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Anti-semitism Ad Campaign in France Loses Jesus and Mary As Main Images

October 27, 2004
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Jesus and Mary have been taken off ads against anti-Semitism in France. French Jewish students withdrew the images of Jesus and Mary, which were portrayed above the French phrase for “Dirty Jew,” from the campaign after they proved too much to bear for Catholics — and many Jews as well.

The Union of Jewish Students had wanted to run the ads in national newspapers and on billboards across France this week but decided to “modify the visuals,” a union official told JTA on Monday.

The change followed pressure from major Jewish and anti-racist organizations in France that claimed the campaign would end up doing more harm than good.

One of the most vociferous groups against the campaign was the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, known by its French acronym, LICRA.

In an Oct. 22 statement, LICRA, which is regarded as close to the Jewish community, said the images would “have a counterproductive effect in increasing and exacerbating existing tensions within French society.”

The images were prepared by the Paris-based Colorado Agency that, together with the newspapers, offered its services without charge. France’s largest billboard company, J.C. Decaux, which initially had agreed to post the advertisements on its sites, pulled out for fear of offending the public.

The initial advertisements produced by Colorado for the student campaign showed serene images of Jesus and Mary with the graffiti-style tags, “Dirty Jew” and “Dirty Jewess.” Underneath the pictures was the phrase “Anti-Semitism: Isn’t it everyone’s concern?”

The images were immediately slammed by Jewish organizations.

Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, told JTA that the campaign was “badly adapted in using religious symbols that run the risk of hurting the sensibilities of many people.”

Cukierman said he told the president of the student group, Yonathan Arfi, that “you’re missing the objective and doing more harm than good.”

Other Jewish groups said the campaign targeted the wrong people.

“I understand they wanted to shock, and there’s a need to shock,” said Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau For Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. “But the problem is that it’s not committed Christians who commit these anti-Semitic acts. Far from it.”

France’s principal Jewish religious organization also called the campaign “misdirected.”

“You don’t campaign against anti-Semitism by offending Christians,” Frederic Attali, director general of the Consistoire, told JTA.

Although official Catholic organizations did not take the lead in condemning the campaign, their reaction, when questioned by the media, largely was negative.

The Rev. Patrick Desbois, who heads the French Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Relations with the Jews, said the campaign could be interpreted as “anti-Christian.”

“It is as if someone would use a piece of a Torah scroll for a campaign promoting religious freedom. I personally would oppose it,” he said.

Pierre d’Ornellas, an auxiliary bishop in Paris, went further, suggesting that France’s chief rabbinate should formally distance itself from the ads.

However, both Arfi and the advertising agency claimed the campaign was aimed at a segment of the public that doesn’t perpetrate anti-Semitism but isn’t committed to fighting it, either.

The campaign was not intended to be provocative, Olivier Bensimon, Colorado’s creative director, told Le Monde.

“The insult ‘dirty Jew’ is the most banal and the most stereotypical. But insulting Jesus insults everybody,” he said.

Arfi also thought the campaign broke new ground.

“We want to say, like the model for campaigns about road safety, that anti-Semitism is everyone’s business,” he said.

The student campaign follows the publication of an Interior Ministry report last week that said anti-Semitism and racism threatened the fabric of French society.

The report, which also identified “radical anti-Zionists” as “anti-Semites by proxy,” received rave reviews from Jewish organizations.

But while the Union of Jewish Students said it was satisfied with the report, it added that there still was “a gaping hole separating the awareness of public authorities in dealing with anti-Semitism and the ignorance or indifference of the wider public.”

Now, though, as a result of the Jesus and Mary images, awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism has been raised, Arfi said.

“These visuals, even if they are not going to be published, question and continue to ask questions of all of us, and that is the principal aim of our action,” he said in a statement Sunday.

After the decision to pull the images, LICRA decided to bury the hatchet. The league said in a statement Monday that “the fight against anti-Semitism is first of all political and demands political and pedagogical answers.”

Arfi, though, still had a lesson for his elders.

“Whether we want it or not,” he said, the emotion provoked by the images “underlines the difficulty for French society to understand the question of anti-Semitism. My generation, as is often the case, provides society with the mirror with which it can see the reflection of its faults.”

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