The AJC’s French Connection


Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, former adviser to France’s ambassador for human rights and a founder of the Brussels-based Medbridge Strategy Center, which builds ties between leaders in Europe and the Middle East, stepped into one of Europe’s ethnic hornet’s nests three years ago. A lawyer with a Ph.D. in international relations, she became the American Jewish Committee’s representative in France.

French Jewry in recent decades has been a target of young Muslims; the latest incidents of anti-Semitism were attacks in Paris on a rabbi and his son, and on a young French Jew; and bullet holes and a swastika discovered at two synagogues around Paris.

The Jewish Week caught up with Rodan-Benzaquen, who was in the United States recently for a series of meetings and speeches. This is an edited form of an e-mail interview.

Q: In recent weeks: an attack on a young French Jew; then a call by a militant Jewish group to take revenge on Arabs; then a call for more attacks on Jews. Is the situation getting better or worse for Jews in France?

A: In France, the situation for Jews has indeed been difficult for several years. In 2011, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi were killed by a gunman in a Jewish school in Toulouse. Following this horrendous event, there has been an increase of 58 percent in anti-Semitic acts in 2012. The situation does not seem to get better. These are not inter-religious. tensions … there have never been any reported incidents of Jews who have attacked Muslims in France.

How worried is the French community? Are many French Jews considering leaving, for the U.S. or Israel?

The Jewish community is worried — an opinion poll about to be published found that 48 percent of Jews are considering leaving — but Jews in France feel strongly as French citizens. The numbers of Jews emigrating has not increased a lot over the past 13 years. While there seems to be a small increase in the last 18 months in the [rate of immigration] to countries such as Canada and the U.S., immigration to Israel has been quite stable (around 2,000 people last year). But French Jews indeed ask themselves questions related to their future in France.

We have read for years that Jews in France are not advised to publicly identify themselves as such — visible kipa, or Jewish star, for example — in public. What advice would you give to a Jew walking in Paris today?

There are many areas in France where you can wear a kipa and a Magen David, and many do. But there are also areas where you can’t. The problem really is that there is a feeling of uncertainty as to the possible consequences. I would advise people to be aware as to the particular area that they are going and to use caution before putting on obvious Jewish symbols.

France — as well as England and Germany — recently called on the European Union to designate the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The Jewish community, of course, welcomed that step. Will it worsen relations between France’s Muslims and the government and French Jews?

I do not believe that the vast majority of France’s Muslims will view this development in a negative manner. One should also take into consideration that Hezbollah, together with Iran and Bashar Al Assad are responsible for the death of thousands of Muslims in Syria.

In a speech last week to the Second Congress of Jewish Communities in France, President Francois Hollande spoke of the government’s “implacable struggle against anti-Semitism.” Has the government done enough in recent years to protect and reassure French Jewry?

Contrary to the years [before] 2000, where the French government did not acknowledge the problem of anti-Semitism, the current and the previous government have been very clear and outspoken. This is a very important step. The government has also been working in close contact with the Jewish protection service to collect data about anti-Semitic incidents and to safeguard Jewish sites and schools. The government has provided 15 million euros to upgrade security measures. But more needs to be done, and the government knows it…