The endemic antisemitism of the French has been a staple of modern Jewish public discourse and sober analysis for nearly as long as there has been modern Jewish public discourse. It’s commonly viewed as a continuum stretching back at least to the Dreyfus Affair, more than a century ago, and continuing right on up to the present day — straight through the reigns of such notorious prime ministers as Leon Blum, Rene Mayer, Pierre Mendes-France, Michel Debre and Laurent Fabius (*). Things have gotten so bad that in July 2004 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon openly called on French Jews to move to Israel, where they could be safe from anti-Jewish violence. This caused an international uproar
Well, the latest to navigate those treacherous narrows is Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He visited Paris right after leaving Washington last week for a meeting with his new BFF, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, only to get an earful about Israel’s “vanished” desire for peace from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (pronounced KUSH-ner). Netanyahu took this as a personal slight, which it probably was, and before you could say Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli national security adviser Uzi Arad phoned up his French counterpart Jean-David Levitte and asked him to intervene with Sarkozy to clean up Kouchner’s mess. Not surprisingly for a European leftist, Kouchner has a reputation on Israel-related matters. Still, the dust-up had to be handled delicately: Kouchner is an internationally renowned human rights activist who famously attributes his commitment to the fact that his paternal grandparents were killed in Auschwitz, and Netanyahu, like any smart politician, wants to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities over the Holocaust.
But the bitter taste must linger. After all, imagine the humiliation suffered by Jean-David Levitte. Since time immemorial, it’s always been the Levite who gets called in to clean up the mess left by some Jew who outranks him. Why is it, Levitte must be thinking, that whenever Jews get together, my tribe is called up second? How gauling.
(*) The only country that has elected more Jewish prime ministers than France (did you count the same five I did?) is Israel, now at 12.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).