It cannot be easy being a Jewish leader in France. Aliyah is soaring alongside unemployment, and with comedian Dieudonné’s Nazi-style quenelle salute making international headlines, there is a sense that anti-Jewish feeling is on the rise again.
It is therefore unfortunate that Roger Cukierman, the president of the Crif — the French equivalent of the Board of Deputies — has played right into the hands of antisemites.
A few weeks ago, just days before the glitzy reception to celebrate the Crif’s 70th anniversary held by President Hollande at the Elysée Palace, Mr Cukierman, newly elected president of the Crif, announced to a select group of journalists that the umbrella body should no longer be seen as “an annexe to the Israeli embassy”.
He wanted to put an end to the impression that the Crif is “a closed institution of fascist Zionists, unconditional defenders of the State of Israel”. Apparently, by playing down Zionism, Mr Cukierman hoped that the Crif will be more effective in the domestic fight against antisemitism.
But it is hard to avoid the feeling that an expression like “fascist Zionists” feeds those who can’t resist the idea of a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy.
When asked about his comments, Mr Cukierman emphasised his unconditional support of Israel. He said: “We have much more serious problems to deal with at the moment than a deformation of my words at a lunch two months ago. Antisemitism in France has reached a dramatic pitch and that’s why we have to focus on that.”
The problem is that his phraseology is already being utilised by Jew-haters. Type “Roger Cukierman” into Google and the fifth result takes you to his words on the website of the “intellectual” antisemite Alain Soral, complete with hate-filled comments.
More depressing is to read the comments beneath Le Monde’s article about Mr Cukierman’s announcement. Not one expresses support for the Crif president, and a large number express some kind of negative sentiment about Jews or Israel.
As Paris-based journalist Nidra Poller says, however well-intentioned it was, Mr Cukierman’s speech came across as a an “endorsement of a hostile image projected onto the Crif”.
A brief and highly unscientific poll of French Jewish acquaintances reveals a perhaps unsurprising cynicism. “It won’t really change anything. Bibi isn’t going to stop exploiting the Crif as a lobby for his policies,” says one. Ms Poller is more generous. “Some detractors just pronounce the acronym ‘Crif’ with such venom they don’t need to add any details. Richard Prasquier, who was president from 2007 to last spring, showed that it is possible to speak out forcefully on the thorniest issues and unapologetically defend Israel without losing access to the media or the government. I think that Roger Cukierman has the best interests of the community at heart and will let himself be swept in the right direction by its proud Zionism.”
The Dieudonné scandal will keep Mr Cukierman busy in the coming weeks; we must wait and see how he plays it when tensions rise again in the Middle East. As he himself said in December, in today’s polite society, “anti-Zionism is the elegant way to be antisemitic”. He may end up being reminded that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are rather too entangled to be easily distinguished as a matter of policy.
Natasha Lehrer is a journalist and author based