Commentary Magazine


Fighting Back in France

When Roger Cukierman returned to holding the presidency of CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France)—the umbrella group of French Jewish organizations and the pre-eminent voice of that community in Paris—in 2013, pieces began appearing in the press criticizing Cukierman’s leadership of French Jewry. Cukierman was painted by some as being weak in the face of rampant French anti-Semitism and of essentially advocating a policy of appeasement. One piece from January that appeared in Tablet claimed that Cuckierman’s strategy for combating anti-Semitism in France consisted of having the French Jewish community distance itself from Israel (so that Jewish institutions wouldn’t simply be viewed as an annex of the Israeli embassy). Another piece accused Cukierman of claiming that the Quenelle gesture—the inverted Nazi salute—isn’t always anti-Semitic, another argued that France’s aging Jewish leadership is out of touch with younger generations—a common, if mindless, complaint heard the world over.

So when I met with Cukierman (who is also vice president of the World Jewish Congress) I was surprised to find someone whose outlook broke with the above representation in just about every way. When I questioned Cukierman about the relationship between Israel and anti-Semitism in France he responded quite emphatically, “It’s not true that anti-Semitism is the result of Israeli policy,” insisting that this is the same anti-Semitism that has existed since long before the creation of the State of Israel. Pushing the matter further, I wondered what CRIF’s president thought of the notion that Diaspora Jews should be seen to be more critical of Israel; after all, it’s an idea that’s gaining traction both among some Jewish leaders in Europe and with certain liberal Jewish groups in America. Again, Cukierman was unequivocal, “the Israeli citizen is the one who is risking his skin … it would be outrageous to tell the Israelis what they should do for their own security … I consider it their risk, and their choice, and their life.” So no mistaking his position on that matter.

If Cukierman does not consider anti-Israel sentiments to be at the root of France’s alarming upsurge in anti-Semitism, then how is it to be explained? Cukierman suggests that there are three separate sources of hostility to Jews in France; the far-right, the far-left and radical Islam. Others from his office suggested also the role of economic hardships and post-colonial guilt. Still, these factors are certainly at play in other European countries, but it is France that seems to be considered one of the most troubled locations on the map of global anti-Semitism. Could it be less a matter of the combustible concoction of all these factors and more the fact that France has each factor in greater abundance than anywhere else? Perhaps in France, after a fraught flight from North Africa, post-colonial feeling is particularly intense; perhaps France’s Muslim population is larger and less assimilated than in other places; perhaps the left is particularly dominant in Franc; or perhaps the right has some particularly charismatic leaders in the form of the le Pens.

When I asked Cukierman and his delegation what they thought was unique about the situation in France, their suggestion was Diuedonne, the inflammatory comedian who has popularized the Quenelle and, as Cukierman explained, united disparate elements on the various fringes. It wouldn’t be the first time that a rabble rousing orator directed the mob against the Jews, but for that to happen, there has to at least be a rousable mob to be directed in the first place. Cukierman concedes that efforts by the French government to censor Diuedonne may have perversely caused some in the mainstream to become more sympathetic to him. Yet it would seem that Cukierman still favors this kind of intervention by the government to deny Diuedonne a platform, as he explains, when Jewish schools are being attacked and when it’s not safe to appear identifiably Jewish on the Paris metro, it’s not so easy to just sit back.

Cukierman praises the efforts of the French government to try and protect the Jews and stamp out anti-Semitism. The current French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been particularly supportive, even having asserted that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same. For their part the Jewish leadership in France has been spearheading its own campaign. Cukierman is eager to tell me about their inter-communal initiative to have religious, political, and Trade Union leaders come out and publicly sign their names to a declaration calling for greater tolerance. One hopes it works. Presumably Cukierman understands his country and community better than we do.

With so many Jews now leaving France or expressing an interest in doing so, surely the leadership must be worried. But Cukierman explains that the flight is being driven more by economics than anti-Semitism, since it’s not only the Jews that are trying to leave. And to all those who think the Jewish sojourn in France is coming to an end Cukierman had this to say: “There have been Jews in France for 2,000 years, we’ve gone through many dramas including the Shoah and still there are Jews in France and Europe … And I’m not sure the future of the Jews in America will be eternal.”

Jewish life in France may yet continue for some time; it remains the world’s second-largest diaspora community. However, Cukierman laments that French Jewish life has become increasingly ghettoized. Ah, so then at least intermarriage must be down? Alas, the delegation reports that intermarriage in France is flourishing like never before. 

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