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U.S. Jewish Groups Hit Back After French Jew Criticizes Them

March 8, 2005
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A European Jewish official has ruffled some feathers among American Jewish organizations, saying the groups have harmed French Jewry’s ability to deal with the government on issues of anti-Semitism. French philanthropist Pierre Besnainou, treasurer of the European Jewish Congress, said that since the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Israel Public Affairs Committee have become involved in French affairs, “their manner has come across as presumptuous and somewhat patronizing, placing us in a delicate situation.”

“Four years ago, when anti-Semitic acts once again began to taint the honor of the Republic and increased the concerns of our community, the American Jewish organizations began a constant, obstinate and aggressive campaign of ‘crying wolf,’ ” Besnainou said in a Feb. 7 letter to Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews.

“They accused the French government of complicity, not of weakness, not of unrealism, but of complicity. Some even pushed this attitude of tactlessness and blindness by calling for the boycott of French products.”

JTA has obtained a copy of the letter, which was released last week.

After learning about the letter, American Jewish officials fired back.

“As far as the American Jewish Committee is concerned, his views are simply ill-informed and totally erroneous,” David Harris, the group’s executive director, told JTA. “From the beginning we consulted closely, if not intimately, with the leadership of CRIF and other leading French Jewish personalities.

“What was missing in his statement — but was at the center of our approach — was a French word that we take very much to heart: nuance,” Harris added. “And we know that our efforts have made a difference in helping the French Jewish community address the very real problems it has been facing. We’re proud of that role and we fully intend to continue that effort.”

The back and forth highlights the difficulties that can arise — and the sensitivities that can surface — when U.S. Jewish groups get involved in Jewish issues abroad.

After taking heat for turning a blind eye to growing anti-Semitism in France, in the past year Paris has made statements and launched initiatives to address the concerns.

In February 2004, Israeli President Moshe Katsav visited France and met with his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac. After the meeting, Chirac spoke of his government’s “unflagging determination to fight against all forms of racism and anti-Semitism.”

French officials moved to increase security measures at Jewish institutions after a meeting with Jewish community leaders in the aftermath of Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March 2004.

Last June, after gathering with Jewish leaders, Chirac called on judges to hand down tough sentences to those found guilty of anti-Semitic actions. He said, “Justice should be pronounced with severity, punishment should be exemplary and it should be widely publicized,” a presidential spokeswoman told reporters at the time.

At a September ceremony awarding American Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg France’s Legion of Honor, Chirac praised the director’s work in preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

But Besnainou, who recently founded a group dedicated to helping French Jews immigrate to Israel, said that although the U.S. groups had been too aggressive in their initial attacks on the French government, later they rolled over too easily in the face of a French charm offensive.

“The ADL, the AJC and AIPAC became the enthusiastic admirers and supporters of the French government,” the letter said, “We have tried in vain to explain to them that the French government is not innocent in the stirring up of anti-Israel feelings and must share in the responsibility, but we have been unable to either slow or stop the attitude from the other side of the Atlantic.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, called these claims “ugly, insulting, degrading and unwarranted.”

“If you ask somebody to do something and then they do it, the polite and the proper thing is to acknowledge that they’ve done so,” Foxman said.

France, he added, has “begun to take hold of the issue and the French government time and time again stands up to speak out against it.”

Both Foxman and Harris wondered why Besnainou’s letter was made public, and why he didn’t get in touch with them to discuss his concerns.

“It’s just another unfortunate example of Jews sniping at other Jews in public and ultimately doing more damage to the Jewish community than anything else. These days, we need that least of all,” Harris said.

An AIPAC spokesman declined to comment specifically on the letter.

“We have tremendous respect for the CRIF and the work they do to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Europe,” Josh Block said.

CRIF’s Cukierman, for his part, said that the letter simply represented Besnainou’s “perfectly valid” opinion.

“We have an excellent relationship with the Anti-Defamation League, with the American Jewish Committee, with the World Jewish Congress and with the Presidents Conference,” he told JTA by phone from Paris. But last month, Cukierman upbraided a Los Angeles philanthropist, who had claimed that European Jewish groups were responding too meekly to anti-Semitism.

The philanthropist, Newton Becker, had suggested that American groups should pick up the Europeans’ slack.

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