July 9, 2008
French Jews to Sarkozy: Investigate al-Dura incident
Last week's call by CRIF, the umbrella Jewish organization, increased the pressure on the French government to intervene in the 8-year-old debate over the authenticity of the September 2000 video report by France 2 TV and its Jerusalem correspondent, Charles Enderlin.
The call for a probe lent new legitimacy to concerns that the broadcast was staged and sparked a new debate in the French media over the issue.
The video helped fan the flames of the second Palestinian uprising and spurred anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment across the globe.
It showed Mohammed al-Dura and his father cowering in terror while trying to shelter themselves from gunfire. The film then cut to a slumped, motionless Mohammed lying in his father's lap.
Israel, after initially apologizing for the incident, said a subsequent investigation showed its troops could not have struck the boy from their positions.
Until recently, much of the French media tiptoed around the issue. The few French intellectuals who questioned the tape's authenticity were branded extremists.
The controversy stayed alive with the lawsuit involving a little-known media watchdog, Philippe Karsenty, who was sued for claiming the France 2 broadcast was a fake.
In May, an appeals court ruled for Karsenty, reversing a 2006 decision that had found him guilty of libel.
The anticipated public debate following that ruling, which included an exhaustive court examination into the blogger's claims, was slow to make French headlines. It was partly silenced as well by a petition signed by more than 300 French journalists and intellectuals denouncing the Paris court's decision for allowing "anyone" to "smear with impunity the honor and reputation of news professionals."
Now the issue is back in the limelight. It took editorials by left-leaning, respected figures such as France's former ambassador to Israel, Elie Barnavi, and the July 2 public appeal by CRIF to help crack the shell of what some have termed French "ideological and corporate protectionism" surrounding the issue.
"The winds are turning," said Pierre-Andre Taguieff, the author of a new book on "Judeophobie," analyzing repercussions of the al-Dura broadcast.
Taguieff, the research director at the National Center of Scientific Research, was stonewalled at first by much of the French media and intellectual elite for his early, vehement questioning of the Enderlin report. "We're evolving now toward a real debate," he said.
"The CRIF is a serious organization; if they ask Sarkozy to create this committee, it means it is important," said Stéphane Durand-Souffland, the journalist responsible for covering the al-Dura story for the French daily le Figaro, considered by many to be the most important paper in the country.
Durand-Souffland said in a telephone interview that the CRIF demand and Barnavi's editorial in the left-leaning magazine Marianne, both proposing the same investigative committee, were more significant than Karsenty's claims.
Durand-Souffland covered the original Karsenty trial in 2006 but not the appeal.
"Nobody in France knows who Karsenty is," he said.
Durand-Souffland downplays the importance of the al-Dura incident and the Karsenty libel trial, but others say the al-Dura incident played a role in the surge of anti-Semitism in France following the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
"The manifestations of violence against France's Jewish community were extremely strong" in 2000 and 2001, recalled the CRIF president, Richard Prasquier, during last week's news conference calling on Sarkozy to open an investigation.
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was transferred to France, and in that conflict the image that was truly emblematic was that of the al-Dura child," he said when asked why the CRIF should get involved in what some see as a Middle East problem. "It contributed to the beheading of Daniel Pearl and lynching" of Israeli soldiers.
Taguieff compares the al-Dura incident to the infamous 19th century Dreyfus Affair in which a Jewish French army officer was wrongly accused of treason.
"The al-Dura affair is one of the major affairs of the beginning of the 21st century," Taguieff said. "It has a symbolic strength that reminds a bit of something from the Dreyfus Affair, even if this is not an innocent man who is wrongly being accused -- it is the Israeli army. And it is the Israelis who are being accused in the end of having killed a child in cold blood, almost with pleasure.
"The old anti-Jewish stereotype of the blood libel reappeared with the al-Dura affair, which is why it is extremely significant."
Sarkozy has yet to respond to CRIF's public appeal. Prasquier says he has written letters to the French president in the past on the subject and never received a response. He says the Karsenty trial paved the way for a more public demand, which he hopes will lead to a French committee of independent experts to investigate the subject.
If Sarkozy remains silent, Prasquier does not rule out convening an international "meeting" to address the issue. But he expresses hope it won't come to that.
"I have hope in France," Prasquier said.
Karsenty says that Sarkozy's much-touted battle against the insistent problem of anti-Semitism in France will be put to the test by CRIF's public demand.
"Prasquier wants to put Sarkozy against the wall," Karsenty said. "If Sarkozy continues to cover up this anti-Semitic lie, we can doubt in the sincerity of his love for Israel and his fight against anti-Semitism. You don't fight anti-Semitism just by putting more police in synagogues."
Obstacles stand in the way of creating such a committee. The Israeli government has shown no inclination to launch an investigation into the tape's authenticity, and the Israeli Supreme Court ruled earlier this month against stripping Enderlin of his press credentials.
Both reasons could be used to suggest an investigation is unnecessary, Jewish community leaders say. That argument was evoked during last week's news conference when an unidentified journalist asked why it was necessary to delve into the affair when "even the Israeli government had showed no inclination to do so."