Tag Archives: France

Strauss-Kahn—Still Bad For The Jews?

By Theodore Samets

The idea that France was set to have a Jewish president before the United States sounded weird, anyway.

Of course, some might argue that the current holder of the office, Nicolas Sarkozy, is himself Jewish; his son even married a nice Jewish girl a few years ago.

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn has turned out to be too good to be true. Strauss-Kahn, as anyone who has ventured out in public in the past three months knows, was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and front-runner for the French presidency until he allegedly attempted to rape a housekeeper in his New York Sofitel hotel suite.

The Manhattan district attorney’s allegations against DSK were splashed across the cover of every newspaper in New York. His bail was set at $6 million. As New York magazine puts it this week in their fascinating look at DSK’s wife, the billionaire Jewish heiress Anne Sinclair:

[Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair] remained silent as initial reports, almost certainly leaked by the prosecuting attorneys, came out about the victim: She was a widow, a single mother, a devout Muslim and daughter of an imam, an illiterate victim of genital mutilation who’d grown up in a mud hut—she might even wear a head scarf! Soon, Strauss-Kahn was led up to the guillotine during his court appearances; hundreds of maids from measly countries around the world, their ill-fitting dark dresses cinched with frilly white belts, gathered to raise fists and chant: “Shame on you! Shame on you!” New Yorkers agreed that they had never seen a more guilty man than the “Horny Toad,” the “IMF Pig.”

Yet now the case is in doubt, mired by the alleged victim’s admission that she lied about a past rape and after an audio tape of a conversation she had with her boyfriend about how to exploit the situation came to light. Why was the boyfriend’s phone call taped? Because he is in prison, serving time for trying to trade counterfeit clothing for 400 pounds of pot.

Strauss-Kahn’s accuser still claims her allegation against the man who was supposed to be the president of France is true, yet it has become hard even for the prosecutors to believe her, according to a July story in the New York Times.

Whatever the final result, it is improbable that DSK will ever end up as president of France. Yet the newest look at his wife and the couple’s response to the allegations give the best opportunity to ask: How bad is this for the Jews?

From Israel’s standpoint, probably not that bad. Sarkozy has been rather pro-Israel and it’s hard to imagine that DSK would have done more for Israel than the current government, even if the New York story does remind us of just how strongly Strauss-Kahn identifies with his Jewish lineage:

His father dropped the “Kahn” from his name later in life and never bestowed it upon Strauss-Kahn, who took it in his twenties. “In my youth, I was called Strauss, like my father,” he has said. “But starting in the seventies, I changed to Strauss-Kahn. It was a way of demonstrating my attachment to my grandfather and also affirming my Jewish identity, which had been awakened by the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War.”

What about for Sinclair? It seems that her fall from power may be the greatest loss for France’s dwindling, though still sizable, Jewish community. New York reminds us that, as the granddaughter of Picasso’s art dealer, she is “an extraordinarily wealthy art-world heiress and a pillar of European Jewish society.” Furthermore, “she always wanted to prove that, more than 75 years after Léon Blum became France’s first Jewish prime minister, the French would again be willing to elect a Jew.” It now looks unlikely that her husband will be the one to bring that dream to fruition.

When DSK was once asked the obstacles to his presidential campaign were, he replied: “Money, women, and being Jewish.” If the charges are dismissed, as this new report suggests they likely will be at the end of this month, revelations about the extent of Strauss-Kahn’s womanizing will still keep him from becoming president, even in France, where philandering is generally considered cocktail party banter, not the ruin of presidential aspirations.

It’s certainly not good for France’s Jews that Sinclair and Strauss-Kahn’s positions in society have fallen—but is the DSK scandal truly “bad for the Jews?” Other criminals and conspirators—Bernie Madoff springs to mind—were bad for Jews because their actions played into stereotypes that have existed for centuries as anti-Semitic tropes. The same cannot be said for Strauss-Kahn. It’s never good for the Jews when a figure of such importance is alleged to have committed a crime, even when, as in this case, the charges are likely to fizzle. Indeed, the greatest loss may be that DSK was a once-in-a-generation figure for French Jewry, and that a leader such as he may never come again.


Lessons for Germany’s Turks from France’s Jews

By Symi Rom-Rymer In the midst of cheering crowds and booming music at an auditorium in Düsseldorf, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Turkish audience of 10,000 to “integrate…into German society but don’t assimilate. No one has the … Continue reading

Anti-Semitic Auto-complete?

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Journalist Stéphane Foucart posed an interesting question in a recent article in the French daily paper, Le Monde: what can Google tell us about our prejudices?  Intrigued by an earlier piece in Télérama, a weekly French magazine, that pointed out that the word ‘Jew’ often appeared in the Google search drop-down menu when someone typed in the name of almost any French top media executive or public leader, Foucart undertook his own unscientific study; producing the same outcome.

