Although Jewish leaders agree that France is experiencing the worst outbreak of anti-Semitism since the Holocaust, a rift has emerged over whether a boycott is justified while French President Jacques Chirac warns of "repercussions" if anti-French attacks persist.
The difference in approach pits the American Jewish Congress, which insists it is not calling for a boycott of France, against the American Jewish community’s two other major defense organizations. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee contend the actions of the AJCongress suggest otherwise.
The controversy comes as individual Jews throughout the country are calling for boycotts of major American newspapers for what they believe is biased news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the papers targeted are The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.
The debate was sparked by a full-page AJCongress ad last week in California, directed at the entertainment industry before the upcoming Cannes film festival. The ad drew a parallel between anti-Semitic incidents in France in 1942 and those this year, cited the travel advisory posted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for travel to France, and asked those wanting further information to consult the AJCongress Web site, www.BoycottFrance.com
The AJCongress’ president, Jack Rosen, said the organization is not calling for a boycott of France, just calling "attention to the attacks [there] and the lack of French government leadership in curtailing it."
But Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said the ad was a "euphemistic way to call for a boycott. … Any Jewish organization calling for a boycott is acting irresponsibly and arrogantly."
The increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents in France is "very serious," Foxman said. But to compare the situation today to the Vichy government of the 1940s reveals "either a lack of understanding of what happened in World War II or a gross exaggeration."
He added: "We Jews have too frequently been the object of boycotts in the past and have always rejected them as a tool because they frequently hurt innocent people and not the intended target. If we are angry at the French government for its inactivity…, why punish the farmer who produces French cheese or the exporter, who may be Jewish?"
Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the AJCommittee, said he was struck by the fact that delegates to the AJCongress’ annual convention here Sunday are being asked to vote on a resolution calling for its travel program to suspend trips to France.
"That’s kind of a boycott on travel, and we don’t do that," he said.
But, said Rosen of the AJCongress, "I don’t think it is appropriate for a Jewish organization to promote trips to France. That is different from a boycott." And he said the ad was "not meant to draw a parallel between the Nazi era and France today … but rather to call attention to certain things that are occurring today and that occurred in 1942."
Bandler said his organization has chosen other avenues to express its displeasure with the "unresponsiveness" of the French government. Representatives of his organization met recently with the French ambassador to the U.S., visited France and invited the leadership of French Jewry to its annual convention in Washington last week.
"We will continue to meet with the highest levels of the French government and reach out to other European countries regarding anti-Semitism there, but boycotts are not the answer," said Bandler.
He added that Jews planning trips to Europe should make it a point to "go to the local synagogues and meet with Jews there to show solidarity."
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that in meetings with Jewish leaders here last week, those from France "described a dire situation but urged against a boycott."
Hoenlein said that although the "educational aspect [of the AJCongress ad] was good, because the French have to know that people are not ignoring very serious developments," he would suggest the AJCongress consider changing the name of its "BoycottFrance" Web site.
Although the Web site initially called for a boycott of France, Neil Goldstein, the AJCongress national executive director, said the organization directed on Monday that support for a boycott be deleted. He said he approved the West Coast ad, which ran in two show business trade publications and a local Jewish weekly, because it "merely asked people to consider whether to go or not to go [to Cannes]."
Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, told the French Jewish leaders last week that his organization, too, believes a boycott of France would be counter-productive.
But Ronn Torossian, president of Americans for Israel’s Survival, a group recently formed by New Yorkers "upset with the actions of the Jewish establishment," said the group is calling for a boycott of all French-owned products, as well as travel to France.
"When Russian Jews were held captive, the American Jewish establishment took years to respond," he said. "We do not see much difference [regarding France today]. … Let American Jews buy Israeli or American products rather than French products."
During a phone call Saturday, Chirac told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he found unacceptable the "anti-French campaign currently being waged in Israel," according to Catherine Colonna, a spokeswoman for Chirac.
She said Chirac told Sharon that such a campaign "cannot continue without repercussions."
Remi Marechaux, a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington, said Chirac made the comments after Sharon called to congratulate him on his re-election. Asked what Chirac meant by "repercussions," Marechaux said he believed Chirac was referring to a backlash of public opinion.
"More than 90 percent of the French population considers the attacks [on Jews] intolerable," he explained. "I believe he was saying that if you go one step further with this accusation, this solidarity might be eroded."
Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister who in January singled out France as the European country where the greatest number of anti-Semitic attacks have occurred, insisted that Israel is not waging an anti-France campaign.
"None of us have said France is an anti-Semitic country," he said. "But we don’t believe that anti-Semitism disappears by ignoring it."
"Israel has an obligation as part of the raison d’etre of our existence" to speak out against anti-Semitism, Rabbi Melchior added. The issue of boycotts, however, "is one we should be careful with because … it doesn’t always produce the right results."