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Around the Jewish World Jewish Student Leader Tries to Build Bridges to French Muslims

June 13, 2003
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Fresh from his success mobilizing politicians to defend France’s secular values and unite against the menace of the far right, a 25-year-old Jewish law student is embarking on an even more difficult project.

Patrick Klugman, president of France’s Union of Jewish Students, has a new mission: to convince other French Jews and Muslims to see themselves, as he does, as both “Zionist and pro-Palestinian.”

On Tuesday, Klugman organized an evening of “words and music for peace” at the Bataclan theater in the center of Paris, with the daring subtitle, “Let’s be Zionists and Pro-Palestinians.”

Among the participants in the soiree were the recently formed Secular Convention for Equality for French Muslims, as well as the center-right vice president of the National Assembly, Eric Raoult, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist legislator and former finance minister.

Klugman’s ability to bring together different threads of opinion within French society appears all the more remarkable given that the event was jointly sponsored by RCJ Jewish community radio and Beur FM, a station that takes it name from the slang expression used to describe Muslim youth of North African origin.

Relations between the Jewish and North African communities have been strained since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, with a huge increase in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions widely attributed to Muslim youths from the suburbs of France’s large cities.

However, threats to the secular values at the heart of France’s constitution have united moderate Jewish and Muslim organizations in defense of legislation designed to keep religious extremism out of the public sphere.

The improved relations were given a push by the recent acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the “road map” peace plan. At the Bataclan, a petition was launched in support of the plan.

“Until now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a major attraction for extremists from all sides,” Klugman said in a statement before the event. “Men and women of goodwill can’t continue just to work among their own side. They have to unite in order to offer a position that brings them together rather than divides them,” he said.

“As a Zionist, I am convinced that the concretization of Herzl’s dream is that the State of Israel lives in peace and security, and that can only happen with the creation of a Palestinian state,” Klugman told JTA. “It is time that the Palestinian people had its state — which, everyone understands, requires in part the dismantlement of settlements. Israel should accept that its security is not a condition for peace but its consequence.”

Widely recognized as an effective public spokesman on Jewish issues, Klugman recently finished first in elections that determined a third of the executive committee of CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish groups.

The election also marked the increasingly public role that has made Klugman a respected consensus figure whose views on political issues are widely sought by the media.

Klugman’s notoriety comes principally from his ability to combine a clear defense of Jewish rights and the State of Israel with a firm commitment to the values of the French republic.

He also has mastered the art of the sound bite, once describing himself as “a son of Abraham and Marianne,” the symbolic figure of the French republic.

His recent label — “pro-Palestinian Zionist” — has added to his credibility. He first used it publicly during the launch of a book published by the Union of Jewish Students that had the catchy title, “Zionism as Explained to Our Buddies.”

“With this book, we would wish to be better understood by our buddies,” Klugman said at the April launch. “We are Zionists, but we deny nothing of our citizenship or of our anti-racism.”

The book’s title cleverly drew parallels with the Jewish student union’s important role in the formation of SOS Racisme, the organization set up to combat the far-right National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The anti-racist organization, which successfully linked activists from black, Beur and Jewish groups, was strongly identified with its slogan, “Don’t hurt my buddy.”

Another parallel with SOS Racisme is that the Union of Jewish Students served as a launching pad for a number of Jewish student leaders into the national political sphere during the Francois Mitterand era of the 1980s and early 1990s.

However, according to Meir Waintrater, editor of the Jewish monthly “L’Arche,” Jewish student leaders no longer naturally become leaders of the Jewish community, as in the past.

“Klugman’s involvement represents a refreshing renewal for the Jewish leadership in France,” Waintrater said.

Moreover, Klugman is “someone who possesses a certain style that allows him to contribute to the national debate about the secular nature of the French republic,” Waintrater said.

“We have here someone with an authentic Jewish voice” who also has, as a student, “a certain freedom of speech that is not always available to more senior community leaders,” Waintrater said.

Another factor in Klugman’s rise is that his message generally has been perceived as more moderate and inclusive than that of some other community leaders — though both Waintrater and Klugman deny Klugman represents political opposition to CRIF’s current leadership.

“The traditional role of the Union of Jewish Students is to launch ideas that other organizations in the Jewish scene cannot raise. We have a precise mission, which is to act as a bridge with French society, and the freedom to use it for the good of the Jewish community,” Klugman said.

“If we make a mistake, then people can say it’s only students, but if something good comes out, the whole community benefits,” he said.

One example was a demonstration during last year’s presidential election campaign, organized by the Union of Jewish Students in cooperation with the League against Racism and anti-Semitism.

Organizers made sure that the theme of the demonstration, symbolically held in front of the Pantheon, the holy of holies of the French republic, was deliberately non-sectarian and was addressed by speakers representing all three monotheistic faiths.

French flags were handed out to demonstrators, in contrast to a similar march a month earlier organized by the Jewish community, which featured more Israeli flags.

Another of Klugman’s highly public initiatives, just after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, was to bring together leaders from across the political spectrum to sign an appeal against anti-Semitism and in support of the state’s secular values.

The document was signed by artists, writers, government ministers and the leaders of all of France’s mainstream political parties.

Even President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who were unable to attend the initial signing ceremony held last month at one of Paris’ most famous cafes across from the Bastille, sent messages of support.

At the Bataclan event, Klugman announced that this would be his last speech as president of the Union of Jewish Students.

“This might be your last speech as president of the” Jewish student union, “but I have no doubt it will not be your last public speech,” Strauss-Khan replied.

The crowd in the packed theater — about 500 people in all — applauded as one.

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