Daniel Shek, a career diplomat who is the Israeli ambassador to France, stood before a highbrow audience assembled in New York’s elegant French Consulate on October 28 and diagnosed the complicated relationship that now defines his professional life. We don’t need historians or political scientists to describe the dynamic between Israel and Europe, he said. “This relationship goes way beyond rational analysis,” he offered. “We need a psychiatrist.”
And with that, the audience, surprisingly, laughed.
Given Europe’s problematic past with its Jews, and more recent, heated disputes over politics, human rights and security in the volatile Middle East, the humorous observation and the gentle laughter that greeted it was sign enough of a warming trend. So was the very fact that the consuls general of both nations hosted this event. Technically, it was in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday, and France’s presidency of the European Union. But you could tell that it was really to show how these sometime-adversaries are making nice.
As moderator of the discussion between the erudite Shek and his equally accomplished counterpart from the French Foreign Ministry, Pierre Levy, I was struck by the extent to which political and diplomatic disagreements no longer drive the entire narrative. They still exist, to be sure, but trade, tourism and a growing cultural exchange are breaking down the historic antipathies.
In America, we are often told that the French are no friends of Israel, and that antisemitism is rampant. But such generalizations mask a more complicated reality. Shek described reading about the six current films recommended by Paris’s top critics and discovering that half were Israeli. It may be that political opinion lags behind popular tastes, and that Americans, too, need to rethink their relationships.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.