Responding to increasing signs of anti-Semitism at home, most recently an arson attack on a Jewish school near Paris the day after the Istanbul synagogue bombings, the French government has created a new ambassadorial position to deal with Jewish organizations around the world and with Holocaust restitution.
Jacques Huntzinger, who most recently served as France’s ambassador to Israel for four years, was in New York this week for a full day of meetings with a series of major Jewish organizations in his new post as ambassador at large. He said in an interview that the recent back-to-back terror attacks in Turkey and France in mid-November were “a turning point” for the French government, which recognized the need for “a strong reaction” to the “anti-Jewish perception.
“My position was created more or less as a reaction” to those events, he said, with the sense of “enough is enough.”
French President Jacques Chirac spoke out quickly and forcefully against anti-Semitism the day an Orthodox school was attacked, saying “the French will not tolerate any acts of anti-Semitism.” He also called an urgent meeting of senior ministers to discuss the problem on a regular basis.
One Jewish communal professional who met with Huntzinger here said the meeting was “one of the most constructive discussions” with a French representative he has had. He said the new appointment is a positive signal that France is aware it has a problem with the Jewish community and that the ideas discussed were detailed and helpful.
“It’s good for us to have an address now” to go to with concerns, the Jewish official said, noting that “the proof will be in the pudding.”
Asserting that France is “one of the best friends of Israel” and a leader in “the struggle against anti-Semitism,” Huntzinger said in the interview that Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin created his post “to act and inform” world Jewry that his country stood in Israel’s corner, despite widespread criticism by the Jewish State and its supporters of France’s backing of the Palestinian cause.
Huntzinger acknowledged, though, that many young people in his country view Israel as “strong and as an occupier,” and see the Palestinian violence as a justified “war of liberation.”
Huntzinger, who said he personally has been a “longtime friend of Israel,” also admitted that the Chirac government was slow to respond to the alarming increase of anti-Semitism in France that coincided with the outbreak of Palestinian violence against Israel three years ago. He said most of the incidents in France, which included attacks on synagogues and Jews, came from young Muslim immigrants.
“There was clearly an underestimation” of the seriousness of the problem on the part of the government, Huntzinger said, but in the last year the response from authorities has been stronger and effective, he maintained. “We have had more security measures to protect Jewish institutions,” he said, “more judiciary involvement and more education in the schools.”
But these improvements “are not enough,” Huntzinger added, asserting that the threat posed by anti-Semites is not only against Jews but against the stability of French society as a whole.
“We must prevent any demonization of Israel,” he said, “which is counterproductive to our society.”
Huntzinger said it is often difficult to distinguish between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments, stressing that it is important “not to delegitimize Israel.” He cited as an example the need to “strongly reject the idea of a one-state solution and reaffirm that Israel is a Jewish State.”
The diplomat said he believed that anti-Semitism would greatly diminish if Israel and the Palestinians could resolve their differences. Jewish groups here and in Israel “realize the situation has changed in the last several months,” according to Huntzinger, and view France in a more positive light. He also said the French media has become more balanced in its coverage of the Mideast dispute during that time, though at least one Jewish officia