Diplomat challenges U.S. Jewish views on France

Francois Zimeray, France’s ambassador-at-large for human rights, was in Los Angeles recently, and during a two-hour breakfast of croissants and assorted fruits, shared two observations:

First, though Israel has real enemies in the world, it also has a lot of friends, and not everybody wants to put down the Jewish state.

Second, while there are anti-Semites in France, France is not an anti-Semitic country.

Neither of these statements appears particularly controversial, but, he said, given the mail he regularly receives from American and other Jews, he is either blind or indifferent to the dangers facing both Jews and Israel.

Zimeray got an early start in politics. At 27, he became France’s youngest mayor at 27, and then a youthful member of the Chamber of Deputies on the Socialist Party ticket.

In 1999, he was elected to the European Parliament, where, to the annoyance of his party colleagues, he pushed for an investigation into how the Palestinian Authority spent the monies afforded it by the European Union.

Now 50 and looking like a casting director’s pick to portray a suave French career diplomat, Zimeray has been serving as his nation’s human rights envoy for seven years.

He travels constantly and covers a lot of bases. His jurisdiction includes general human rights, women’s rights, Holocaust issues and anti-Semitism, areas that are assigned to four different officials by the United States.

Before coming to the West Coast, Zimeray had spent considerable time in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), where the reigning junta seems to be easing its pressure on the political opposition.

A regular item on his agenda is the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and during regular visits to the Middle East, he tries to persuade both parties to “put yourself in the shoes of the other side,” admittedly a challenging political exercise.

Speaking personally, rather than as a government official, Zimeray said he believes most Israelis, regardless of ideology, hold three interconnected viewpoints: The world doesn’t understand us; the world doesn’t like us; and nothing we can do will change these attitudes.

Zimeray speculates that Israelis’ perceptions are rooted in a survivor mentality, believing they are on their own and cannot rely on outside friends.

Whatever the causes, and even granting some validity to Israel’s fears, Zimeray believes that such views are counter-productive and that the Jewish state indeed has more friends than it realizes.

If one of Zimeray’s jobs is to assure Israel that it does not stand alone and that France is fully committed to the Jewish state’s survival, another is to allay Arab suspicions of Israel.

One Paris-based program toward that end is the international Aladdin Project. Working through French embassies and consulates, Aladdin staffers translate and distribute in Arab countries the writings of such authors as Primo Levi and Anne Frank, invite Muslim religious leaders to visit
Auschwitz, and “counter the Arab perception that the Shoah didn’t happen,” Zimeray said.

The French diplomat attributes part of his concern for human rights to his Jewish family background. “We were not religious, but we were infused early on with the concept of tikkun olam” [healing the world] and were taught that “indifference is a crime without forgiveness,” he said.

Among the critical letters and e-mail Zimeray receives, anti-Semitism in France is perhaps even more of a cultural hot-button issue than the Middle East conflict.

Given the emotions surrounding this topic, Zimeray scheduled two days in Los Angeles on his way to a conference in San Francisco, specifically to talk to the Jewish media here.

Our conversation on this topic ranged from the century-old Alfred Dreyfus affair, in which a French-Jewish military officer was framed on a treason charge, to the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II, and to present-day France with its large Muslim immigrant population.

France, Zimeray said, has a Jewish population of some 600,000, which is about the same as metropolitan Los Angeles. While Zimeray acknowledged “anti-Semitism has not disappeared,” he added that this “is only part of the story.”

Not unlike changes in American society over the past half century, anti-Semitism no longer gets a free pass and is no longer accepted as the social norm in France, Zimeray argued.

“Anti-Semitism is condemned by our courts, our education on the Holocaust is exemplary, and society in general gives no indulgence to anti-Semitism,” the French diplomat said.

While anti-Jewish attacks by young Muslims are a reality, the majority of the Muslim community has two goals — integration into French society and peace in the Middle East, Zimeray noted.

On balance, he believes that “France is one of the less-anti-Semitic countries in the world,” and his conclusion is backed by Shimon Samuels, who heads the European Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Samuels, on a flight between Iraq and Moscow, e-mailed that compared to the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and even Germany, “anti-Semitic discourse is much lower in France.”

Nevertheless, Samuels noted the rise of anti-Jewish violence by “black African alienated youth” under Iranian influence, and boycott brigades trashing the kosher shelves of supermarkets.

There have also been a number of high-profile incidents, among them the 1980 bombing of the rue Copernic Reform synagogue in Paris, which killed four pedestrians. The killing led to the creation of the Jewish Community Protective Service by CRIF, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions.

The most notorious case since was the 2006 torture-murder of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew of Moroccan descent, by a self-styled “Gang of Barbarians.” The young thugs, mainly children of African Muslim immigrants, were motivated by both anti-Semitism and a hoped-for large ransom.

According to statistics by the Protective Service over the last decade, anti-Semitic incidents in France peaked in 2004, during the fighting in Gaza. During that year, there were 974 incidents. From this high, the figure has been dropping from year to year, reaching a low of 466 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. Of this number, 36 percent consisted of graffiti scrawlings, 24 percent of verbal threats or menacing behavior, 12 percent physical violence, and one homicide attempt.

Even with the decline, and factoring in different population sizes, the 2010 rate of anti-Semitic incidents in France was roughly double that of the United States.