Based on this experiment, he took the results as a sign that the canard that Jews run the media or exert undue influence on French politics still hold sway among the general population. He furthermore argues that this is uniquely a French problem since the word ‘Jew’ did not  come up in the American or Spanish versions of the search engine, given similar inputs. Therefore, he concluded that Google had laid bare the French people’s latent anti-Semitism.

But what does this experiment really reveal?  Much of the answer to that question relies on the nature of Google searches.  Search results are derived from an algorithm designed to avoid a small group of people, intentionally manipulating the system to associate one word with another.  Common search words that pop-up in the search window cannot, according to a Google’s spokesperson, be created by a small group of people wishing to influence larger searches.  For example, a neo-Nazi group in Paris could not force the Google search engine to automatically link the word ‘Jew’ when someone types in ‘get out of France.’  Instead, Google judges the popularity of searches based on those carried out by each unique IP (Internet Protocol) address.  In order for a search term to grow in popularity, then, it must be typed in on a significant number of distinct computers each time for it to be recognized by Google.  Thus, the reason ‘Jew’ comes up so often in tandem with public figures is because a significant number of French people are entering those terms into the Google search engine on their own computers.

But Foucart ends his inquiry too soon.  If one actually clicks on the search term in question—let’s say ‘Nicolas Sarkozy’ + ‘Jew’—the picture become more complicated.  Contrary to what Foucart might expect, the top three links that come up are not, in fact, to extremist organizations.  Instead, they are links to Sarkozy’s Wikipedia page, a pro-Jewish personal blog praising the French president’s ascension to power, and an article in Haaretz.  Similarly, ‘Bill Clinton’ + ‘Jew’ (another automatic paring) brings up articles about his daughter’s marriage to Marc Mezvinksy. Because the most popular sites that appear in a Google search are those that appear at the top of the page, it seems that more French-speakers are more interested in reading Sarkozy’s Wikipedia page or about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding than anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. If ‘Jew’ is a common search term in the Google French engine, but the most popular pages are innocuous or even laudatory, as in the Sarkozy example, it is questionable that can we confidently conclude that the ‘Jew’ search, however discomforting it may be, is the most trustworthy indication of wide-spread anti-Jewish feeling in France.

Without detailed study, it is impossible to know why the French conduct the searches that they do or what they are hoping to find.  Perhaps they are obsessed by their leaders’ supposed Judaism.  Or perhaps they turn to the internet, just as Americans do, to confirm or deny rumors they might hear from the media or others about certain public figures.  Reports of increasing anti-Semitism in France, like anti-Semitism anywhere is always troubling, but sometimes the supporting facts are more ambiguous or are simply not borne out by deeper examination.  Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

The Hypocrisy of Boycotting

by Daniel Hoffman

Many European and American students are familiar with academic boycotts of Israel, campaigns which emerged in the United Kingdom in the midst of the second Intifada and resurface from time to time on campuses when an “Israeli topic” is debated. These are occasions for pro-Palestinian activists to demonstrate and ask for relations with Israeli universities to be banned.

Recently, two events in France have reinvigorated these old and passionate debates. The first episode was the cancellation of French pop singer Vanessa Paradis’ concert in Tel Aviv, probably a result of political pressures (though her agent claimed it was for professional reasons). Similar  cases have happened in the past with other Western artists, such as Elvis Costello and Gorillaz.

The second event took place in one of France’s most prestigious universities, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). Bestselling author Stéphane Hessel, a vociferous detractor of Israeli policy, was supposed to speak in a “Solidarity with Palestine” conference, which was supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign calling for an economic boycott of Israel. The event was ultimately canceled, the ENS reminding those involved that the boycott of Israel is forbidden under French law. The controversy became virulent when several pro-Palestinian organizations accused the university of having given in to the requests of pro-Israeli committees.

Gatherings celebrating Israeli culture are also opportunities for boycott
supporters to spark polemics. During the 2008 book fair in Paris, where
Israel was the guest of honor, a national debate was raised after Muslim countries refused to take part in the event. Boycott actions are most likely to be launched when fighting erupts in the Middle East. After the Gaza flotilla raid, in June 2010, a French cinema chain decided to cancel the screenings of an Israeli movie, though the movie was completely unrelated to the conflict.

What is wrong with these campaigns? Is the the fact that they are anti-Semitic? Certainly not: boycott supporters are obviously not all anti-Semites. Is it the fact that they are unfair? That can’t be. Unfairness is too subjective a notion and can hardly be demonstrated.

