In ordinary times, it would hardly have been a headline-grabber: the election of a new French grand rabbi. But these are hardly ordinary times for France’s 700,000 Jews. Last week, when the central consistory met in Paris to find a successor to the feisty 84-year-old Jacob Kaplan, who once took on former president Charles de Gaulle for antiSemitism, the French press bannered it a “turning point.”
The election of 50-year-old Algerianborn Professor René Sirat as their new leader indicated that the Sephardic
Jews who flooded into France from former North African colonies over the past 20 years were finally exerting their influence in a community where they now make up a 60-per-cent majority, but which has long been dominated by
an entrenched Eastern European (Ashkenazic) establishment.
That shift, too, might be a jot of minor esotérica if it didn’t come at a time when the French Jewish population is rent by its worst crisis since the end of the Second World War. The noisy split has pitted the community’s longtime pillars, the venerable Rothschild dynasty, against an increasingly frustrated ground swell charging that the aristocratic banking tycoons have been too well-mannered in fighting the French government’s growing pro-Arab policies.
The catalyst was French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s flourish of petro-diplomacy last March when, during an official Middle East visit to promote oil supplies, he endorsed Palestinian self-determination and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s role in any future scenario for peace.
To many of France’s outraged Jews, the two politely worded protests by Baron Alain de Rothschild, president of the umbrella Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, weren’t a stiff enough riposte. Agitating for the creation of a French Jewish lobby, modelled after that in the United States, and calling for a Jewish boycott of the president in next year’s elections, a proZionist group, Jewish Renewal, promptly organized a 150,000-strong day-long rally at Paris’ Porte de Pantin.
A poll during the festivities showed that only two per cent of some 20,000odd Jews who voted would support Giscard in 1981, news that was of more than passing interest to France’s opposition parties—above all, to Socialist leader François Mitterrand, who lost the presidency by a whisker of a percentage six years ago and was the only party chief to turn up.
But the bitterest slap was reserved for the Rothschilds, who had opposed the rally and were lambasted for their refusal to support a movement that, they argue, might boomerang in a new rise of the anti-Semitism that reared its sinister head during last year’s showing of the TV serial Holocaust.
From Israel, word leaked out that Baron Guy de Rothschild, the suave 71year-old bon vivant who serves as titular head of the clan, had demanded the recall of the World Zionist Organization representative in Paris, Avi Primor, the apparent force behind the rally. But Primor was not recalled and one Israeli official snapped: “The attitude of certain leaders of the Paris consistory— particularly that of the Rothschilds—is regrettable.”
Indeed, as the weeks wore on, it became clear that Jerusalem was miffed with Baron Guy not only for his behindthe-scenes criticism of Menachem Begin’s policies but for a long catalogue of sins. Among them were, according to one family confidante, his marriage to his socialist second baroness MarieHelène (a Christian) and a Lui magazine interview in which he let slip that: “I feel like a foreigner in Israel.”
The falling-out couldn’t have been more ironic considering that Israeli history books credit the Rothschilds with the colony’s survival a century ago, after Baron Edmourd bought 50,000 hectares of Arab land for settlement (transferred to the state in 1951). Other dynasty members have financed construction of the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline and creation of an Israeli educational TV channel. But in the current political pressure cooker, good works don’t seem to weigh as impressively as strident voices.
René Sirat’s election doesn’t yet indicate a loud pro-Zionist voice from the French Jewish community. He himself is reported to be a liberal who privately opposes Israel’s current settlement policies. But observers predict that it may nevertheless prove the first step toward toppling the old establishment. Certainly, when he takes office next January, Sirat won’t have an easy time conciliating his feuding flock. That may be one reason why, for the first time in history, France’s grand rabbi was elected not for life but merely for a seven-year term—the same length as Giscard’s.
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