What began as a debate over freedom of the press surrounding a fiercely anti-Israel article has devolved into a clash of special-interest groups. In late May, a Versailles court of appeals found Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record, guilty of “racial defamation” for a June 4, 2002 article titled “Israel-Palestine: The Cancer.”
It’s not the first time that the French media have asked where exactly the dividing line lies between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, but it is the first time the pro-Israel side has won its case in a court of law. The decision therefore was initially welcomed in the Jewish community.
In the past month, however, the French intellectual elite has re-centered the debate around the figure of Edgar Morin, one of the article’s three authors.
Morin, who is Jewish, is a well-respected sociologist and a member of France’s intellectual elite. Some see the controversy over the treatment of Israel in the French media being co-opted by the intellectuals at Morin’s side, who claim the debate about free speech for themselves.
Any gratification the Jewish community initially took in the ruling has turned to outrage as the controversy has evolved and as Morin’s backers attempt to “contextualize” the article, blunting its explicit anti-Semitism.
The court cited two particular passages from the article as racist. The first reads: “One has trouble imagining that a nation of refugees, descendants of the people who have suffered the longest period of persecution in the history of humanity, who have suffered the worst possible scorn and humiliation, would be capable of transforming themselves, in two generations, into a dominating people, sure of themselves, and, with the exception of an admirable minority, into a scornful people finding satisfaction in humiliating others.”
The second citation reads, “The Jews, once subject to an unmerciful rule, now impose their unmerciful rule on the Palestinians.”
The court ruled that the article’s offense rests in the implication that “all the Jews of Israel humiliate the Palestinians for their own satisfaction” and that “all Jews around the world” take part in this satisfaction and persecution.
The prosecuting groups — France-Israel and Lawyers Without Borders — sought the equivalent of approximately $18,000 in damages. The court awarded each group the equivalent of approximately $3,583 in legal fees and a symbolic $1 for damages, and Le Monde was ordered to print a retraction.
But the story is far from over: The fees have not been paid, no retraction has appeared, and Le Monde is appealing the judgment.
“We cannot allow jurisprudence like this to stand,” Catherine Cohen, the attorney representing Le Monde, told the Guardian, a British newspaper.
Immediately after the decision, CRIF, the umbrella group of secular Jewish organizations in France, expressed its satisfaction: “The CRIF has always believed that criticism of Israeli policy falls under the heading of free and democratic debate but that it must not be expressed through bias or through the demonizing of Israel or the Jewish people.”
Outside the Jewish community, reaction to the ruling was surprisingly muted. Journalist Tom Gross noted in The Wall Street Journal on June 2 that though the ruling was a “landmark,” it had been all but ignored in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Then, on June 21, Le Figaro came to Le Monde’s defense, complaining about the “oversensitivity” of “these types of associations,” which seek “to censure the most insignificant article that has the slightest hint of truth to it.”
The Jewish press responded indignantly. One writer on the pro-Israel Web site Primo-Europe.com reminded critics “that in 2002, when the article in question first ran, people were parading in the streets of Paris and other French cities crying ‘Death to the Jews!’ believing they had a right to do so because of such articles.”
On June 17, Morin sat down with the Swiss journalist Sylvia Cattori to speak in his own defense, explaining that he views his writings on the Arab-Israeli conflict as a “diagnostic.”
He also pointed to the timing of the article — in 2002, as Israel had gone of the offensive against Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp who had carried out scores of terrorist attacks.
“It was the moment of Jenin, of the greatest repression. From that arose the need to intervene, to bear witness,” he explained. The article was intended to “sound an alarm.”
Morin protests that the offending passages were taken out of context and that “it is made very clear that it is about the Jews of Israel, not those of [Paris] or Brooklyn, who persecute the Palestinians.”
As “L’Affaire Morin,” so dubbed by the French press, heats up, Morin’s assistant, Catherine Loridan — whose e-mail address was printed at the bottom of an article in Liberation, a left-wing daily, about a petition circulating in defense of Morin and his co-authors — has been receiving hate mail.
“It’s the Dreyfus Affair in reverse,” Morin complained to Liberation. “It’s the Jews who persecute me.”
Not everyone was buying that argument.
“French society, or at least its elite, seems no longer to be able to understand the meaning of words, not to mention its own duties and responsibilities,” responded Nicole Leibowitz on Proche-Orient.info, a pro-Israel Web site.
Notable signatories on the pro-Morin petition include the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the artist Sophie Calle, the editor of the Nouvel Observateur newspaper, and the sociologist Michel Wieviorka, who wrote a recent study of anti-Semitism. Also signing were far-right leaders such as Yvan Aumont and Alain de Benoist.
Several Jewish outlets condemned the petition, saying the signatories acted to preserve friendships in their clique, rather than out of intellectual honesty.
“I would bet that many of those who signed the petition didn’t even read Morin’s article,” Clement Weill-Raynal, president of the Association of Jewish Journalists for the French Press, said on Radio Communaute Juive, a Jewish station. “Some of them no doubt signed out of favoritism, out of ignorance, or out of simple intellectual conformity.”
Gilles-Williams Goldnadel, president of France-Israel and Lawyers Without Borders, told Radio J, another Jewish station, that before the trial even began, “these so-called intellectuals tried to explain to us in their learned manner that we are guilty of judicial harassment.”
He went on to that say opponents predicted they “would lose the case because it limited freedom of expression.”
“If we hadn’t followed through with this case,” he said, “we would have established a legal precedent in which anything might be possible for some people because of their social position.”
Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French Jewish philosopher, critiqued the trial in an article in L’Arche magazine in 2004, arguing that no matter what the outcome, “our enemies will interpret it in the same way: as a new proof of the intolerance, the sectarianism, and, let’s not be afraid to say it, of the McCarthyism of the Jewish community.”
Finkielkraut was right: In her story about the Morin controversy, Sylvia Cattori accused “Jewish militants” of practicing “a sort of McCarthyism.”
Neither side shows any indication of conceding. For now, Le Monde’s appeal remains to be decided, and the debate rages on.
Morin, for his part, plans to collect his writings in a volume titled “Racist and Anti-Semitic Writings.”
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.