are routinely affected by France’s response to Muslim extremism.

“We’ve seen this in attempts to ban halal slaughter and circumcision, and in how the debate on burkas morphed to suddenly include kippahs,” she said. “It is unjustified, as we have always known how to integrate while retaining our own identity.”

Some 120,000 Jews live in the Marseille region. Besides Maccabi, the affected Jewish groups include the local office of the CRIF; the Marseille Consistoire, which administers religious services; the Bnei Akiva youth movement; and Baskets for Shabbat, a Jewish charity. CRIF’s national president, Richard Prasquier, said the denial of subsidies for Jewish groups was “troubling” but currently limited to the Marseille region.

Controversy surrounding the funding of religious charities is not a new issue in France, which is unique in Europe for enforcing public secularism in a manner more similar to what exists in the United States. A 1905 law enshrining state secularism prohibits the government from subsidizing religion — a law Krief says was cited by local officials in justifying their denial of funding. But public officials have had wide discretion in applying the law and in the recent past have moved to cut support for groups on the basis of their religious affiliation.

Last year, a Muslim charity in Marseille became the subject of controversy when it was revealed that the charity received $150,000 in subsidies from the regional council in 2010 and 2011. The Franco-Muslim Association of Saint-Gretin near Paris last year won a court case against the municipality, which had refused funding to the group because of its name.

Amiens, a city in northern France, forced organizers of the traditional Christmas Festival to rename the event Winter Festival to win subsidies. And in Paris, city funding for 20 Jewish kindergartens is a point of contention each year, as local politicians hold up its funding as an example of the violation of the principle of secularism, known in French as “laicite.”

“Muslim cultural associations are systematically denied funding,” Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy near Paris, told JTA. The pullback has intensified nationally since the March 19 shooting in Toulouse, he said.

“Some groups are told to change their names, which they won’t do,” Chalghoumi said. “It hurts the moderates and invites extremists to take over with their funding from outside France.”

Jewish groups were offered similar arrangements. Bernard Benguigui, vice president of Baskets for Shabbat, which distributes food each week to several hundred recipients from a dispensary behind Marseille’s Great Synagogue, said he was told that he could continue to receive government funding if he changed his organization’s name to one without “a Jewish connotation.” 

“I refused this proposal because government orders to change Jewish names remind me of dark periods,” Benguigui said.

Dozens of government-funded Christian groups in the Marseille area, meanwhile, seem less affected. In 2011, the regional council gave nearly $2.7 million to 30 groups with “Catholic” in their names. Three of the groups told JTA that they were unaware of any planned cutbacks in funding. The website of one group, Secours Catholique, is publicizing a trip to the Holy Land next year organized in partnership with the regional council.

Still, to some in the Jewish community, the dilemma is fundamentally not one of church-state separation but of using an overly blunt remedy to a problem that requires a more nuanced approach.

“As with other associations that endanger the fabric of society, the solution to depriving hotbeds of Muslim extremism of their funds isn’t blanket measures because those will hurt positive and neutral forces,” said Joel Rubinfeld, the co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament. “What’s needed is a case-by-case analysis and decision.”

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