Although Shelley Ventura-Cohen had been to France several times before as a tourist with an interest in French culture,this visit -- on an American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) mission to counteract French anti-Semitism -- was unique.
"The difference was, that this time I went with passion," said the Los Angeles psychologist. "And I went with a spirit of connection to the French and Belgian Jews. Anti-Semitism in France affects Jews everywhere, and I went to France knowing that there had to be a determined and fitting anger about it, and a profound need for dialogue with the French government."
Ventura-Cohen was one of nine participants on the July mission, which also included L.A. residents Gary Ratner, executive director of the AJCongress Pacific Southwest Region; David Suissa of Suissa-Miller advertising agency, and founder and editor of OLAM magazine, and Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, AJCongress Pacific Southwest Region president. The mission was organized against a backdrop of 1,000 anti-Semitic incidents that had occurred in France since the start of the Al-Aksa intifada -- incidents that appear as a hideous epilogue to a history that has sustained both Dreyfus and Vichy. The mission comprised of meetings with French government ministers, officials at the European Union, leaders of the French Jewish community, and French Jewish intellectual groups. Besides offering solidarity and support to French Jews, the aim of the mission was to probe and prod politicians, who for the past year had treated the problem of the growing number of anti-Semitic battery, harassment and vandalism incidents evasively, failing to take measures that acknowledged the seriousness of the problem.
"One had to call attention to the fact that the French government tolerated the ridiculousness of anti-Semitism," said AJCongress President Jack Rosen, who headed the mission.
The mission arrived in France at the dawn of a new government, and many of the politicians the group met with, while not willing to admit that anti-Semitism was a problem in France, were eager to cast blame on their predecessors for their laxity in dealing with anti-Semitic crimes. Both the minister of justice and the interior minister assured the group that there had been a decrease in incidents since the new government was elected, and that from now on, tougher sentences would be handed out. They all tried to dissuade the group of the notion that anti-Semitism was endemic to French society -- they explained it instead as a problem that was isolated among the millions of disaffected Arab migrants from places like Algeria and Tunisia.
Others were more circumspect about the situation, and urged the AJCongress to be vigilant about taking action. "Don't be lured by smiles and other pleasing talk from the government," warned Michel Gurfinkel, the editor of a French weekly. "You don't have SS men walking down the street, but the situation is very bad. The country has gone over the border."
Pierre Lellouche, a Harvard-educated French parliamentarian, explained that what was happening in France was that a new kind of anti-Semitism was arising, one that was championed by the extreme left. "You have the media in Europe and in France beating down on Israel as a butcher every day, and a lot of the good-faith guys are absolutely convinced that the bad guys are the Jews and the good guys are the Arabs, which means that you can be openly anti-Semitic in France today, in the name of anti-racism," he said.
Lellouche is championing a bill that will make a crime out of anti-Semitic or racist intentions on acts of aggression or battery either on persons or property
The mission encountered hostility on the trip to the European Union in Brussels, which began with a meeting with officials from the office of Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations, who acknowledged that they agreed with Cherie Blair's comments about the desperation of suicide bombers -- they thought suicide bombings had achieved a lot for the Palestinians politically, and tried to convince the group that long tourist lines outside of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam surely proves that there is no anti-Semitism in Europe today. After a day of meetings at the European Union, which included friendlier dialogue with Javier Solana and other policy chiefs (they even served a kosher lunch) -- the group got back on the bus to find that someone had placed a Palestinian flag there, a sign that the group's presence was resented.
Despite the current situation, Jews have thrived over the years in France, which makes the problem of anti-Semitism all the more urgent to combat.
"There are 600,000 Jews in France today," said Stephane Friedfeld, who was the group's French guide, "and as a Jew, I can say that there are problems, but I am proud to be Jewish in France today."