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Sharon, France and the Jews

As if they had nothing better to do, the good people of France managed to work themselves into a lather this week over an insult to French honor by Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon, who had the temerity to suggest that French Jews should run for their lives.

Sharon must have thought he was offering harmless platitudes in his Sunday remarks in Jerusalem to a visiting delegation of America’s United Jewish Communities. Asked how French Jews should respond to the alarming rise of antisemitism in their country, Sharon offered the advice every Israeli leader seems compelled to offer to Diaspora Jews: Move to Israel. Given the “wildest antisemitism” in France, Sharon said with some hyperbole, “If I have to advise our brothers in France, I’ll tell them one thing — move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there, I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”

Sharon was giving voice to a tired notion of Zionist ingathering that should have been retired long ago, if Israelis thought about it seriously enough to reexamine it. Jews continue to live and prosper in nations around the world, and so they will continue to do. Their sense of safety goes up and down, but then, so does Israel’s.

Sharon may have expected his nostrums would go unnoticed, but they stirred up a whirlwind. The mass circulation Paris daily Le Figaro reported them the next day in a front-page headline, trumpeting “Sharon’s affront to France.” The speaker of France’s National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debre, said the remarks were “a travesty of reality and express hostility toward our country.” The presidential palace let it be known that talk of an upcoming visit by Sharon was off, at least for now.

Even leaders of the French Jewish community voiced alarm, worrying, as a former president of B’nai B’rith France told JTA, that Sharon’s remarks could have the effect of “cutting ourselves off even more from the general community.” Another local leader, the head of France’s International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, said it “would have been better for Mr. Sharon to keep quiet.”

That’s probably good advice for everyone in this sorry affair. The French Jewish community, the world’s third largest, is caught in a painful vise, and it’s largely the result of the dismal state of relations between France, where they are deeply rooted, and Israel, to which they’re tied by deep bonds of faith and kinship. Anything that aggravates relations hurts the community’s cause.

It’s an exaggeration to suggest that France’s Jews are facing a wave of terror, as some folks here and in Israel seem to think. Acts of antisemitic violence — vandalism, assault and harassment — have risen alarmingly in recent months, according to government figures, totaling 510 in the first half of 2004 (135 physical attacks, 375 verbal ones). That’s more than double the 588 recorded in all of 2003. (The comparable figure in the United States in 2003 was 1,557, or roughly triple the number of attacks in a nation four times the size.)

Most of the physical attacks appear to be the work of disgruntled Muslim youths acting on a combination of political-religious rage, boredom and old-fashioned bigotry. But they’re becoming increasingly violent in nature.

To its credit, the Chirac government has taken dramatic steps in the past year to fight antisemitism through better law enforcement, education and public relations, with President Chirac himself leading the way. Unfortunately, Chirac and his colleagues seem to think they can promote better relations between Jews and their neighbors while carrying on a continuous drumbeat of venomous hostility toward Israel . Logically, perhaps, there should be no connection between attitudes toward Israel and attitudes toward Jews. But the passions of the street don’t follow logic.

France is famous for its exaggerated sense of dignity. Like Israel’s Zionist nostrums, France’s tantrums can occasionally be forgiven as an eccentricity. Right now, though, some hard-thinking is needed. Rather than waxing indignant over a loose remark in Jerusalem, France should examine its own actions.

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