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In Israeli President’s Paris Visit, Emotional Symbols for French Jews

February 20, 2004
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For many of the thousands of French Jews that crowded into a Paris theater to welcome Israeli President Moshe Katsav this week, driving to the event was a deeply emotional experience.

With the theater situated at the far west of the city, most of those attending had to drive down the Champs Elysees. It was the first time they had seen one of the world’s most famous avenues adorned with Stars of David.

“It gives you a warm feeling in your heart and a deep sense of pride to see the Magen Davids like that,” Sandra Tobianah said as she fought her way through the crowds to catch a glimpse of the Israeli president.

Tobianah was one of the lucky ones — around 2,000 people had to be turned away — filling the Palais de Congres for the French Jewish community’s official welcome for Katsav on Tuesday.

The Israeli president was visiting France for only the second official visit by an Israeli head of state to France since Israel’s creation in 1948.

Katsav’s visit comes at a time when French-Israeli relations — warm in Israel’s early years but generally cool since 1967 — are seeking to escape from an anti-Semitism-induced low.

The Jewish state has been highly critical about the increase in anti-Semitism in France in the wake of the launching of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, and French foreign policy Israel regards as pro-Arab.

Israel also has criticized France’s lukewarm attitude to possible Israeli membership in the Francophonie, an organization of nations with sizeable French-speaking populations.

Such attitudes have been echoed by French Jews.

But France has taken steps in recent months to shore up its stance on issues related to Jews and Israel, taking the lead on cracking down on anti-Semitism.

Many pro-Israel supporters are adopting a wait-and-see approach in the wake of Katsav’s visit.

Michel Darmon, who heads France-Israel, a pro-Israel lobbying group, said, “It’s difficult to believe things are going to change” in French foreign policy.

He called remarks by French President Jacques Chirac at a dinner honoring Katsav at the Elysee Palace in which Chirac reiterated support for Israel’s right to existence as “not a concession.” Darmon said, “No other country’s existence is ever called into question.”

Others were more optimistic.

The trip is “symbolically important,” said Claude Meyer, deputy editor of France’s only Jewish weekly newspaper, Actualite Juive. “Even if this doesn’t change policy — and there remain fundamental differences over issues like the security fence — it’s a strong gesture.”

Bilateral relations at an economic and cultural level also are very strong, Meyer pointed out.

Like Darmon, Meyer praised the French government for its attitude in fighting anti-Semitism. She also described recent remarks by Israeli officials on the subject as “outrageous” and “counterproductive.”

Earlier this month, Israeli Diaspora Minister Natan Sharansky had suggested that anti-Semitic acts had doubled in France during the last 12 months. That statistic was refuted by the French government and many Jewish organizations, who say incidents have dropped in the last year.

During the visit, Katsav took pains to smooth over the issue, praising Chirac’s strong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.

Darmon said the French are OK when it comes to the Holocaust and Jews in France, but bad on Israel.

“When it comes to dead Jews, they’re perfect,” he said, alluding to the Holocaust. “And also when they talk about Jews in France, it’s not bad either. But when they talk about other Jews,” he said, “it’s very poor.”.

But while the debate continues over French policy in the Middle East, the symbolic message of the Katsav visit was the dominating theme of the Palais des Congres event.

“There’s been no Israeli state visit here for 15 years,” Tubianah said. “I keep seeing Tunisian and Moroccan flags on the Champs Elysees, but to see Stars of David, it’s magnificent.”

Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, said he had “tears in his eyes” as he drove down the famous avenue.

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