(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As Ehud Olmert made his inaugural visit to France as prime minister, leading Jewish philanthropist Baron Eric de Rothschild told The Jerusalem Post that the extent of anti-Semitism in his native France has been exaggerated.
He said that some of the complaints emanating from Israel about the treatment of French Jews amount to "an element of schaedenfreude (taking pleasure at another's misfortune)" on the part of those who have already made aliya: "When the cousins come over, they say, 'It's terrible [in France] - you have to come'" to Israel.
Rothschild, who was in Jerusalem this week to receive an honorary doctorate from The Hebrew University, declared that, "The one thing you can't say is that France is an anti-Semitic country."
Coinciding with the outbreak of the intifada, attacks on French Jews skyrocketed. The numbers have dropped from their peak in 2004 but anti-Semitism continues to be an issue, such as the torture and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi.
Rothschild said that in the suburbs where French Jews live "cheek and jowl" with the Muslim population, they encounter problems stemming from jealousy of their more affluent status as well as anti-Semitism. But when it comes to the French government, he said, it is assisting the Jewish population "to an extent which has never been seen [before]. You could say it's beyond the call of duty."
In addition to physical security from attack provided by the police, he listed financial support from the national government for securing buildings as well as help from individual municipalities.
"People are in fact philo-Semitic in the government, mayors, to an extent which goes beyond pure electoral calculations," he said.
He chalked initial French inaction following rising anti-Semitism at the beginning of the decade to a government "who wanted to deny the problems of security." That changed, he said, when then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was replaced in 2002.
Rothschild described Jacques Chirac, who served as president before and after the change in administration, as "profoundly philo-Semitic" and "quite interested in the basis of Judaism."
In France on Wednesday, Olmert told the French president that he was "one of the world's great fighters against anti-Semitism."
In 2005, Chirac inaugurated the Shoah Memorial, behind which Rothschild was the driving force. The latter pointed to the high number of Jews - two-thirds of the population - saved by their countrymen during the Holocaust.
"There are more Righteous [Gentiles] recognized in France than probably any other country in the world," according to Rothschild.
Though most renowned in France for his celebrated wines produced at Ch teau Lafite, Rothschild has distinguished himself in the Jewish community as the chairman of the M morial du Martyr Juif Inconnu and Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation. He also serves as president of both French Jewish social welfare organization Fondation Casip-Cojasor and the Rothschild Foundation, which provides residential care for the elderly.
But the priority for Jewish giving, he said, should be helping Israeli Arabs.
"The real necessity," he said, "is not to get into a situation, which you can see in lots of other countries, where you have a large minority with very different living standards, especially when next to [Israel] there are elements which won't always be sympathique to the country."
Rothschild alluded to the conflict in Ireland and the recent riots in France when warning Israel of the perils of having an "opposing, unemployed, unhappy minority" in an unfriendly neighborhood.
Rothschild has put his money where his mouth is by sponsoring projects to provide education and economic advancement to the Beduin population. The 450 or so Beduin students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have access to these programs, including preparatory classes to get their Hebrew and English up to speed, transportation to BGU and counseling in the way the academic world works. Rothschild is now also working on vocational training programs.
"It can be considered a bit pie in the sky. I don't know if it's naivete, but I think if it is naive, it's intelligent naivet and maybe it will work," he said with a small chuckle. More seriously, he stressed, "There is an absolute necessity to try and equalize as many of the factors as possible" for this group.
He traced his interest in such efforts back to early trips to Israel soon after the Six Day War. Rothschild, born in 1940, called that post-war period his "evil youth," a point of time in which he became "absolutely persuaded that you needed to have a Palestinian state. I remember how unpopular that idea was. I was branded in France as a being against the community."
Rothschild has stayed involved in coexistence work as a member of the international board of the Peres Center for Peace, and has also maintained his leading position in the French Jewish community.