Israeli and Jewish officials in Paris were forced into damage control mode this week after Israeli news reports accused French President Jacques Chirac of condoning anti-Semitism.
According to the reports, Chirac and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis had blocked moves at last weekend’s European summit meeting in Brussels to include a condemnation of anti-Semitic remarks made by Malaysia’s prime minister at last week’s conference of Islamic states.
Widely published in the Israeli media, the reports drew strong rebukes from Israeli editorial writers and politicians, most notably in the Ma’ariv newspaper, which published a large photograph of Chirac on its front page with the caption “The anti-Semitic face of France.”
Ma’ariv’s editor, Amnon Dankner, penned a piece on Chirac titled “The Collaborator.”
But the reports proved false, and Israeli representatives in France quickly issued various apologies for attacking Chirac.
“We are very well aware of the positions of Mr. Chirac, and this is not a man who can be accused of anti-Semitism or racism,” Israel’s ambassador to France, Nissim Zvilli, said on the radio station France Info.
Claiming that there had been “a certain misunderstanding,” Zvilli said that “Chirac did nothing to torpedo a European decision to condemn the anti-Semitic and hateful declarations of the Malaysian prime minister.”
Similar remarks came from a senior embassy source, who told JTA that the French were “very annoyed” with the response in Israel to the reports.
The reports had led Israel’s Foreign Ministry to protest France’s supposed blocking of an E.U. statement criticizing anti-Semitism.
“It is a disgrace that a country like France, an important country, can show even understanding or acceptance of the anti-Semitic remarks of Mahathir Mohammad,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
But the source added that the statement was born of “disinformation and misunderstanding, and I am sorry that France was written about in that way.”
French Jewish leaders also thought Israeli politicians and journalists had acted hastily.
“They were too quick to jump to conclusions without checking with” French officials, said Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress.
Along with other European leaders, Chirac had strongly supported a statement from the E.U.’s rotating presidency — the usual forum for political statements on behalf of the European Union — condemning Mahathir’s remarks.
Chirac “was associated with Friday’s condemnation of the anti-Semitic statements made by the Italian presidency on behalf of all the countries of the European Union,” a presidential spokesperson said.
Moreover, since the Italians had already made an official statement, European leaders said they saw no need to condemn the remarks again in the closing statement of the European summit.
Cwajgenbaum praised the E.U. statement, as well as Germany’s decision to berate the Malaysian ambassador — though he said he would have liked to have seen a statement from the heads of state as well.
Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, agreed, describing the statement from the Italian presidency as “insufficient and too formal.” A CRIF statement called on France’s Foreign Ministry to formally protest to the Malaysian ambassador in Paris.
Nevertheless, Cukierman said in an interview, “one can accuse the president of many things, notably France’s policy toward Israel, but it is scandalous to accuse him of anti-Semitism. No French president has shown such a commitment to recognizing French responsibility for acts committed against Jews.”
In an Oct. 16 speech to the Conference of Islamic States, Mahathir accused Jews of “ruling the world by proxy” and of causing “others to fight and die for them.”
He called on the Muslim world to marshal all its resources toward a “final victory” over the Jews.
Israel reacted with strong criticism.
“It is unfortunate that during a speech devoted to solving the problems of the Muslim world in the 21st century, the Malaysian prime minister was unable to stop himself from launching into terrible invectives and lies which come directly from classic anti-Semitic propaganda,” a Foreign Ministry statement read.
Mahathir’s comments drew a swift response from European leaders, with E.U. foreign ministers immediately issuing a statement condemning the remarks.
The statement was issued on Oct. 16 but wasn’t published officially until two days later, by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on behalf of the 15-member bloc.
“The Malaysian prime minister has used very shocking expressions not just for Jews — which are strongly anti-Semitic — but also statements which oppose principles of tolerance and dialogue between the West and the Muslim world,” Frattini said.
The response was equally firm from individual E.U. member states, with Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel describing Mahathir’s remarks as “demented and totally anti-Semitic.”
Despite the European response, however, reports began to circulate that Chirac had tried to block condemnation of Mahathir’s remarks from the European summit.
The initial report, from an Associated Press report from Brussels, cited an unnamed French diplomatic source and was picked up by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
The statements from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and, particularly, the Israeli news coverage, drew strong rebukes from French politicians.
“There is anti-Semitism in France and I have never wanted to underestimate it,” Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said. “But to say that France is anti-Semitic and that the president of the republic did not decide to act in a determined way in this matter is a lie and an outrage.”
Mahathir also was taken in by the false report.
“I never thought that the Europeans were against me,” Mahathir told a Malaysian newspaper. “I don’t understand them but I’m happy that at least Mr. Chirac understands me. I want to thank him publicly.”
For his part, Chirac sent a personal letter to Mahathir strongly condemning his remarks.
“While you and your government should have taken care to challenge any accusation of anti-Semitism, these statements can only be condemned by all those who guard the memory of the Holocaust,” Chirac wrote.
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.