While the war in Iraq has increased tensions in France, even sparking a new wave of attacks on Jews, the government is serious about taking on the problem of anti-Semitism, according to the leader of France’s main secular Jewish organization.
“Just over the past weeks, I have held meetings with the prime minister and the ministers of the interior, education and justice. They have all strongly expressed their opposition to anti-Semitism,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, said in an wide-ranging interview with JTA.
However, Jews in France remain concerned even if they are confident in the protection provided by the French state.
“The danger for Jews lies principally with Muslims here who represent around 10 percent of the French population,” Cukierman said. “They feel a strong solidarity with the Palestinians, and today, they feel that same solidarity with Iraq.”
According to a recent poll, in fact, more than a quarter of French Jews are considering leaving France in the wake of a serious wave of attacks targeting the country’s Jewish community.
“The problem is that French Muslims are unable to distinguish between Jews and Israelis. Unfortunately, there’s no word in Arabic for ‘Israelis,’ there is just ‘Yahud,’ ” or Jew, Cukierman said.
The targeting of Jews is part of a wider social malaise in France, he said.
“There has been a lack of integration into French society by many in the Muslim population. While some are already second- or even third-generation French, many Muslims still live in poor suburbs and in difficult conditions,” Cukierman said. “There is a lack of jobs, and some are in a revolutionary mood. They blame many people but especially the Jews — and maybe there is jealousy, too, that Jews have been able to integrate successfully.”
Cukierman regretted that there sometimes is a tendency, particularly in the United States, to link the problem of anti-Semitism in France with political differences between the United States and France over the war in Iraq.
“I appreciate the concerns of Americans when they perceive that France is taking sides with Iraq, and I understand that it is terrible for them because of the sacrifices that America made for France in two world wars. They feel frustrated and betrayed, and I fully understand that,” he said.
“But they must make a distinction between the Jewish problems in France and the current differences between the U.S. and French governments,” he added. “I told U.S. Jewish leaders last year that there is no problem with the French government, even if” French President Jacques “Chirac tends to be pro-Arab. This is a positive government which provides financial assistance to Jewish institutions.
“In 1995, Chirac recognized the responsibility of the French state for what happened in the Shoah, and then there is also one of the largest foundations in France set up by the government for preserving the memory of the Shoah with a budget of $500 million,” Cukierman said.
Although CRIF officially does not have a view on the Iraq war, Cukierman told JTA that “personally, I support what the U.S. is doing, and most Jews in France are strongly against Saddam Hussein.”
Nevertheless, he commented, while American Jewish leaders “have a right to criticize” the policies of France, this should not be allowed to affect relations between the two countries.
“Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is not an isolated problem which only exists in France. It’s all over Europe and also in the U.S.,” Cukierman said.
In addition, he said he believes that demands by certain American Jews to boycott French products were wrong and counterproductive.
“As a French citizen, I’m against a boycott, and, as a Jewish leader, I can tell you it’s never effective,” he said.
With regard to the results of a recent poll conducted by a U.S.-based organization that found that many French Jews are fed up with anti-Semitism in France and are thinking of packing their bags, Cukierman said the findings are far removed from CRIF figures.
“I’ve seen the poll and, frankly, I don’t believe it,” he said. People said when far-right leader Jean-Marie “Le Pen got 5 percent, they’d leave. Then they said, ‘When he gets 10 percent.’ Well, now he’s got 20 percent, and they’re still here.”
There has been no denial, however, that French Jews are worried about anti-Semitism, Cukierman said.
“When you see children threatened and insulted, of course you’re worried. You hear this negative linkage all the time as well,” Cukierman said, referring to amalgams between Jews, Israel, Zionism and Nazis.
“They make this link between Israel and French Jews, but if there is a link then I’m proud of it,” he said. “Most Jews in France are strongly in solidarity with Israel. Many have close family there, and we’re the only Jewish community that has continued to send tourists to Israel. When I was in Israel recently, they told me that if it weren’t for French Jews there would be virtually no tourists.”
Israel naturally is interested in French Jews making aliyah, Cukierman said, and “some French Jews follow.”
Nevertheless, “the vast majority of French Jews,” are staying put because “the government continues to be strong and is prepared to fight anti-Semitism,” he said.
Indeed, nobody should be in any doubt that Jews are respected in France and integrated in French society, Cukierman said.
“We are happy here. We have been here for 2,000 years and full citizens since 1791. Rashi lived here in 1050 and there was a thriving community in Avignon, ‘the Pope’s Jews,’ in the 14th century,” he said. “Napoleon set up the Consistorial system to give the lay community control over the rabbis and a say in the religious life of the community. In 1492, many came to France after the expulsion from Spain, and in the 1600s Jews came to Alsace from Eastern Europe.
He pointed out the long tradition of prominent Jews in France — including five Jewish prime ministers and famous writers such as Marcel Proust — but also noted problems such as the infamous anti-Semitic trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and the collaborationist government of Henri-Philippe Petain in 1940.
“But we should not forget that three-quarters of French Jews survived the Shoah, the biggest proportion in Europe, larger than Holland and Belgium and certainly, Germany and Poland,” he said. “And this was because of the people, not the elite. Simple French people helped the Jews escape the Shoah.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.