It appears that the many supporters of Solidarity With Jews At Risk (SWJAR) who spent five nights standing vigil in front of the Bloor offices of the French Consulate in Toronto, obtaining hundreds of signatures on petitions, will never hear what the government of France has to say.
The hastily organized vigil was motivated by outrage at recent events in France. Hundreds of violent acts had been committed against Jewish property and people since September 9, 2000, the start of the current intifadah. Last fall, for instance, 200 Arabs attacked Jews in the Champs Élysées before Rosh Hashanah. Since then, Jewish schools have been vandalized, synagogues burned, cemeteries desecrated. "Never again" seemed to be happening now and in France, culminating in neo-fascist, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen winning a place in the presidential run-off against incumbent Jacques Chirac, a man whose own civil rights record is less than sterling. Weeks earlier, the French ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, had called Israel a "shitty little country," adding, "Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?" He remains in office.
The vigil's three organizers, Anna Morgan, Rachael Turkienicz and I, felt that government sponsored rhetoric against Israel and French Jews had served to inflame the population. "The point of the vigil," said Turkienicz, "was to demonstrate our solidarity with the Jews of France and implore the French government to do whatever was necessary to protect and defend this vulnerable group." We wanted to encourage politicians to work with their police, to tone down their rhetoric and to secure the safety of their Jewish communities. At the same time, we wanted to let French Jews know they were not facing this challenge alone, and to remind France that the world was watching.
Concerned Jews and non-Jews handed out information sheets and petitions on the street, in synagogues, schools, and study groups, asking for signatures to be sent to the Consul General of France in Toronto, M. Hugues Goisbault. The response was overwhelming. Articles appeared in The Canadian Jewish News, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and the National Post, which also printed a letter from the organizers. The fax machine in the consul general's office must have whirred day and night. (So far as we know, New York was the only city outside Europe where a similar vigil was held.) We waited for a response. None came. Perhaps the consul general was unsure how to address his reply.
We recrafted our petition as a letter which was sent on May 8 and urged the French government to reply publicly. "As founding members of Solidarity With Jews At Risk," we began, "we are gratified with the overwhelming turnout of voters in the French presidential election and the resounding defeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen." We said that we were also astounded by the number of Torontonians who came forward and signed our petition, and "while we support government actions taken so far by France to restrain inflammatory rhetoric and increase police protection for French Jews, we regard these as first steps only." We asked Goisbault to "please tell us, and the concerned public, what further measures this new government will enact to assure Jews all over the world that these barbarous crimes will not be tolerated and that France will enforce the rule of law and protect all its citizens, including Jews."
Two days later, we received a reply, which said, in part, that "security is one the major issues for the new French government" and that they had formed a new ministry responsible for home affairs, internal security and local liberties and hoped to strengthen various police forces. "The French authorities have always firmly condemned crimes against democracy. Exemplary sentences have been pronounced in order to punish any person committing any anti-Semitic connoted act on the French territory."It concluded: "Please notice that France has never stopped denouncing and fighting against terrorism in the world, particularly condemning terrorist attacks in Israel. Today, our country is paying tribute to terrorism [sic]. The death of French citizens, victims of terrorist attacks in Pakistan testifies it."
We tried, initially, to make sense of the letter, to decode its message, especially the meaning of the repeated phrase, "anti-Semitic connoted acts." There was no mention of petitions, no recognition of the extent of the problem, no expression of responsibility or regret. We asked prominent members of the arts community to join us in a Standing Beside committee and received the support of Irving Abella, Margaret Atwood, June Callwood, Jacques Israelievitch, Norman Jewison, Mia Kirshner, David Mirvish, Peter C. Newman, Anna Porter, Jack Rabinovitch, Arlene Perly Rae, Heather Reisman, Mark Skazinetsky and Matthew Teitelbaum.
A new letter, with their names added, was sent on May 23, this time with a copy to the French ambassador in Ottawa, Philippe Guelluy. In it we expressed our shock and condolences to the people of France for the recent loss of innocent lives at the hands of terrorists in Pakistan, while stating that it was even more shocking when terrorism occurs in a country such as France. We mentioned once again recent incidents of anti-Semitic acts in France, adding that while we appreciated the initiative France appeared to be making to prevent future attacks, we needed some assurance that "the climate of intolerance that prevails in France" had also changed. In addition, we stated that we expected the French government, through its consul general, "to make a public statement to reassure our concerned community that there is a recognition of omissions in the past as well as an invigorated policy for the future." We said we looked forward to a public reply.
A few days later, in a phone conversation with the ambassador's secretary, we were told that the letter had been received but "a reply is not forecasted." June 6. Still no word from the consul general of France in Toronto. We left messages for him to call one of the three original SWJAR organizers. He did not. In fact, we have been able to speak only to his secretary.
On May 31, one of the members of the Standing Beside committee met with the consul general on another matter and we were informed, through him, that Goisbault would be willing to meet informally with our committee at his official residence on June 10. He also passed on to us a sheaf of documents. They included, most notably, a statement from the ambassador's office entitled "Anti-Semitic connoted acts in France," an article in Le Monde by Jean Frydman, a Jewish businessman, and a letter by the ambassador published in the Ottawa Citizen. The first document, dated April 11, states that "it is unacceptable to make the conclusion that France is going through a general renewal of anti-Semitic ideas... On the contrary, surveys show that the French population totally condemns these isolated acts." It says that France "has always refused to confuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with anti-Semitic acts, which are to be condemned no matter what the context in the Middle East," but argues that "the resurgence of anti-Semitic acts is clearly linked to the situation in that region." In this official document, there were repeated denials of a problem as well as an attempt to offer assurance that security had been increased.
In the more disturbing Le Monde article, published April 9, the author wrote that while it's true there are anti-Semites in France as everywhere, "the existence of racist or anti-Semitic minorities has never meant that the country where they live was necessarily racist or anti-Semitic." As proof, he cited the many French who defended Alfred Dreyfus ("Which country went to the brink of civil war in order to defend the honour of an innocent Jewish officer?") and continued in a similarly incoherent fashion, mixing history and fiction. Finally, there was the May 23 letter by the ambassador, published in the Ottawa Citizen, that stated his government's position: anti-Semitism is only a problem in France as it relates to the Middle East conflict.
On June 6, we informed the Standing Beside committee of our failure to receive a proper, public answer to the community's signed petitions or their personally endorsed letter. While SWJAR supports the French government's added measures to secure its Jewish citizens, we are concerned that they remain unwilling to make a clear, public statement admitting the history of French anti-Semitism or to acknowledge it as a particularly virulent problem today. For these reasons, we decided not to meet the consul general at this time. We are not alone in being met by silence from the French government. Also on June 6, the French ambassador to the United States abruptly cancelled a long-scheduled meeting with 100 American Jewish leaders, saying that the representative of a sovereign state doesn't meet with non-governmental groups - this despite the fact that the event had been co-sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Senate Republican Policy Conference. More worrying still, on June 10, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a stern reminder that while some things change, others seem immutable: "The continuing attacks on Jews in France, which have been more numerous than in any other western country, are being carried out against the background of alarming indifference, with citizens and government leaders turning a blind eye. This indifference, coupled with the threat of anti-Semitism and the verifiably documented acts of violence, are prompting a continued feeling of utter abandonment within France's Jewish community."SWJAR has succeeded in making our own community aware of the plight of French Jews. We have failed, so far, to make the French government behave responsibly. It seems that half a victory will have to do for now.