Israeli citizens are polarized in their reaction to our prime minister’s conduct around and during his trip to Paris last week to participate in last Sunday’s massive unity march against terrorism, that several days earlier had targeted freedom of speech and the Jewish community there.
There were those who lauded Netayahu’s patriotic conduct and his emphasis on the Jewish aspect of the story, only complaining that he had originally decided not to participate in the march, changing his mind after two of his ministers announced their intention to travel to Paris.
On the other side were those who felt that Netayahu’s crass conduct was insulting to France, and insensitive to the feelings of large sections of French Jewry, including the victims’ relatives.
While the first group of Israelis are among those who believe that Netanyahu is great, or at least that there is currently no one to replace him, the second group belongs to the “Netanyahu go home” camp, who feel that at best Netanyahu has lost it, while at worst he was never anything to write home about.
I admit that I belong to the second group, even though I was at first inclined to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I feel that much of the criticism of him over the Paris episode has been demagogic, and has missed the point.
There is no doubt that France’s policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely frustrating to Israel – especially the apparent French support for the unilateral Palestinian moves in the international arena, which seems to go much further than that of other states that are not considered enemies of Israel, and its total rejection of Israel’s unilateral moves regarding Jewish settlement activities in the West Bank, in which it is no different to the rest of Israel’s friends and allies.
If one believes, as I do, that Israel is largely responsible for the Palestinian frustration that has led Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to embark on an attempt to try to receive recognition of a Palestinian state from the international community, rather than by means of negotiations with Israel, then one’s complaints against France are in the field of degree and style rather than substance.
But even if one believes that Israel is in no way to blame for its present predicament, there is no excuse for treating France with total lack of respect and decorum. After all, the terrorist events in France were first and foremost a French event, involving French citizens – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – both as victims and perpetrators (and let us not forget that one of the French policemen killed was Muslim).
Though Netanyahu was certainly entitled to emphasize the Jewish/ anti-Semitic aspect of the event, and might even be justified in using the occasion to promote aliya to Israel (including the post-mortem aliya of the victims), there was no justification for doing so at the price of totally ignoring the French recognition of the fact that the Jews were among the declared targets of the terrorist acts, followed by the decision of the French leaders to tighten the security arrangements around Jewish institutions, and their emphasis on the importance of the French Jewish community to the essence of the French Republic.
Furthermore, the march was largely a march in favor of democratic values.
Though I believe that freedom of speech and expression must have certain limits, based on sensitivities to the feelings and beliefs of others, without which true pluralism cannot exist, and that Charlie Hebdo crossed the red line that separates legitimate criticism and satire from outrageous vulgarity and irresponsibility, the Paris march was still basically about freedom of speech and human rights.
If Netanyahu felt that his place was in the front of the procession – though it was rather embarrassing to see him inelegantly push his way to the first row – he should at least have respected the main theme of the event in his utterances, rather than use it exclusively as a tool in his election campaign, in which freedom of speech and human rights play no role at all.
Perhaps if Netanyahu had given the issue a little more thought, he would have understood that if there is any democracy in the world that can appreciate Israel’s refusal to grant its minorities collective rights rather than only individual rights (though that, too, within limits) – it is France. In fact, France and Greece are the only European states that refuse on principle to recognize national minorities as having collective rights. But why think of such matters when the only thing that seems to matter is how to take advantage of every random event for the purpose of making political hay? One has to be blind not to see the distress in which the Jews of France find themselves these days, with the growth of a Muslim community in France that is much larger than the Jewish community – 4.5-6.5 million Muslims (there are no official figures since it is prohibited in France to collect demographic statistics based on race or religion) versus half a million Jews (the statistics come from Jewish sources), and the development within the Muslim community of a radical minority committed to al-Qaida, Islamic State and murderous terrorism.
For some time now the figures for aliya from France have been on the rise, and the recent events will undoubtedly further increase the figures. Since one of the raisons d’être of the State of Israel is as a haven for Jews in distress, the promotion of aliya from France is certainly a legitimate activity. The question is how, when and where this promotion should take place.
Many French Jews, and even Israelis of French origin, feel that Netanyahu exaggerated in this respect during his short sojourn in Paris, failing to take into consideration the sensitivities of the French government, and of many French Jews who identify as French patriots and whose loyalty to France has been placed in question by the prime minister of Israel.
Even in the case of burial arrangements for the four officially Jewish victims of the terrorist attacks (one of the staff members killed during the attack on Charlie Hebdo – Elsa Cayat – was half Jewish), it was reported that the families of two of the victims would probably have buried their dear ones in France had they not been pressured, and would certainly have preferred an intimate, private ceremony.
But what is most disturbing is the hypocrisy around the whole aliya issue.
First of all, all Jews who wish to make Israel their home are certainly more than welcome. But to encourage them to do so in the name of security, when the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in Israel are about ten-times higher than they are in France, is irresponsible.
Furthermore, to deliberately ignore the fact that 80 percent of the French Jews are of North African origin, all of whom chose to settle in France rather than Israel after leaving the Maghreb (some are actually Israeli emmigrants) and on average did much better in economic and educational terms than their brethren who settled in Israel – smacks of dishonesty, especially since there is still an unsettled issue of the status of Mizrahim in Israel. Of course, the addition of a large community of middle class, educated Jews of North African origin might well help change the situation in Israel, but anyone promising the French olim a garden of roses is lying to them on various counts.
So what would one expect of Netanyahu? A little bit of “hatzne’ah lechet” (walk humbly), a lot more sensitivity, and leaving the French tragedy out of the Israeli election campaign.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.