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Upset with Jewish Umbrella in France, French Group Links Up with Ajcongress

November 2, 2004
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A recent Paris conference on anti-Semitism drew senior French politicians and even one government minister — but the star of the show was the visitor who crossed the Atlantic especially for the occasion. Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, was in the French capital for meetings with government officials but also to cement a cooperation deal signed earlier this year between the AJCongress and the Union of French Jewish Employers and Professionals.

Under the agreement, the AJCongress is to provide logistical and financial aid to the union, a group that sees itself as the prototype for a Jewish lobbying organization in France.

Rosen spoke at a well-attended union seminar on anti-Semitism on Oct. 24, shortly after an AJCongress delegation had been taken to see local victims of anti-Jewish attacks by a union-sponsored group, the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism.

Like the union, the bureau believes that French Jewry’s traditional leadership has been too soft in its reaction to the recent wave of anti-Semitism in France.

The AJCongress called for a boycott of the Cannes film festival in 2002 and relations between the congress and the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews are noticeably cool.

Rosen said he doesn’t regret AJCongress’ aggressive campaign against anti-Semitism in France, and was happy to claim credit for what he regards as a new aggressiveness by French Jewish leaders since 2002.

“We hit a hot button. CRIF wasn’t paying attention before. Now, it finally has. We helped them come around to that,” he said.

CRIF President Roger Cukierman has refrained from making public statements about AJCongress, though he has referred to them in the past as “not the most important American Jewish organization.”

CRIF’s relations with the American Jewish Committee are considerably warmer, and CRIF officials invariably are present when AJCommittee leaders meet French government ministers.

Rosen and Cukierman spoke briefly by telephone during the AJCongress visit, but the AJCongress delegation did not meet with CRIF leaders.

The union’s vice president, Claude Barouch, denies that the group has become a kind of official opposition to French Jewry’s main communal groups. But he told JTA that “it’s difficult to change things when the Jewish community is controlled by just three institutions,” a reference to CRIF, the United Jewish Social Funds and the Consistoire religious organization.

Barouch is less keen about calling his organization a “lobby,” a term with pejorative connotations in France and in much of Europe. Nevertheless, he told JTA that “our role is to get things moving.”

“We’re a pressure group. We want Jews involved in the political process. There’s nothing unacceptable about that,” he said.

For his part, Rosen said he was happy to give the union the benefit of U.S. Jewish groups’ experience.

The links between the two groups created a recent storm in the French Jewish press, with a report in France’s only national Jewish weekly, Actualite Juive, alleging that the union would use some $400,000 in AJCongress money to fund political campaigns and back candidates.

That drew a strong reaction, with the union’s president, Herve Gaoui, denying any intention to fund candidates and denying that the AJCongress had given the union so much money.

Considering that many French Jewish communal organizations suffer from underfunding, the $400,000 figure has proven embarrassing to the union. Union officials have said they received something like $70,000, which Barouch said would be used for “training, preparation and logistics.”

Rosen told JTA the figure was “substantially more” than $70,000. JTA has learned that the $70,000 figure appears to be just a first payment, with total funding likely to reach the levels suggested in the French press reports.

AJCongress officials say the agreement contains “a firewall” preventing the money from being used for political campaigning, though they acknowledge it will be difficult “to account for where every cent goes.”

In any case, Rosen’s influence on the French scene may transcend the money his group gives: He’s in the unusual situation of being courted by French officials who believe from their diplomatic reports from Washington that President Bush is likely to be re-elected, and one French official described Rosen as “the closest Jew to Bush.”

That helped him arrange long meetings with senior government ministers, something denied to AJCongress leaders on previous visits. Union officials also were present at the meetings.

Some Jewish observers in France believe more should be done to increase Jewish influence in the centers of European power in Paris and Brussels.

But Michel Zerbib, a popular talk show host and political commentator on French Jewish radio, said the concept of a Jewish lobby in France was “badly regarded.”

The union is “getting involved in serious issues,” he said, “but screaming out ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ and calling for a Jewish lobby is not the way to go in front of non-Jewish audiences.”

While the union essentially is a French organization, the group is becoming increasingly active on a European level. During the Congress visit, Rosen and union heads met E.U. legislators in Strasbourg.

The European links also appeared to be a riposte to recent criticism from the Israeli embassy in Paris about U.S.-sponsored lobbying activities in France and the European Union. The criticism included a letter from Israel’s ambassador in Paris, Nissim Zvilli, to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, complaining about U.S.-backed lobbying work in Europe.

One AJCongress official said the union had “improved” in the past year but, if it wanted to become a successful lobbying group, it would have to learn to back candidates from both sides of the political spectrum. That would mark a change for the union, which until now has been considered close to conservative candidates from President Jacques Chirac’s United Popular Movement.

One of the union’s founding members, Nicole Guedj, is now a government minister, though Guedj was jeered at the anti-Semitism seminar when she defended the government’s record.

In recent regional and European parliamentary elections in France, the union encouraged Jewish voters to punish the Socialist Party — the principal opposition party — for the allegedly anti-Israel positions of some of its supporters.

The Socialists polled well nationally in both votes but had less success in the Paris region, which some have ascribed to a lack of Jewish support.

Barouch said the union was open to backing left-wing candidates if they were seen to be in line with the community’s interests. Still, the perception of a political imbalance in the union’s lobbying activities is accentuated by its links with the AJCongress and by Rosen’s strong financial support for the Bush re-election campaign.

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