France and England’s Jewish problem

January 10, 2002

This is a piece I wrote, published today by National Review Online, examining how the British and French reaction differs from the American reaction to the recent controversy surrounding the French ambassador to London's comments.

-- Tom Gross


Prejudice and abuse in Paris and London:
Have the French and English learned nothing from the 20th century?
By Tom Gross
January 10, 2002

A week before Christmas, the Israeli ambassador to Berlin wrote a letter to Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, protesting an editorial they had published comparing the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to those pursued by Adolf Hitler.

The comparison, wrote the ambassador, was "an insult to all Holocaust survivors and to the entire Jewish people."

In the ensuing days, the editorial was widely condemned in Germany. Though neo-Nazi elements do still exist in German society, the postwar majority has taken large and largely successful strides to purge itself of the legacy of anti-Semitism.

That the same cannot be said of France, however, was inadvertently given away by the writer of Der Spiegel's editorial, Rudolf Augstein, who is one of Germany's best-known journalists. Rather than properly apologize for his obscene comparison, Augstein made a telling remark in reply to the ambassador's letter: "In France one can say that, but apparently not in Germany."

Augstein may have had in mind comments of the kind recently made by Marc Gentilli, the president of the French Red Cross, who described as "disgusting" a request by the American Red Cross that Israel be admitted to the International Red Cross, and that the Star of David be accepted alongside its existing emblems the Cross and the Crescent.

Gentilli, head of one of France's leading humanitarian organizations, left little doubt of the disdain he holds for the Star of David, but less he be thought hostile to all "foreigners", he did call at the same time on the Palestine Red Crescent Society to immediately apply for membership to the international body, even though Palestine is not yet a state.

But if anyone still had doubts that Augstein was correct in his reading of French attitudes, they would have been dispelled the very next day by a column by Barbara Amiel in the London Daily Telegraph.

Amiel revealed that at a reception at her house, the ambassador of "a major EU country" told guests that the current troubles were all because of "that shitty little country Israel."

"Why," he asked, "should the world be in danger of World War Three because of those people?"

Within 24 hours, the Guardian newspaper identified the ambassador in question as Daniel Bernard, France's man in London and one of President Chirac's closest confidants. (While Bernard has not admitted using these exact words, he hasn't clearly denied doing so either.)

Several conservative columnists in the United States (where are those who profess to be liberal?) have condemned the ambassador for his "crude anti-Semitic remarks".

What has not been properly noted in the US media is that in the British and French media, it is not the French ambassador or anti-Semites who are being condemned, as one would expect, but Barbara Amiel and "those people". As for Israel, it seems to be open season.

A piece in the Independent, for example, by one of the paper's regular columnists (titled "I'm fed up being called an anti-Semite," by Deborah Orr, 21 December 2001) described Israel as "shitty" and "little" no fewer than four times.

"Anti-Semitism is disliking all Jews, anywhere, and anti-Zionism is just disliking the existence of Israel and opposing those who support it," explains Orr. "This may be an academic rather than a practical distinction," she continues, "and one which has no connection with holding the honest view that in my experience Israel is shitty and little".

In the Guardian, another British daily that claims to represent enlightened liberal views, columnist Matt Wells ("Every salon tells a story that's why the lady is a hack," December 20, 2001), denounced Amiel as "an arch-Zionist" but had nothing but sympathy for poor Mr. Bernard who, he claimed " was struggling against a tide of anger from Israel." (In fact the Israeli government hasn't made a single official comment in relation to the whole affair).

Indeed, rather than impinging on the distinguished diplomatic career of M.Bernard, who previously served as France's ambassador to The Netherlands and at the United Nations, it is Amiel who apparently made the "diplomatic gaffe", according to the British and French commentators. (Le Monde ran a front-page attack on Amiel, and rubbished the Daily Telegraph as "reactionary," "paranoid" and "preachy".)

If the French are now almost as open about their anti-Semitism as the Egyptians (the best-selling song in Cairo in 2001 was titled "I hate Israel"), England seems to be a country where the real crime is to condemn someone for their anti-Semitism rather than being one.

Writing in the (London) Observer, columnist Richard Ingrams (in a piece titled "Black's hole," December 23, 2001 Black is a reference to Amiel's married name), says the "gaffe" wasn't made by the ambassador, but by Amiel for "betraying the confidences of the dinner table" and writing such an "intemperate article".

Ingrams predicted that it would not be Bernard who would no longer be welcome in polite London society but the Blacks, who he guessed would have to "shortly decamp" to Manhattan.

As if one column of this stripe in a single edition of a newspaper wasn't enough, another of the Observer's columnists, Euan Ferguson, ("Gossip: 'tis the reason to be jolly", December 23, 2001), that same day writes "Ms Amiel is apparently as welcome now in the chic salons of north London as a fatwa in a sauna". Ferguson has no criticism to make of Bernard or the French government that has given him its full backing, but he does say as part of his commentary on 'l'affaire Bernard' that Israel has "the stubborn belief that the lifelong wish of our current pin-up boy, little baby Jesus, was to have his birthday celebrated by the shooting of innocent children in the street."

The level of denial of British racism extends so deep that many in England seem to not even realize what anti-Semitism is.

Columnist Joan Smith ("Dinner at Amiel's leaves a bad taste," 23 December 2001) writes that Amiel's "assumption that Bernard's remark was anti-Semitic, is pretty dubious. If there is a lesson to be learned from this episode, it is not the French ambassador's politics that have been called into question on this occasion, but his taste in friends."

Richard Woods in the London Sunday Times (23 December 2001, "When silence speaks volumes") says the ambassador's remark was only "apparently anti-Semitic".

There have been one or two admirable exceptions to this pattern, notably Andrew Sullivan (a British commentator who has been based in the US for over two decades) and the Anglo-Jewish writer Melanie Phillips, but they are very much in the minority. Phillips has been left to make her strongest remarks on the subject outside the UK ("British Polite Society Has Found a Not-So-New Target", December 24, 2001, The Wall Street Journal Europe).

For every Sullivan and Phillips there seem to be many among the "chattering classes" in London that actually find attacks on Jews rather amusing. Here, for example, is columnist Alexei Sayle in the Independent, writing shortly after the latest batch of Israeli teenagers had been blown to pieces by suicide bombers: "If a vivisectionist has their car burnt or a right-wing Israeli is shot or Ben Elton's musical closes early because of poor ticket sales, I can't say I can find it within myself to care very much." (Ben Elton is a British playwright and stand-up comedian).

Since Bernard's remarks were reported, there have been over a dozen fresh anti-Semitic incidents in France. Only last weekend attackers firebombed a synagogue in the northern Paris suburb of Goussainvil. A few days before that, gasoline bombs were hurled into a Jewish school in the southeastern Paris suburb of Creteil, setting a classroom on fire. On the same day another synagogue was torched.

Fortunately, no one was injured in these particular incidents. But it can only be a matter of time before someone is. Have the French and English learned nothing from the twentieth century?

(For more writing by Tom Gross on the European media and Israel, see )

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.