Ariel Sharon vs. France

“Did the Israeli prime minister expect such a barrage [of criticism]? Did he even desire it?” Those were the questions posed by reporter Eric Favereau leading off coverage in the French left-of-center newspaper Libération yesterday of remarks by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday, in which he called upon French Jews to move “immediately” to Israel to escape “unfettered anti-semitism” which is allegedly spreading in that country. (The lead article is [French foreign minister Michel] Barnier Harshly Criticizes Sharon’s Invitation to the Jews of France, although the verb that article-title actually uses translates to fustigate, perhaps an interesting addition to the vocabulary of us all.) But by making such remarks (in English, and in front of a delegation of American Jewish leaders visiting Israel, as it turned out), Sharon only managed to offend not only the French state, but Jewish organizations there. From the French foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman: “We have immediately made contact with Israeli authorities to ask for an explanation on the subject of these unacceptable remarks.” And from Richard Prasquier, executive board member of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (French acronym: CRIF): “We can’t accept this type of discourse. We all know that the situation of Jews in France is difficult. . . . [The Jewish community] knows that the [French] political class is doing everything to fight against this anti-semitism. But pouring oil on the fire this way is not acceptable.”

Coverage by Pierre Prier in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro (France Is Waiting For Explanations from Israel) provides some more background to the controversy. In fact, relations between Israel and France have been strained for some time, one important reason being French support for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians – as embodied lately in the visit foreign minister Barnier paid to Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah last June 29, which the Israeli government called a “grave error.” But as long ago as January, 2002, Prier recalls, Israeli vice-minister for foreign affairs Michael Melchior had characterized France as “the worst Western state” when it came to fighting anti-semitism. The Jewish Agency – the organization charged with encouraging and assisting emigration to Israel – even back then listed France as a country in which Jews were threatened, and enjoyed financial support from the Israeli government of $9,000 per emigrant from France, to assist in the move and the emigrant’s transition to the new society.


The ultimate objective of this money and these organizations is, in Ariel Sharon’s formulation, to attract “a million Jews” to Israel in the near future. But that is hardly happening from France. Out of an estimated French Jewish population of 600,000, only a bit over 2,000 emigrate to Israel each year, and in fact those numbers dipped a bit in 2003 from a peak in 2002. (It’s true that French immigration to Israel in the 1980s and 90s was more like 1,000 per year; but comparing any of these numbers to that 600,000 total figure should restore some perspective.) What’s more, many of these emigrants find their way back to France after a few months, or maybe a few years, out of disillusion of one sort of another over what they find in Israel. Furthermore, it seems that most that do emigrate do so for ideological reasons – to deepen their religion, to help build the Jewish state further – and so not out of any conviction that life back in France has become too unsafe. (Prier includes a piquant quote from one such emigrant: “We’re not a bunch of milk-sops [in French poules mouillées, or “wimps” in American parlance]. The only country where one risks being killed from being Jewish is right here, in Israel.”)

Why does Sharon want to attract those “million Jews,” anyway? In Prier’s analysis, there’s really no other choice for the Jewish state for preserving its “Jewishness,” if it is to succeed in resisting the demographic pressures arising from the Arabs within its midst breeding much more prolifically than the Jews. There are no more Jews to be attracted from Russia; that wave is done. And American Jews are rather hard to convince to pull up their stakes there and move to Israel, for reasons that should not require too much thought. According to Prier, the two big Jewish “reservoirs” left in the world are precisely those 600,000 in France and the 200,000 in Argentina. We’ve seen the limited success Israel has had in attracting the former, so perhaps at first glance Sharon’s comments can be interpreted as touristic promotion of a rather crude sort.


But they go rather beyond that, of course, and the editorial on this issue in Le Monde (Sharon and France) explores several further angles. Like how about the French-Israeli-American triangle: the editorial calls it “not completely due to chance” that Sharon made these remarks in front of an American audience, for both Israel and American Jewish organizations have tried since September 11, 2001, to use various anti-semitic incidents in France to paint that country as one where Jews cannot feel safe. This is a false depiction, since the French state has taken vigorous measures to act against anti-semites, measures that even Sharon acknowledged in those same remarks of last Sunday that touched off the entire controversy. But it seems no one really cares to give France its due; Franco-American relations have worsened in the meantime (although with many other causes, as we know), and in Israel recent polls show that 57% of the inhabitants have a dislike for France.

What was Sharon really trying to gain by saying what he said?, the Le Monde editors ask. Was it really an acceleration of French emigration to Israel? If so, then the vehement negative reactions to his remarks from French Jewish organizations show that he will have failed in this. No, it’s more likely that Sharon wants to sharpen hostility against France in order to hold her, and Europe in general, as far outside of the Middle East peace process (whatever is left of it, anyway) as possible. Far better to proceed alone against the Palestinians (themselves suffering lately from grievous internal strife and disorganization) with the Americans, who have shown themselves refreshingly willing to write blank policy cheques for the Israeli leadership to fill in.

