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French Jews Are Mostly Mum After Controversial Peres Visit

March 7, 2002
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Given the spate of anti-Jewish attacks linked to the Palestinian intifada, French Jewish leaders were surprisingly quiet about Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ comments on a recent visit here.

For months, French Jews have tried to draw attention to a wave of anti-Semitic aggression that began with the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, and which many feel has reached epidemic proportions.

With presidential elections approaching in April, French Jewish leaders have criticized both leading candidates for downplaying the seriousness of the anti-Semitic incidents.

The situation recently drew the attention of Israeli officials.

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he was “very worried” about the dangerous wave of French anti-Semitism.

In mid-January, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior told the French daily Le Monde that “France is the worst Western country” when it comes to anti-Semitism.

This was accompanied by an announcement from Israel’s Absorption Ministry that it was offering financial inducements to French Jews wanting to immigrate to Israel.

Given this backdrop, many French Jews had anticipated that Peres would use his diplomatic visit with French President Jacques Chirac last week to place French anti-Semitism on the table.

What was hardly expected, however, was that Peres would support yet another repudiation of the problem by the French head of state.

Faced with Chirac’s statement that he was “shocked and hurt” by Sharon’s remarks and Chirac’s assertion that “there was no upsurge of anti-Semitism in France,” Peres told reporters, “I am certain that France is not anti-Semitic, neither historically nor currently.”

In addition, Peres said, the “French leadership is staging a serious and determined battle against anti-Semitism in France.”

This last comment drew sharp criticism from one of those on the front lines of the battle against French anti-Semitism.

Shimon Samuels, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Paris office, which documented 320 anti-Semitic incidents in France last year, claimed that “Peres’ appeasement encouraged the denial of Jew-hatred in France and weakened strident protests by organizations such as ours at a time when synagogues are burning and Jewish schoolchildren are under attack.”

“We get calls daily from frightened Jews who cannot get attention from either the police or the politicians,” Samuels told the Jerusalem Post.

Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, took a more conciliatory tone.

“I can agree that the French government is not anti-Semitic, even though there are many anti-Jewish activities in France,” he said. “But in any case, of course France has a history of anti-Semitism, including the Dreyfus case and Vichy.”

Overall, the French Jewish reaction to Peres’s remarks has been somewhat muted.

The comments of both Samuels and Cukierman appeared not in the French Jewish press but in Israeli newspapers. The militant French Jewish Web sites, and, did not run any editorial response to the Peres visit.

Some of this has to do with the mounting violence in Israel, which has diverted attention from the problem of domestic anti-Semitism.

In addition, after a series of high-profile acts of anti-Semitic violence at the end of last year and the start of 2002, there was a lull in such incidents during February.

While many would sharply disagree with Peres’s vote of confidence in the French government’s efforts, community leaders still appear reluctant to voice the idea that anti-Semitism in France is a widespread social problem rather than a phenomenon mainly confined to communities where Sephardic Jews and Maghrebins — Arabs of North African descent — live side by side.

In a recent demonstration of some 1,000 Jews in the Paris suburb of Creteil, for example, the president of the Paris Consistoire, Moise Cohen, opened his speech with the assertion, “France is not an anti-Semitic country.”

Minutes later, the grand rabbi of Paris, David Messas, echoed these comments, stating, “This is why we are here today, to respond in front of the republic that we love.”

“We are democrats,” he continued, “because we’re French and because we’re Jewish.”

At this and two other demonstrations in January against anti-Semitic violence, Jewish leaders took great pains to present the Jewish community as an integral part of the French republic.

But as anti-Semitism becomes a pervasive force in the everyday lives of more and more Jews, there are indications that the community may be starting to outpace its leadership in its response to the problem.

Even among Jews who appear to be the most integrated — native-born youths of Sephardic origins currently attending public universities — perspectives on French anti-Semitism are becoming much more pointed.

Jewish students taking a study break in the cafeteria of the National Library were eager to talk about their experiences with anti-Semitism.

Rebecca Marciano, a student at Assas, one of France’s most prestigious schools for law and finance, spoke of the tensions between Jewish students and members of a longstanding neo-Nazi organization at her school.

“The administration of the school knows all about the group,” she said, “but nothing has ever been done about it, even when there were some fights last year.”

Marciano and her boyfriend, Jonathan Elmaleh, a student in computer science at the University of Paris 12, both said they look forward to emigrating to Israel, a decision influenced by the present conditions of anti-Jewish aggression.

“Many of our friends feel the same way,” Elmaleh said.

Living with their families in Creteil, the site of a recent arson attack on a Jewish school, they have experienced firsthand the “new face of anti-Semitism:” violence by Arab youths against their Jewish neighbors.

“There are incidents every day that are never reported,” said Elmaleh, who volunteers each weekend to provide security for Jews walking to and from synagogue.

They also have encountered anti-Semitism in the French educational system, they say, which gives them little faith that the French government will protect their rights.

“In addition to Arab anti-Semitism,” Marciano said, “there is kind of an aristocratic anti-Semitism in France.

“This might be the more worrisome kind,” she added.

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