(JTA) — A leader of French Jewry criticized a major Paris synagogue’s hosting of a debate featuring a controversial Jewish historian popular in far-right circles, who said France’s pro-Nazi puppet government saved French Jews during the Holocaust.
Francis Kalifat, the president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, on Friday told JTA that Eric Zemmour “should not have been invited” to the Grand Synagogue of Paris last month to a debate about the historical record of the Vichy regime.
At the June 1 debate with former Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim, Zemmour reiterated the gist of his thesis on Vichy, that “there was, effectively, a pact with the devil in which Vichy gave up foreign Jews, or at any rate allowed them to be taken, in order to save French Jews.” He cited criticism by hard-core pro-fascists on the Vichy government over the presence of some Jews in France.
Before Germany invaded France in 1940, tens of thousands of German and central European Jews fled to France. Zemmour claims they were sacrificed by the collaborationist government of Philippe Petain to save French-born Jews.
But Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, makes no such distinction. It states that Pierre Laval, the prime minister of the Vichy regime, was the initiator of the shipment of Jewish children as part of the July 1942 Val D’Hiv deportation to death camps of 23,000 Jews — many of whom were French citizens.
When Jews went into hiding in France, “German and French authorities responded by organizing raids in rural areas,” Yad Vashem writes. Approximately 22 percent of 350,000 French Jews perished in the Holocaust – fewer percentage-wise than in the Netherlands and Belgium, but more than in Italy or Bulgaria.
Zemmour cited data showing that 90 percent of French Jews survived the Holocaust in hiding — a proportion he said indicated that the Vichy government had protected them. However, historians argued that the higher survival rate of French-born Jews in Nazi-controlled France was because their language skills and connections enabled them to hide more easily than could foreign Jews living in the territory. Bernheim noted this argument in attempted to deconstruct the polemicist’s arguments. He also said anti-Jewish laws passed by Vichy made no distinction between foreign and locals Jews, and that hatred of both stemmed from xenophobia.
“Zemmour is free to express his opinion, but a synagogue is not a suitable place because his perceived defense of the Vichy government in an insult to victims it murdered,” Kalifat said. “I think the synagogue’s administrators made an error, a mistake, that I cannot understand.”
Jacques Canet, the president of the synagogue, wrote in a statement it was an appropriate venue, because it is a symbol of “French Jewry” and that Zemmour’s claims were confronted “strongly and clearly” by Bernheim.
Zemmour in 2010 said most drug dealers in France were of African or Arab descent and that employers therefore had a right to reject job seekers from those ethnicities. He was convicted of hate speech for these assertions, which, along with his defense of French fascists, have made him a popular figure in some far-right circles.
Sammy Ghozlan, the founder of France’s National Bureau of Vigilance against Anti-Semitism watchdog, joined Kalifat’s criticism, calling Zemmour’s debate last month at the synagogue before a crowd of 1,300 people “unacceptable.”
Ghozlan said Zemmour “basically justified the Vichy regime’s anti-Semitism.”
During the debate, Zemmour said that “it was believed at the time that Jews had too much clout, that they excessively dominated the economy, media, French culture” and that this was “partly true.”
Some Frenchmen, he added, “found that the Jews behaved with the arrogance of a colonist.”