Charles Lambroschini, writing in Le Figaro (Sharon Two Times Unworthy) takes this argument of unjustified hostility towards France and extends it further. Ariel Sharon has acted not once but twice in an unworthy manner with his remarks (as in the article’s title), Lambroschini writes, because 1) France is not anti-semite, and 2) Sharon knows this very well. Rather, the Jewish community in France has deep and solid roots; although various ugly and regrettable incidents against Jews have occurred, ultimately any anti-semitism in France is marginal at best. The country has even finally come to terms with its shameful record towards the Jews during the Second World War, under the Pétain regime – and anyway, Lambroschini claims, three-quarters of French Jews survived that war and the Nazi depredations. No, Sharon attacks France because France defends Yasser Arafat.


The French Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité has not yet posted an article about this controversy – it does usually seem rather slow on the up-take; it must be a weekly – but nonetheless does contribute to the above discussion with an article The Day When France Committed the Irretrievable, about the Vel d’Hiv round-up of Jews in Paris of 62 years ago, in July of 1942. Vel d’Hiv is short for Vélodrome d’Hiver, or “Bicycle-Racing Stadium ‘Winter’,” located near the Eiffel Tower (but torn down long ago), where more than 8,000 Jews were temporarily interned on 16-17 July 1942, rather in the manner that Pinochet in Chile imprisoned his opponents in soccer stadiums during his 1973 coup d’état. These were the largest part of some 12,884 Jews (lots of women and children, it seems) from Paris and the surrounding area rounded up by French authorities, by order of the Nazi occupying authority, preliminary of course to taking that train ride east to Poland to be gassed and cremated. Now 16 July is used every year to commemorate the French racist and anti-semitic crimes of the Second World War – but only since 1993, when a decree from then-President Francois Mitterand initiated the ceremony. Better late than never, one supposes; but that yearly commemoration – attended at the Vel d’Hiv memorial this year by many dignitaries, including six government ministers led by foreign minister Barnier – does suggest that France has come to terms with its anti-semitic demons. Indeed, perhaps the enormous brou-ha-ha that has resulted from Sharon’s remarks is largely attributable to his rather poor timing. His urgent “Jews, come to France!” comments came not only shortly after the Val d’Hiv commemorations, but also after a disgraceful incident in which a French woman alleged herself to have been attacked by several Moslim youths who thought she was Jewish – who overturned the carriage her baby was in and scrawled swastikas on her stomach – only to confess a few days later that she had made the whole story up.

Moving on, the Nouvel Observateur sheds valuable light at the bewilderment and displeasure at Sharon’s remarks among Jewish officials in France, at least, with an interview with Yonathan Arfi, President of the French Jewish Students Union (“We Are Far From Having to Flee”). Arfi makes it clear that Israel does not represent Jews in France; rather, Jewish French organizations represent Jews in France. Interestingly, he deplores Sharon’s remarks for their alarmist effect in heightening the concern that Jews around the world have for the safety of their religious compatriots in France – a concern that French Jews themselves, crucially, do not share. Yes, it’s true that anti-semitic incidents happen there, but French Jews have “opted for mobilization at the very heart of French society [against anti-semitism],” knowing that they can count on the support of that society and its state apparatus.

In other words, Arfi claims that the situation for Jews in France is by no means as perilous as many would make it out to be – the French Jews themselves are confident they can handle it, with the support the rest of French society is willing to provide. In this light, Sharon’s accusations merely reflect on the one hand ignorance, on the other crude “games between states.” He also adds the interesting comment that a full half of the 2,000-or-so yearly French emigrants to Israel wind up returning to France within months, or a few years at most.


Letting that all be as it may . . . before I sign off with this entry I feel obliged to mention one final article, written by Silke Koltrowitz and Sandra Buisson for Le Figaro (“Anti-Semitic Violence Does Exist”). These two went for some “wo/man-on-the-street” interviews among Jews living in Paris, and uniformly found among their subjects opinions hewing more closely to Ariel Sharon’s contention that France was becoming a dangerous place to be a Jew, rather than those of the various French Jewish organizations that everything is under control. Says a certain Sylvain, who has already decided to move to Israel: “I find that it is becoming more and more difficult to be Jewish in France at this moment. Go walk on the Champs-Élysées in the evening around 10:00 PM wearing a Star of David and you’ll see what I mean.” Adds Élie, a nineteen-year-old who reports being insulted three times a day, and has had a Jewish friend assaulted, “Everyone thinks like Sharon, but no one dares to speak.” Are these mere anecdotes, or something more representative and meaningful?

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