‘What is the definition of anti-Semitism?” Roger Cukierman jokes. “Hating the Jews more than is necessary.”
For Cukierman, being president of the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), is nothing new. Now in his third, nonconsecutive term at the helm of the representative organ of French Jewry, Cukierman is familiar with the challenges now facing his co-religionists and can joke about them, if only because humor is one of the time-tested coping mechanisms of a people that has faced almost two millennia of exile.
A vice president of the World Jewish Congress and of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Cukierman last served as CRIF president from 2001 to 2007 and is throwing himself right back into the fight for the future of French Jewry.
With anti-Semitism on the rise in various European countries, French Jews have been among the hardest hit. While no far-right party like Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungary’s Jobbik has entered parliament in France, anti-Semitic instances are increasing in frequency, due in part to tensions between French Jews and North African Muslim immigrants.
The essential function of CRIF, he tells The Jerusalem Post, is to fight anti-Semitism, which he calls “a weighty task, to years of worsening” sentiments regarding the country’s Jews.
He says that there is no issue of state-sponsored anti-Semitism and that both the Right and the Left understand that anti-Semitism is contrary to the spirit of the French republic.
The far Right, represented by the National Front, is a Jewish world potential danger for the future.
“I just met with the French president, the interior minister and the justice minister and we have no problem with them, just as we have no problems with the right-wing parties in the opposition,” he explains. “However, the problems start with the National Front and the extreme Right” which he says is deeply anti- Semitic.
The fact that the party, which now stands on the sidelines of politics, is gaining popularity is a longterm concern, he says.
Asked if he believes that a situation similar to that in Greece, where a fascist party gains considerable parliamentary representation and allegedly engages in criminal activity, Cukierman explains that while it is not something that is going to happen overnight, if the mainstream political parties make mistakes, if the economy continues its decline, “we could one day see the National Front becoming part of the government.”
“It does not seem likely in the short term but it is a possibility that we cannot exclude,” he says.
Aside from the long term danger of the far Right, which Cukierman terms the first kind of anti-Semitism, a considerable issue facing France’s Jewish community is that of anti-Zionist activity emanating from the French Left.
“This is the second kind of anti-Semitism,” he says, citing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns, which he calls “the new clothes of anti-Semitism.”
The third form of French anti-Semitism, he says, comes from young suburban Muslim immigrants who frequently engage in violence against Jews. From last year’s school shooting in Toulouse to incidents like the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006 and the bomb attack against a Jewish grocery shop in Sarcelles, France’s Jewish community has been gripped with fear due to rising Muslim immigration.
Fueled by rampant anti-Semitism in the Arab world and anger over the Israeli-Arab conflict, young Arab and Muslim immigrants have taken out their rage on the closest thing to Israelis that they can, the extremely pro-Israel French Jews.
Arab violence, which roughly correlates to upticks in fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, “is a real threat that weighs on the whole community,” Cukierman says.
There are probably “dozens or even hundreds” of Salafists on the model of [Toulouse gunman and al-Qaida sympathizer Mohamed] Merah, Cukierman says, citing a conversation he had with the interior minister.
Despite cordial relations with the government, Cukierman says that Jews are well advised not to wear kippot in certain neighborhoods.
While French Jews continue to make aliya, he says, the number coming is still less than 1 percent of the total population.
Despite this, he adds, French Jews have an “especially strong connection” to Israel that is exhibited equally by Orthodox and secular alike.
Given the current challenges his community faces, despite his optimism regarding the future of French Jewry, he maintains that the situation is still grave.