The message is crystal-clear.
Point one: French society is not more antisemitic than American society. Yes, there is anti-Jewish violence in France, but nearly all of it comes from socially estranged Arab youths, inflamed by the intifada. And in France, unlike America, no Jews have been killed or seriously wounded.
Point two: American Jewish groups should mind their own business and stop casting doubts on the ability of French Jewish leaders to be forceful and efficient advocates for Jews and for Israel.
Roger Cukierman, the senior leader of the French Jewish community, is a little irritated these days. He hears some of his American counterparts complaining that the communal umbrella group he has chaired since May 2001, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, or CRIF, is not vehement enough when it comes to taking on the French authorities over antisemitism and Israel.
The criticism is ironic, Cukierman told the Forward in a wide-ranging briefing in New York last week. “When people criticize me in France, it is because I am doing too much, not because I do too little, as some here are suggesting,” he said. “American Jewish organizations come to France and some interfere, and I don’t think they should.”
“If they want to help, they should go through us,” he said.
While he refused to spell out who was “interfering,” Cukierman was clearly referring to a campaign launched last year by the American Jewish Congress, calling for a boycott of the Cannes Film Festival and a halt to organized Jewish tours of France to protest against the tepid response from the French authorities to the wave of antisemitic incidents since the beginning of the intifada.
French and other American Jewish leaders called the initiative “counterproductive” at the time, and French government officials spoke of the campaign as “defamatory.”
Cukierman hinted that some American groups might be preparing to set up their own lobbies in France to finance political parties and candidates — something that he stressed was illegal under French campaign finance laws. He refused to elaborate.
Moreover, he added, efforts by American Jews to influence French politics have a potentially damaging effect, since many in France, as elsewhere in Europe, are already suspicious of an American Jewish lobby that they believe is influencing a deeply unpopular American foreign policy.
A former banker with the Rothschild Group, Cukierman is quick to mention his pro-Israeli credentials, noting that he is married to an Israeli and his son lives there. Moreover, he has risked ruffling feathers in the French media and officialdom by openly supporting the policies of Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon, who is widely reviled in France.
But Cukierman is careful to distinguish between France’s policies toward Israel and its attitudes toward Jews. “Since 1967, all the French governments have been against Israel,” he said. “[Foreign Minister Dominique de] Villepin’s language is slightly better, but when he has to choose between Arafat and Sharon, he chooses Arafat.”
Cukierman said his organization, CRIF, has actively been trying to score political points for Israel. He insisted the activism is beginning to have an impact, suggesting that French politicians were clearly on notice about the feelings of the Jewish community. He cited the strength of the France-Israel friendship group in Parliament — the largest of any parliamentary foreign-support group — and the large number of demonstrators in recent pro-Israeli marches and meetings.
On the hot topic of antisemitic incidents, Cukierman stressed that they are the work of a fringe section of the Muslim community, which outnumbers Jews 10-to-1. Moreover, he emphasized that they were directly linked to the Middle East and specifically to the outbreak of the intifada. He said that the rash of incidents that has plagued France started “exactly” in September 2000 and were clearly an effort to import the Middle East conflict into the Western European country with the largest Muslim and Jewish communities.
While he acknowledged that the antisemitic acts were cause for concern, he underscored that out of 530 antisemitic incidents registered in 2002 — 225 were tallied in the first six months of 2003 — there had been no deaths nor seriously wounded.
While many French officials try to sidestep the issue of Muslim involvement in antisemitic incidents, Cukierman was blunt. He contended that they were responsible for 95% to 98% of antisemitic incidents.
This is why “France is not more antisemitic than America,” he explained, despite the fact that most Muslims in France are French citizens.
This helps explain why Cukierman draws a line that may not appear self-evident to most American Jews.
He believes that it is misleading to draw a link between France’s traditional antisemitism — still vividly on display when Jean-Marie Le Pen won 16% of the vote in last year’s presidential ballot — and the recent antisemitic violence coming from Arab-Muslim quarters.
In fact, Le Pen supporters dislike the Muslim population and vice versa, meaning an alliance between them is all but impossible.
Cukierman repeated several times that Jews had deep historic roots in France and were well integrated there. He played down the record number of Jews who emigrated to Israel last year — 2,500 — as minimal, adding that he did not expect a mass exodus despite the fact that more and more Jews are discussing the issue.
Despite his upbeat take on the situation, Cukierman spoke harshly of the French left. He recalled that just after his election to the helm of CRIF, he publicly took then-prime minister Lionel Jospin to task at the CRIF annual dinner for his government’s lackadaisical response to the surge in antisemitic attacks following the outbreak of the intifada. In a speech, he recalled, he said some of the slogans heard in the streets reminded him of the dark days of World War II.
His salvo ignited a statistics dispute between CRIF and the Interior Ministry over the number of antisemitic acts.
After the Socialists lost the general election last year, the new conservative government, allied with President Jacques Chirac, took a much harder line on crime in general and antisemitic violence in particular.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has since become the darling of the Jewish community, symbolizing the shift to the right of many French Jews.
While he wouldn’t say so publicly, Cukierman, who has repeatedly denounced the new anti-Zionism-cum-antisemitism prevalent on the left, is clearly pleased with the development. He noted that at a recent pro-Israel manifestation, the crowd applauded right-wing ministers and whistled the top Socialist official.
He said CRIF was “extremely satisfied” with Sarkozy and expressed hope that he would have a bright political figure. Sarkozy is widely said to have his eyes set on the top French political positions, prime minister and eventually president.