France Honors Quiet Diplomacy of Rabbi

Quiet diplomacy rarely makes headlines, but one example of the art received public recognition this month when France bestowed one of its highest honors on Rabbi Gary Greenebaum.

In conferring the National Order of Merit, France’s second highest civilian award, on the Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the French ambassador to the United States praised Greenebaum as “a man of dialogue.”

Greenebaum earned the compliment for his below-the-radar efforts over the past five years, at a time when attacks on French Jews and synagogues kept escalating and were met with seeming indifference by the government in Paris. The most infamous recent incident was the kidnapping, torture and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, who died in February.

In the wake of anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes, outraged American Jewish organizations have issued the usual protests and denunciations, but Greenebaum took a quieter approach, characteristic of his organization.

The AJC, which was founded 100 years ago in response to pogroms in czarist Russia, considers foreign relations its special niche, earning it the unofficial title of “State Department of the Jewish People.”

Long before the Halimi incident, “I started meeting frequently with the then-French consul general in Los Angeles, Jean-Luc Sibiude,” recalled Greenebaum in an interview. “The official French line at the time was that the attacks were the work of a few thugs, who just happened to beat up Jews, and that there was no anti-Semitism in France.”

Over a number of “forthright but positive” sessions, Greenebaum politely asserted that France needed to face up to its home-grown anti-Semitism.

Greenebaum thinks he made progress, he said, but “we did it quietly, without grandstanding. We always kept in mind that France has the largest Jewish community in Europe, and the third largest in the world, and that what counted was the long-range relationship.”

Sibiude apparently was impressed, and three years ago, he told Greenebaum that he wanted to nominate him for the Order of Merit.

Last year, when new Consul General Phillippe Larrieu took over, the relationship with Greenebaum continued. A few weeks ago, the French diplomat informed the AJC director that the award had been approved by the French president and invited him to a reception at his residence.

At the April 2 event, 150 invited guests from the local French, Jewish and interfaith communities applauded as French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte inducted Greenebaum as an officer in the French National Order of Merit. In making the presentation, Levitte referred to Greenebaum as “a man of dialogue” and praised him for strengthening pluralism around the world.

In accepting the honor, Greenebaum cited the long history of Jews in France. He also referred to a number of recent anti-Semitic incidents in France, saying that the country is presently “caught in a period of cultural upheaval” but predicted that “long-term, France will overcome its difficulties.”

As a special fillip to the occasion, the ambassador, who is Jewish, recalled that his own father had worked for the AJC in Paris for more than 30 years.

The Order of Merit was established by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963 to recognize “distinguished merit” and is rarely bestowed on foreigners.

Greenebaum savored the occasion, but it was back to work the following day.

“There are 34 other foreign consulates in Los Angeles with which we have to stay in touch,” he said.