Netivot mystic picks favorite in French race

Rabbi Yaakov Ifargan throws support behind Valerie Hoffenberg in run for "Israeli seat" in French parliament.

Valerie Hoffenberg 370 (photo credit: Courtesy
Valerie Hoffenberg 370
(photo credit: Courtesy
Israeli politicians seeking election are used to wooing rabbis and other religious leaders asking for their blessing and – more importantly – for the support of their followers at the ballot box.
But in France – where the separation of state and church is sacrosanct – such instances are rare. Which is why the meeting on March 2 between would-be French parliamentarian Valerie Hoffenberg and Rabbi Yaakov Ifargan, an influential mystic from Netivot with a large following among French Jews, was unusual.
“I have no idea if a French deputy will go see a priest but knowing that I am Jewish and my critical will is to help all the French living abroad and those living in Israel [I think this is important],” said Hoffenberg on the phone from France on Monday.
The Jewish politician, who is contending for the 8th constituency for French residents overseas, a newly created seat in the French National Assembly representing expatriates in Israel and nearby nations, sat down with the ultra-Orthodox religious leader at his home for an hour-long meeting at the end of which she said he gave her his support.
“I spent one hour with him and I have to tell you I was impressed, I was really impressed,” she said. “He spoke to me about politics, about the relations between Israel and France. We spoke about my campaign and I was very moved when he said Israel and the Jewish people need me.”
Hoffenberg, who was France’s special envoy to the Middle East until June of last year, is running on behalf of the UMP party for the 8th French Overseas Constituency. The single biggest bloc of voters in the region which also covers Greece, Turkey, Italy and other Mediterranean countries, is in Israel making it an unofficial “Israeli seat.” Winning the vote here is considered crucial by candidates, most of whom, like Hoffenberg, are Jewish.
Ifargan is a powerful and controversial figure in Israel. His admirers dub him “the Rontgen,” after Wilhelm Rontgen, the discoverer of the X ray, for his alleged ability to see the ailments of those who come to see him. Others, however, claim he is a charlatan who has grown rich from selling amulets and other illicit dealings.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi, once accused him of “witchcraft.”
Nonetheless, Ifargan has seen his following grow exponentially in little over a decade. He often receives visits from politicians, celebrities and billionaire businesspeople Shari Arison and Nochi Dankner.
Hoffenberg said meeting the 46-year-old rabbi, whose followers tend to be Jews of North African descent with ties to France, the region’s former colonial ruler, was “very important” for whoever wins the National Assembly seat.
But news of Hoffenberg’s sitdown with Ifargan drew criticism from one of her main rivals on Monday.
Daphna Poznanski, the Socialist party’s representative in the race for the 8th overseas constituency, lashed out at Hoffenberg and Gil Taieb, an independent candidate, for overtly inviting prominent Israelis to influence a French election and blurring the separation of church and state.
“The fact that some candidates like Gil Taieb, Valerie Hoffenberg or others, seek the support of religious, political or military leaders in Israel creates a real discomfort among the French voters in Israel who question the scope of this election,” she wrote in an email from Italy where she was campaigning.
“It is not an election to the Knesset, but an election to the French National Assembly, a country where [it] is reflected in the constitution the principle of secularism, that is to say, the separation of religion and state.”
Hoffenberg rejected such criticism, saying she strongly supported French secularism but adding that it was her right as a Jew to seek the support of a rabbi.
The press release of the meeting between Hoffenberg and Ifargan – which took place almost two weeks ago– was only sent out on Monday.
When asked the reasons for the delay, a press relations officer for Hoffenberg said they were waiting for approval from Ifargan’s office.
“It was initially intended to be a private meeting and we waited for approval to send it out,” she said. “This is a very important person in the religious community.”
The press release was accompanied by photos of Hoffenberg visiting the graves of Jewish sages but none of her with Ifargan himself because he does not permit photographs of himself with women.
Asked whether that made her uncomfortable or ran contrary to French ideals, Hoffenberg said the rabbi’s decision to meet her and support her candidacy was proof he respected her as a woman and a politician.
“I don’t think the most important thing in the meeting was the fact that he took a picture or not,” she said. “The most important thing is that we met and he share views on bilateral elections.
“I believe Rabbi Ifargan is someone who knows Israel very well and what is going on in Israel and if I want to represent them then I have to represent the diversity of all the people here.”