There may be only 164 eligible voters, but the campaign to head the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews is attracting national media attention in France.
Just hours before nominations closed last month, CRIF President Roger Cukierman looked set to be re-elected unopposed for a second term. But all that changed when a surprise candidate submitted a nomination for the May 16 elections.
Serge Hajdenberg, founder and president of the Paris-based Jewish community radio station “Radio J,” is a member of CRIF’s National Council, which groups some 60 community organizations. Hajdenberg told JTA he decided to run when it became apparent no one else was going to challenge Cukierman.
“Roger Cukierman today is not capable of dealing with the community’s problems. We need someone who has the credibility to defend the community to the outside world,” Hajdenberg said.
For his part, Cukierman maintains that under his leadership, CRIF has “passed the message and the government has taken it on board to tackle anti-Semitism.”
The community “should keep the same pilot during this stormy period,” he said in a recent interview on Jewish community radio.
CRIF’s presidency has become a position of major importance, and generates almost daily media exposure.
Moreover, with anti-Semitism a constant source of concern for Europe’s largest Jewish community and with debate about Israel a perennial theme in the press, the unpaid president’s job effectively is full-time.
According to Alain Jakubowicz, CRIF president in the region around Lyon, France’s second largest city, the demands of the job scare off potential candidates.
“Any candidate has to be either retired, have a very restricted professional activity or have a personal fortune,” Jakubowicz said. “He also has to be living permanently in Paris.”
Jakubowicz has been a strong critic of Cukierman, accusing him last year in the French press of running CRIF “like a second Israeli embassy.”
But Jakubowicz, like many in CRIF’s traditionally liberal-leaning leadership, is equally worried about Hajdenberg.
Hajdenberg’s “Radio J” grew out of the “Jewish Renewal” movement he and his brother Henri formed in the 1970’s as a challenge to the community establishment.
Henri Hadjenberg became more of a consensus-builder over the years — he served as CRIF president from 1995 to 2001 — but his older brother has remained outspoken, and with right-of-center views on Israel.
That makes Hadjenberg’s decision to run a surprising one, since Cukierman is perceived by many as one of the most right-wing presidents in CRIF’s history.
Formed in 1943 as a clandestine organization during the Nazi occupation of France, CRIF is an umbrella organization for the main social, religious and political groups in the Jewish community.
The French Jewish community has drifted rightward, particularly since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. CRIF largely has maintained its traditional structures, though Cukierman’s leadership has steered CRIF away from the traditional center-left dominance of the organization. With little difference between the candidates’ positions on Israel, Hadjenberg has chosen to concentrate on what he terms Cukierman’s “errors in communicating CRIF’s message to the media and to the non-Jewish world,” and on an alleged “lack of transparency” in CRIF institutions.
Perhaps sensing Cukierman’s unpopularity with the non-Jewish media for his uncompromising stance on anti- Semitism and Israel, Hajdenberg has chosen to attack Cukierman for his alleged “extremism” — notwithstanding a view, prevalent in the Jewish community, that Hajdenberg stands further to the right than Cukierman.
In a recent interview with the popular daily Le Parisien, Hajdenberg said Cukierman “runs CRIF as if he’s managing a business, not like a political spokesman. In addition, he’s a bit more extremist than the average.”
The Le Parisien interview follows similar articles in the media, most notably a long piece in the influential Le Monde newspaper which asked why there was no candidate from the left in the CRIF elections.
Le Monde also referred to some of Cukierman’s more off-hand statements and, most notably, his comment in the aftermath of 2002 presidential elections that the strong voter tallies attained by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen would “quiet down” France’s Muslim community.
Cukierman maintains that the remark, quoted by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, was a mistranslation.
But Cukierman is unrepentant about many of his media comments, including a controversial “brown, green, red” remark at the CRIF dinner last year that equated left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism.
“When I first said there was anti-Semitism in France, I was criticized by” former Prime Minister Lionel “Jospin, and now everyone admits it,” Cukierman said on the radio interview. “And when I said ‘brown, green, red’ they said the same thing, and now everyone admits there’s anti-Semitism on the left.”
Other leading figures in CRIF praise Cukierman for his approach, and his straight-talking, no-nonsense style generally is popular.
“Frankly, I’m very satisfied” with Cukierman, Francis Kalifat, president of the Zionist Federation of France, told JTA. “If we’re to note any difference since Cukierman was elected in 2001, it has been the absolute commitment to — and the very active and public support of — Israel. CRIF today is in step with the community.”
Kalifat, regarded as one of the more right-wing figures in CRIF, said the absence of a candidate from the left showed that there was “an understanding that it’s not worth going into battle when failure is almost guaranteed.”
That was “based on an understanding of the balance of forces in the organized Jewish community. I think it would be fair to say that the Jewish community in France is more sensitive to the national movement in Israel, but when it comes to the real battles — like anti-Semitism and defense of Israel — there are no divergences in CRIF,” he said.
Community insiders say many younger members of CRIF preferred not to stand against Cukierman on the grounds that changing the communal leadership at a time of growing anti-Semitism could damage the community.
Moreover, a number of CRIF council members, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, said Cukierman seems almost certain to be re-elected, with almost guaranteed support from the large voting blocs of the United Jewish Social Funds and the Alliance Israelite Universelle.
But Cukierman would have to make do without the support of the Consistoire Central, the principal Jewish religious body in France. The Consistoire backed him last time but then left CRIF after its demands for a substantial increase in its voting bloc on the CRIF council were denied.
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.