In the highly charged political and religious climate of France, the country’s influential Jewish student union has been on the front lines of the fight to beat back hate.It made world headlines this year when it launched its controversial, and since pulled, advertising campaign with the words “Dirty Jew” scrawled in graffiti-like script over the images of Jesus and Mary. The tagline: “Don’t you think anti-Semitism is everyone’s concern?”The French Jewish Students Association (UEJF), which gets $2 million annually from the French government and is essentially a lobby group, also helped in the battle to expel the Hezbollah-run television station, Al-Manar, from French airwaves and to get Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols banned from French public schools.
But now, in a sign that its fight against anti-Semitism could use some help from America, the UEJF for the first time is seeking advice from major American Jewish organizations.“Before the second intifada, Jews in France could afford not to coordinate with Jewish groups in the U.S.,” said UEJF president Yonathan Arfi, who met last week with Jewish leaders in New York and Washington.That’s no longer the case, he said.
“It was like we were living in two separate worlds,” Arfi said.In the United States, Arfi sat down with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and other Jewish groups to get advice on how best to use union resources and establish stronger ties with American Jews.Arfi, 24, a recent graduate of an elite French business school, oversees 30 campus- and community-based UEJF chapters. He serves as a political interlocutor and authoritative voice in the French Jewish community, which since the outbreak of the second intifada has seen a wave of anti-Semitic attacks.During the first half of this year, there were 510 documented anti-Semitic acts or threats, compared to 593 in all of 2003, according to statistics provided by the French Interior Ministry.
The situation has compelled some French Jews to immigrate to Israel in numbers not seen in 30 years. But it has compelled others, like Arfi and his cohorts, to reach out to well-established and well-financed Jewish organizations in America.Arfi said he came to the United States to strengthen the bonds between the world’s two largest diaspora communities, and to learn more about how American Jewish organizations develop strategic alliances with non-Jewish partners. His visit also set the stage for UEJF’s first New York-based conference, which in March will bring together Jewish student leaders from France and North America.New York was chosen as the venue because of its active Jewish community, which lives in relative peace with a diverse group of neighbors, said David Rak, 24, UEJF’s North American delegate.“At every street corner you see people of 10 different nationalities, and Jews feel safe and well among them,” said Rak, a French business school student completing a high-tech internship in New York.
By contrast, last year, France’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk — speaking to the growing malaise of French Jews — admonished men to cover their kipas with baseball caps while out in public.Since May 1968, when they took to the streets en masse spray-painting Paris red with slogans like “It’s forbidden to forbid” in demonstrations that helped topple the conservative government of President Charles de Gaulle, French university students and the unions they formed have brandished enormous political power in France.
The UEJF, founded in 1944 by students involved in the French Resistance during World War II, is no exception.Its leaders regularly run interference with the French government on behalf of the country’s 30,000 Jewish university-age students. Unlike their predecessors of 1968, Arfi and his cohorts prefer diplomacy to anarchist rhetoric and wield cell phones rather than cans of spray-paint.UEJF gatherings and its demonstrations against anti-Semitism have attracted intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, prominent political figures like Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and various French cabinet ministers.“In France, it’s not like the U.S., where there are so many important Jewish organizations like the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the [America Israel Public Affairs Committee],” said Regis Blain, a spokesman for the French Consulate in New York. “The UEJF is one of the most important voices representing the Jewish community, not only Jewish students.”Also advocating on behalf of France’s Jewish population of about 600,000 is the CRIF, the country’s Jewish community umbrella group, and the Consistoire, a nearly 200-year-old religious body that interprets Jewish law.
In recent years, Jews in France have been forced to extinguish fires, both literally and figuratively. Synagogues and Jewish schools have more than once been firebombed, and virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist speech has continued to emanate from the far right, the far left and Islamic fundamentalists.“Still, it would be a terrific mistake to see our job as just being anti-anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Zionism,” Arfi said.“We want to highlight positive aspects about Judaism and Zionism [to Jews and non-Jews],” which is where the proven and proactive strategies from organizations like Hillel come into play, he said.Throughout North America, and at a number of locations in the former Soviet Union and South America, Hillel — with a professional staff of about 600 — focuses on student engagement and cultural programming.
“Unlike student unions, Hillel serves students, it doesn’t represent them,” said Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel’s international division.Conversely, the almost entirely student-run UEJF, while it plans occasional social and educational gatherings, functions primarily as a political action committee.Rubin cites fewer European Jewish university students, many of whom live at home and not on American-style college campuses, as one reason the student union model, rather than the campus Hillel model, has flourished in France.Arfi offered a different explanation: In the U.S., where it is not uncommon for university tuition to exceed $30,000 annually, students see themselves as consumers and have come to expect that Hillel will provide them with a campus-based community, he said.In France, where higher education is inexpensive in comparison, student groups work from the inside out.
“Universities in France are like activist laboratories,” Arfi said.Operating with different prototypes on the different sides of the Atlantic, both Hillel and UEJF leaders acknowledge they will have a lot to learn from one another in March.Rak said American students and Hillel professionals can teach UEJF members more about planning dynamic cultural and social programming to involve more French students in their organiztion. French students, he said, can teach their American counterparts more about national political activism.Echoing Rak’s sentiments, Rubin added, “There’s a potential for a great synergy here.”During his stay, Arfi said he learned that the union needed to raise money from nongovernmental sources.“We need to learn from the American Jewish community by reaching out to Jewish philanthropists [in France],” he said. “That’s something we currently don’t do.
Additional funding will enable the UEJF, which currently has a professional staff of 10, to hire specialists in areas like Middle East affairs, Israel advocacy training and cultural program development.Unlike some of their contemporaries, who talk about emigrating in the wake of French anti-Semitism, Arfi and Rak don’t miss an opportunity to discuss the vibrancy and viability of Jewish life in France, with its packed synagogues and abundance of kosher restaurants.“Of course there is a future for us there, even if that future isn’t an easy one,” Arfi said. “France is not the Soviet Union; it is not Ethiopia. This is not [Nazi-occupied France of the 1940s]. Our country is still a democracy.”While Arfi and Rak fault the French government for underestimating the effects of bias attacks in the early stages of the Palestinian uprising, Rak insists that now, “the government is helping us.
”Along with allocating the vast majority of the UEJF’s annual budget, the state partnered with the student union to develop a Holocaust studies curriculum for public schools and recently enacted a law toughening penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes.The “enemies” of French Jewry, Rak said, are not French government organs but extremist groups who “hate the French democracy as much as they hate French Jews.”“The government has proven its conviction to fight anti-Semitism,” Rak said. “They’ve proven that they like Jews. What we want is concrete results: a clear decrease in the number of anti-Semitic attacks.”Though such incidents have not yet waned, Rak and Arfi remain optimistic.
“As a leader of the Jewish community,” Arfi said, “it would be irresponsible to tell French Jews, ‘Now we have to leave France.’ There may come a time 10 years from now when I would be responsible for making such a declaration, but certainly not now.”