In the latest incarnation of trans-Atlantic Jewish tensions, the leader of the French Jewish umbrella organization is blasting a rich Californian philanthropist for accusing European Jewish groups of offering only a tepid response to antisemitism.
The fight centers on a letter that Newton Becker, a Los Angeles-based supporter of several pro-Israeli organizations and initiatives, wrote to Steve Rosen, director of foreign policy issues with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In his letter, Becker argued that the situation for Jews was much better in the United States than in Europe because of the efforts of several pro-Israel groups, including Aipac and more hawkish American-based Jewish organizations.
“Without the help of these organizations, we, too, would be facing the same anti-Israelism and antisemitism that the European Jews face,” Becker wrote. “Hopefully future efforts by the Jewish community will reverse this trend.”
Becker’s letter drew a sharp reply from Roger Cukierman, chairman of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, known as CRIF.
“I praise your personal action in financing institutions of great value in the fight against Islamic fanaticism,” Cukierman wrote in a February 8 letter to Becker, of which a copy was obtained by the Forward. “It does not allow you to express your ignorance on what happens in Europe.”
Cukierman wrote that he was “shocked” and felt “personally insulted” by the suggestion that there “are almost no institutions in Europe countering the lies and exaggerations that pertain to anti-Israelism and/or antisemitism.”
Cukierman’s letter was sent to a diverse group of Jewish organizational officials and activists in the United States.
During the last few years, Rosen has been closely following several initiatives in Europe to set up pro-Israel lobbying groups, according to European Jewish activists involved in the efforts. His outspoken support for more vocal pro-Israel advocacy in Europe has raised some concern about heavy-handed American involvement on the old continent, the activists said on condition of anonymity.
Aipac has carefully avoided officially linking up with the different European advocacy groups that have appeared in recent years, opting instead to merely provide advice and some training. The American Jewish Congress has taken a more direct approach by openly funding a French Jewish group seen as more vocal than CRIF in its defense of Jewish interests.
Rosen did not respond to a request for comment. Aipac spokesman Josh Block said the organization “had great respect for CRIF and the work they do to fight antisemitism and support Israel.”
In the past, Cukierman has criticized AJCongress because of its frays into French issues. A CRIF official said he was not aware of any new initiative that would have prompted Cukierman’s angry letter and that he probably was reacting to the condescending tone of Becker’s letter.
In addition to his letter, Cukierman attached a detailed description of CRIF’s pivotal role in forcing the French government to ban the broadcasting of the Hezbollah-backed satellite TV station Al-Manar — a decision that eventually prompted American authorities to in turn ban the station on American soil.
On February 12, Cukierman harshly attacked France’s long-standing pro-Arab policy in the Middle East in front of the country’s prime minister at CRIF’s annual dinner. He pointed to Paris’s “grandiose” welcoming of ailing Yasser Arafat and the authorities’ flip-flopping on Al-Manar as revealing “an incompatibility between the foreign policy of France and the internal policy to fight against antisemitism.”
On Monday, French President Jacques Chirac rejected an Israeli request to add Hezbollah to the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations during a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, all but precluding that the European Union would initiate such a process at a meeting this week.
Cukierman could not be reached for comment. Neither could Becker, who was traveling abroad.
Becker has financed pro-Israel educational and advocacy programs through the private, L.A.-based Newton D. and Rochelle F. Becker Foundation, which had assets of $12.4 million in 2002.
According to its tax filings, since 1999, the foundation’s largest donations — by far — have been to The Middle East Media Research Institute. Known by its acronym, Memri, the institute is an Israeli-owned Arabic translation group that has blossomed in past years and been accused in some circles of harboring an anti-Arab bias. Donations for 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 totaled about $550,000. More recent figures were not available.
Becker also supports a grass-roots organization active on campuses, called StandWithUs, of which he is a board member along with David Suissa, a well-known West Coast advertising tycoon and publisher of Olam Magazine.
Both men were founders of a now-defunct group called “Jews for Truth Now” that placed pro-Israel ads in major newspapers several years ago.