In Depth: The French chief rabbi plagiarism scandal

One day after the dramatic resignation, French media started to report what happened behind the scenes of the last act in the “Bernheim affair.”

April 14, 2013 02:58
2 minute read.
French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim

French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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PARIS – What exactly happened at midday on Thursday in the great Synagogue of Paris, at La Victoire Street, seat of both the Consistoire Central Israelite de France – the organization that administers Jewish worship in France – and of the national Chief Rabbinate? Anyone following the story knows that, engulfed by a plagiarism scandal, Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim was forced to resign, and they also know that he announced his decision during an emergency meeting of the Consistoire.

Bernheim served as the chief rabbi of France for five years, but was brought down after the revelation in recent weeks that he plagiarized in two of his books and an essay on gay marriage.

Michel Guggenheim, the chief rabbi of Paris, and Olivier Kaufmann, the director of France’s rabbinical school, the Séminaire israélite de France, will assume the leadership of the Consistoire until an election can be held.

Bernheim was also accused of failing to correct his official biographies in which he claimed to hold a degree in philosophy. Last Tuesday, he acknowledged making “serious mistakes.”

But every Jew here, and indeed every Frenchman, is asking: How did it happen? Was a decision made, a vote taken, a demand made that forced Bernheim to give up? One day after the dramatic resignation, French media started to report what happened behind the scenes of the last act in the “Bernheim affair.” It seems that he came to Thursday’s meeting having already taken the decision to resign and with the written text of his mea culpa in his pocket.

For 20 minutes, he talked in front of the 30 leaders of the Consistoire who convened for this extraordinary session.

He repeated the explanation he gave on Tuesday to Radio Shalom, the same statement he released at the beginning of the affair when he was in Jerusalem for Passover.

From Bernheim’s point of view, it was all a misunderstanding.

Plagiarism? A student working for him had not cited the names of the authors of texts the rabbi had used. The missing academic title? He now admits he never passed the civil service exam. A “personal tragedy” prevented him from going to the test. He begged forgiveness from the embarrassed Jewish leaders and offered his resignation. No one opposed.

Then the vice president of the Consistoire, Samuel Gozlan, went outside and announced to the many journalists waiting for the results of the meeting that Bernheim was “on leave,” but that for the moment, till his successor was elected, he would remain officially the chief rabbi. The word “resigned” was never used, all those responsible preferring the phrase “time off.”

Joël Mergui, president of the Consistoire, told Radio France: “It is a sad day...

There was a [lot of] pressure...

He [Bernheim] looked for protection for himself... We, too, looked to protect the position of the Chief Rabbinate.”

Richard Pasquier, president of the CRIF (the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions), demanded “a complete and clear explanation.”

He likely put the pressure on Bernheim that forced him to resign in the end.

The impact of this affair in France was demonstrated on Friday by the front page headline of the daily paper Le Parisien: “Cahuzac, Bernheim, the liars of the Republic,” (a reference to Jerome Cahuzac, France’s disgraced former budget minister) and an analysis of the “lies” of politicians and other public personalities inside the paper.

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