Sarkozy and the Jews: Vive la Difference!

By Edward I. Koch & Rafael Medoff

The decision by the new French government to fire an official who slandered Israel contrasts sharply with the previous government’s refusal to act against a French diplomat who made an obscene remark about the Jewish State. Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy appears to be setting a new tone on matters involving Jews and Israel. Viva la difference!

Bruno Guigue, the Deputy Prefect of the southwestern French town of Saintes, was dismissed from his post last week after writing an online article describing Israel as “the only state where snipers shoot down little girls outside their school gates.” Guigue also mocked Judaism, writing of “Israeli jails where — thanks to religious law — they stop torturing on the Sabbath.”

Daniel Bernard was lucky that Nicolas Sarkozy was not president of France in December 2001. That’s when Bernard, then France’s ambassador to Great Britain, described Israel as “a sh–ty little country.” Then-president Jacques Chirac refused to fire him, and the French Foreign Ministry denounced criticism of Bernard as “malevolent insinuations.”

Violent anti-Semitism in France reached alarming levels in recent years, epitomized by the torture and murder of a young French Jew, Ilan Halimi, by an antisemitic Muslim gang near Paris in 2006. The tragedy was compounded by the initial refusal of the French authorities to acknowledge anti-Semitism as a motive for the attack, and by the fact that other residents of the apartment house where Halimi was held hostage for more than three weeks knew something was amiss but did not call the police. (New Yorkers will be reminded of the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was repeatedly assaulted and then stabbed to death outside her Queens apartment building in March 1964, while dozens of neighbors saw or heard some part of the attacks yet refused to act.)

There is no way of knowing whether anti-Israel statements by French officials contributed to the atmosphere that encouraged such assaults. But it sure didn’t help to have individuals of renown treating the Jewish State as a punching bag.

To make matters worse, some French officials buried their heads in the sand. At a speech in New York City in the autumn of 2006, the French ambassador to the United States claimed that anti-Semitic attacks in France had decreased by 48% during the previous year. In a series of letters to the ambassador, we cited substantial evidence to the contrary. Eventually, he conceded (privately) that he had been using outdated figures. The decrease had been 3%, not 48%, the ambassador reluctantly admitted. In fact, even that lower figure was inaccurate; by every indication, there had been an increase, not a decrease. An Israeli government report documented a 20% rise.

Those statistics are important. Decisions on allocating time and resources to fighting anti-Semitism, like other governmental budgetary decisions, are made on the basis of the government’s perception of the problem. If French officials really believe that anti-Semitism dropped by 48 percent, why should their government commit the resources necessary to effectively fight it?

Last year’s election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism, gave French Jewry reason for hope that things would change. Not only because of his pro-Israel views and his own partly-Jewish heritage, but because as Interior Minister, Sarkozy personally visited the Marais neighborhood of Paris in 2006 after threats were made against Jewish residents, and ordered an increase in police patrols of the area.

Nobody expected Sarkozy’s election to change things overnight. The French Jewish community still has plenty of reason for concern. Just a few weeks ago, anti-Semitic hoodlums in Bagneux –the same Paris suburb where Ilan Halimi was murdered– kidnapped and tortured another young Jewish man, Mathieu Roumi. Moreover, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last month that Orthodox Jewish men in France routinely cover their yarmulkes with baseball caps, Jewish women often tuck away their Star of David necklaces before they leave home, and many Jewish parents have withdrawn their children from public schools. The number of French Jews immigrating to Israel each year has tripled since 2000.

Yet President Sarkozy appears to be trying to change the atmosphere. His recent Holocaust education proposal sought to introduce the reality of the Nazi genocide to French fifth-graders by requiring each of them to learn in depth about one French Jewish child who was murdered by the Nazis. Although the plan has been modified by the French Education Ministry, it will still help sensitize French children to what happened to their country’s Jews.

The Holocaust education plan, coupled with Sarkozy’s generally pro-Israel rhetoric and his upcoming visit to Israel for its sixtieth birthday, can go a long way towards changing French public attitudes toward Jews and Israel.

(As published in the New York Jewish Week – April 4, 2008)

April 2008