No, there is something else. The main problem with these campaigns is that they are first and foremost hypocritical.

Their first hypocrisy lies in the very definition of the word “boycott.” The term is so vague and nebulous that it cannot correspond to a single reality. What is the boycott about: food products, academic exchanges, people themselves or any Israel-related object? Which geographical area is concerned: the settlements only or all of Israel? Should the boycott be launched without debate or should it be preceded by a discussion on its appropriateness? Most supporters don’t answer such questions.

A historical reference often invoked when trying to justify the boycott is South Africa. This is a fallacious analogy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has
absolutely nothing to do with apartheid. You might think Israel is wrong. You might even think it maintains some discriminatory policies. But it is untrue to pretend that there is any political similarity between today’s Israel and 1980s South Africa. Apartheid was a system that legally segregated inhabitants of the same country on a racial basis. Israelis and Palestinians are two different peoples. The comparison with South African blacks is a mistake, and perhaps even an insult to Palestinians. It casts doubts on their ability to self-determinate. For any sincere friend of the Palestinians, the apartheid argument is not tenable.

Neither is the moral argument. Here again, the reasoning deserves to be pushed to its end. Israel can be targeted for a boycott–but so could any number of other countries. Should China be boycotted for the repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs and so many other ethnic groups? Should India be condemned for its intolerable castes? And what about Russia, not really beyond reproach with the Chechens? What about Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Sudan, or even the United States? Should we boycott them all?

Shouldn’t we take a moment to wonder if this boycott is useful for Israelis and Palestinians, if it favors dialogue or if, instead, it exacerbates the region’s tensions? Arguing that the boycott is counterproductive must not elude the issue of criticizing Israeli policy—it makes the criticism even more necessary. But it also asks for more efficient ways to move forward.

New Angles/Old Topics

By Symi Rom-Rymer

The recent flotilla fiasco has unleashed a torrent of articles about Jews, Israel, Zionism, and any semi-related topic.  Buried beneath the information overload, it has been difficult to pinpoint articles that truly have something new to offer.  But here are some that have stood out for me:

The first is an op-ed that appeared in Le Monde this week.  Written by Gilles Bernheim, France’s Chief Rabbi, he explores what happens when disparate religious and ethnic groups must share the same land and figure out how to live peacefully side-by-side.   While his focus is France, with little effort one can see echoes of advice for those mired in the Middle East conflict. Continue reading

The French Railroad On Trial

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Reuters reported this week that 100 French and American plaintiffs are suing SNCF, the French national railroad company, for their role in transporting French Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The group, made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendents, insist that it’s not about the money, but rather about exposing the crimes in which the rail company participated. “‘It is about money but not in the way they mean,’” said William Wajnryb, whose father died at Auschwitz. “When people make accusations about money, they should look at the SNCF first of all,” he said. “The core of this story is that the SNCF got money for deporting Jews.’” Continue reading

The Cat’s Meow

By Symi Rom-Rymer

While perusing the bookshelves at Barnes and Nobel yesterday, I came across a wonderful graphic novel entitled The Rabbi’s Cat by the French author, Joann Sfar, best known in the US for his children’s series, The Little VampireThe Rabbi’s Cat tells the story of a Rabbi, his daughter Zlabya, and their talking cat who live in Algiers in the 1930s when Algeria was still part of France.  Narrated by the cat, who is studying to become Bar Mitzvah, the intricate illustrations and the gentle, yet poignant story line draws readers into a seemingly simple world that soon reveals itself in all its complexities.  Situated on the line between perfect and flawed, wise and bumbling, sacred and profane, Sfar’s characters made me nostalgic for a time and place that exists only within his, and now my, imagination.  But the themes that he draws upon— internal religious struggle, familial bonds, and humanness—are very real and very contemporary. Continue reading

Oops Report: French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner

French FM Bernard Kouchner almost got Israel into some serious trouble yesterday, when he misspoke and said Israel would “eat” Iran. Reuters reports:

“I honestly don’t believe that it will give any immunity to Iran … because you will eat them before,” Kouchner was quoted by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper as saying in an interview about the possibility of Tehran gaining a nuclear weapon.

But the French Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement later saying Koucher had said ‘hit’ — meaning carrying out a surgical pre-emptive strike — rather than ‘eat’.

We all know that native French speakers often drop the H from English words. A little more prudence on the part of Kouchner and Ha’aretz wouldn’t have been so hard, though, right? It seems like a silly mistake to make when tensions between Israel and Iran are so high.

Reuters, at least, had the wit to remind us of “Allo Allo,” a British sitcom whose humor relied almost singularly on French mispronunciation (see video above).

You can find Kouchner’s Ha’aretz interview, corrected, here.

Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

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