April 27, 2006
Defender of France
Jean David Levitte, France's ambassador to the United States, is arguably its most effective defender against charges of anti-Semitism, in no small part because he himself is Jewish.
I met Levitte at the Beverly Hills residence of the French consul general, Phillipe Larrieu. It's a sprawling, modernist home near the Beverly Hills Hotel, the walls lined with contemporary art, the small streetside drawing room furnished in ... French Regency. Silver coffee service and a plate of petits fours appear.
Levitte, 60, is youthful, patient and polished. He is used to contradicting accusations that France is anti-Semitic, in no small part because of all the anti-Semitism French Jews have suffered over the past few years.
The worst incident occurred just last February, when kidnappers tortured and killed 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, taunting his parents with anti-Semitic slurs during phone calls. The heinous crime led to an uptick in French Jewish immigration to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and renewed concern that French Jewry's days were numbered.
I began my interview by mentioning that exactly a year ago, I traveled to Paris to interview French officials and Jewish leaders, all of whom agreed the government had been taking anti-Semitic attacks seriously and that the frequency and severity were in decline. This is what I reported, so my first question to the ambassador was, in so many words: Am I a chump?
Levitte said no. French anti-Semitism continues to be a problem among a disaffected Muslim population egged on by extremist imans, exposed to anti-Israel Arab media and frustrated by its status at the fringes of French society. "If we have a problem with racism," he said, "it is not anti-Semitism, it is anti-Arab."
Anti-Semitic attacks, he said -- reinforcing what the philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Lévy told our reporter Marc Ballon (see Page 16) -- are the smoke from the Israeli-Palestinian fire. "The problem is the connection to the Middle East," Levitte told me.
Levitte reiterated what I learned last year. The French government has responded to anti-Semitic acts with forthrightness: harsher penalties, better coordination with prosecutors, widespread educational reforms, a crackdown on hate-spewing Iranian and Arab media and ongoing public statements from the president on down.
"When a Jew is attacked in France," said President Jacques Chirac on Nov. 17, 2003, "it is an attack against the whole of France."
These steps all contributed to a 48 percent decline in anti-Semitic acts in the first six months of 2005.
Then came the brutal Halimi murder, which obliterated these achievements in the public eye.
Halimi's parents claimed the French police botched the investigation by, in part, refusing to see it as anti-Semitic in nature. Initial statements by government officials downplayed the role Jew-hatred might have played.
But to Levitte, the official and popular reaction only supports his contention that France is intolerant of intolerance. Tens of thousands of citoyens took to the streets of Paris to express their outrage at the murder. French officials quickly identified 21 suspects. Fourteen are under arrest and 11 are being charged with kidnapping and murder with the aggravating circumstance of anti-Semitism.
The perpetrators, Levitte pointed out, were not all Muslim. They were inhabitants of the often lawless, neglected neighborhoods surrounding Paris and other large cities. (In the French movie, "La Haine," ("Hate"), the youthful criminal gang from one Parisian slum includes a Jew. "Hate," in fact, released in 1995, is a cinematic tarot card of what would be in store for France).
Many of France's 10 percent Muslim population live in these banlieux. Most are law-abiding and loyal.
"The problem is the 10 percent who are not well-integrated," Levitte said.
He pointed out that the racial unrest that broke out in Paris this winter (not to be confused with the anti-labor law reform riots of the spring) were not in the "new cities" with large Muslim populations, There were no riots in Marseilles, for example, whose Algerian population is second only to that of Algiers.
The rioters also did not take to the streets waving Algerian flags. What they wanted was not separation but belonging.
"Islam is not the demand of these teenagers," said the ambassador. "They feel excluded."
Levitte reiterated his government's approach to the problem: better schools, stricter law enforcement, more work incentives and the creation of tax exempt zones to spur business investment in the worst areas.
Nevertheless, Levitte acknowledged, isolated attacks against Jews have, "triggered feelings of insecurity" among the country's 600,000 Jews.
But Levitte said the claims of a French Jewish exodus to Israel are overstated. Many Jews will buy apartments or homes in Israel, but they remain in France. Those who go for good, he said, often come back.
Meanwhile, Israelis themselves seem to harbor less ill will toward the French than American Jews. France is the No. 1 tourist destination among Israelis.
And the feeling appears to be mutual. Levitte quoted (correctly) a 2005 poll by the Israeli newspaper, Ma'ariv, which asked citizens in more than 12 countries their feelings about Jews. The Dutch came in first, at 85 percent, and France placed second, with 82 percent of French citizens checking off "positive feelings" about Jews. (The United States scored fifth at 77 percent, and Jordan and Lebanon tied for last, at 0 percent).
Indeed, for Levitte, the (wine) glass of French Jewry is perennially half full: The Dreyfuss Affair? It showed how the republic stood up to an insidious cabal of anti-Semitic army officers.
"Today it is Dreyfuss who is our hero, not them," Levitte said.
The Holocaust? Seventy-five percent of the nation's Jews were saved, and many Frenchmen risked their lives to save them. The government of Israel has recognized 2,500 of them with the distinction of "Righteous Among the Nations."
Levitte's own grandparents were sent to Auschwitz. His father and uncle joined the resistance, and his father later became the leader of the American Jewish Committee in France for 30 years.
"We will not accept anti-Semitism in France," the ambassador said, with finality. "We will fight this disease."
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