Whether or not the French ambassador to England called Israel "that sh*tty little country" is almost beside the point.
Ambassador Daniel Bernard allegedly made the comment at a dinner party two weeks ago in London.
"Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?" Bernard was quoted as saying.
At first, Bernard's people denied that he even made the remark. A spokesman for the French Embassy later said Bernard had been misquoted. "The ambassador referred to 'little Israel' in the sense that it is geographically small," spokesman Yves Charpentier told reporters. "He was saying that the problem was incredibly limited geographically but that nevertheless the repercussions around the world are tremendous."
In whatever context Bernard made his comments, the fact that they might have been made surprised no one; France is considered one of the countries most critical of Israel, even in Europe, which many consider to have a pro-Arab and anti-Israel bias.
In Europe, anti-Semitic incidents are at such a high level -- the highest since World War II -- that some have stopped counting, said an Israeli official who is spearheading a new worldwide forum to fight anti-Semitism. Examples are many: in Prague, two shuls were evacuated because of bomb threats; in Brussels, the chief rabbi was attacked by five Arab men; in England, Selfridges department store is boycotting goods made in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
In the post-Sept 11 world, with racial tensions high and economies falling, Jews around the world are taking a new look at their native cities -- from Los Angeles, to Beunos Aires, to Paris to Belgium -- and deciding that the time has come to leave for Israel. This week more than 60 Argentines arrived in Israel following the recent economic unrest there (see Page 12).
"The number of candidates for aliyah [in France] is growing," Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, said of the movement to return to Israel. "France has always been the largest reservoir for aliyah -- 2,000 Jews each year for the last 10 years." Cwajgenbaum said there are no official figures yet, but the increase is due to the situation, which he terms "several hundred" anti-Semitic incidents over the last year.
Here in Los Angeles, while some are motivated to make aliyah because of the economic climate (see sidebar) concern is growing over the situation abroad.
"France, a senior partner in the European Union, has been bending over backward to show their support for the Palestinian cause to the Arab world," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "The French government has refused to acknowledge that there is a problem or do anything about it. French authorities are scared themselves, because so many of the younger Muslims have embraced this radical version of Islam. To the young, poor, alienated second generation, Osama bin Laden is a hero."
Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister, has decided to do something about it. Last week he announced the formation of the Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism, to be primarily comprised of international non-Jewish dignitaries intent on fighting against injustice and for human rights. "The new anti-Semitism, which is based on the old one, is in a disguise and is very, very serious," Melchior told The Journal over the phone from Jerusalem. "Anti-Semitism is not only a threat to Jews but a threat to the decency of democracy and any society."
On Jan. 6 they will announce the members of the forum, which will work closely with other organizations that have been working in the field already, such as the EJC and the Anti-Defamation League. The forum's mission will be to deal with public opinion, education, and the police and judicial system in each country. Their Web site, www.antisemitism.org , will catalog reported incidents around the world.
Melchior said that the countries most plagued by anti-Semitism are those with strong Arab populations, mentioning France, Belgium and Hungary. But to blame the atmosphere on the current situation in the Middle East is myopic, he said.
"To say that because of Israel there is anti-Semitism is to say that because of Jews there is anti-Semitism," he said. "Anti-Semites have found the central nerve of the Jewish people -- now Zionism and the State of Israel is the nerve, now Israel is the 'Jew' of the nations."
Melchior was quick to downplay the connection between rising anti-Semitism in countries like France or economic woes of countries like Argentina and the rise of Aliyah. "I don't think that anti-Semitism is affecting aliyah that much," he insisted, expressing the hope that people would come for positive reasons, rather than negative, like the economic crisis in Argentina. "I would like people to come.... Because it has an exciting message to their lives, because Israel is an exciting venture."
But Israel may once again become the haven it was in its foundation. "I don't exclude that there could be a situation in the future where Israel has to be place of refuge for Jews," Melchior said. "Of course we are there, that's OK. But God Forbid that we should need it."
Staff Writer Mike Levy contributed to this report.