France-Israel. Lobby or not lobby ? (1)

An Omerta With a Long History

Investigation · Because the expression “Jewish lobby” is associated with the pre-war anti-Semitism of the far right, the use of the word lobby in connection with “friends of Israel” is controversial. Some prefer the term “circles of influence,” or formal and informal networks, but everyone agrees that over the last twenty years the pressure from the partisans of Israel has grown stronger, with an eye to delegitimising those of us who stand up for the Palestinians.

15 January 2017. Rally against the “Paris Conference for Peace in the Middle East” at the call of the CRIF and various organisations
Pierre Constant/AFP

The word lobby alone, banal enough in Washington, habitual in Brussels, always gets tongues wagging in Paris. In the first place because it is an anglicism, which made its appearance at the beginning of the nineteenth century to designate the men who roamed the lobbies of the House of Commons, trying to persuade MPs of the relevance of this or that activity, sometimes to the detriment of public interest. In French, we prefer “groupe de pression” (pressure group) which amounts to pretty much the same thing.

But the main reason is that in the thirties the expression “lobby juif” belonged to the vocabulary of the radical, anti-Semitic right, very influential in pre-war political and cultural milieus. The violence of the accusations brought against popular Front Premier Léon Blum and his Minister of Education Jean Zay, the extravagance of the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paul Morand and a few others were aimed above all at the “Jewish lobby” which, to a large extent, was a fantasy construct, since the French Jewish community at that time was hardly structured at all and largely secularised.

Today, when anti-Semitism is making something of a comeback and is especially visible on the social networks, to speak of a lobby, even when qualified as “pro-Israel” seems to hark back to that infamous tradition, although most of the people I have interviewed do use the term in one way or another since it is the most appropriate.

“I shan’t use the word lobby, although it bears a strong resemblance to one" was the considered opinion of Bruno Joncour, a deputy with the centre-right party le Modem from Saint-Brieuc, before actually using the term nonetheless in the course of our conversation: “The pro-Israel lobby chiefly targets the economic, cultural and media circles. At the political level, you have the dynamism of a number of associations devoted to presenting Israel and its policies favourably without skimping on the means.”

Very real networks of influence

So, the weight of words and their use constitute a reality which transcends the usual political divisions. A former high-ranking diplomat, who was stationed in several Middle Eastern countries including Israel, prefers to speak of a “Zionist lobby”, observing that the word lobby “is connoted as something excessive”. Excessive or negative? “The word lobby has a negative connotation, seems almost to redound of conspiracy theory” is the opinion of historian Frédérique Schillo, a specialist in Franco-Israeli relations. "The CRIF [Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France] propagates the ideas of right-wing Israeli nationalism, a very domineering rhetoric, a fascination with power and totally uninhibited public figures, models of demagogy and illiberalism. But there is also an utter lack of interest in the Palestinian cause in France, it has become just another low-intensity conflict, the experience of terrorism has done much to bring the French and the Israelis closer together.”

For Clémentine Autain, FI deputy for la Seine-Saint-Denis, the problem is not so much the word as the reality, the incredible pressure she undergoes whenever she brings up the issue before Parliament, in her constituency or in the media (though because of the omerta, the opportunities for this are rare, with the notable exception of France24). “Today, if you challenge the policies of the Israeli government and if you speak up for the Palestinians, you encounter a tremendous pressure and are immediately accused of anti-Semitism, you have to be pretty tough”, she explains. “Personally, I don’t like the word lobby, it makes me uneasy. On this subject, I hear ‘Jewish lobby.’ Words have their history, they have a certain ring, it’s not rational. But words like ‘very active circles of influence’, sure, that’s fine.”

“There isn’t a lobby, there are individuals, call them “influencers”, says one of her colleagues who sits on the LREM bench in the Assembly. “But it is true that they go all out and when you’re in their cross-hairs, they never let you go.” “The networks of find pro-Israeli have managed to achieve broad support in the political arena, in the Socialist Party for example there are lots of people who have no problem backing Israel,” explains Jacques Fath, formerly in charge of international relations for the French Communist Party (PCF). That actually has had a lot do with the weakening of France’s role in that part of the world.”

Unabashed supporters

Other people have no problems with the word. “It doesn’t bother me to use the word lobby. The CRIF behaves like a lobby and openly advocates support for Israel”, Rony Brauman explains. “The pro-Israeli lobby exists politically and intellectually; it is both formal and informal. The pressure they exert bears fruit and people who get the brunt of it don’t want to be on their radar.” Others prefer to remain anonymous. “I’ve been hassled enough,” says an academic. “The lobby is the Israeli embassy, Elnet, the CRIF”, he explains. They have very significant means at their disposal. That French firms should be looking for markets in Israel is fairly normal. It’s a lot more pernicious for politicians and journalists who are targeted by propaganda operations.”

“There is nothing shocking about the expression pro-Israel lobby, for the lobby is perfectly real,” a deputy mayor of Paris adds. “The pro-Israel lobby takes our elected officials to Israel so they can see things as they really are, they can help us discover things”, François Pupponi, deputy from Sarcelles and himself a friend of Israel, formerly a socialist and now affiliated with the Modem. “There is no point in denying the evolution of Israel’s politics, the Israeli right and Israeli society, but let people discover it”. This is the task which an organisation like Elnet has taken on, shedding a favourable light on Israel for political and economic decision -makers but also countering pro-Palestinian initiatives. Its work constitutes part of the public expression of the CRIF (we will deal with these two organisations in detail later on).

“In Jerusalem, nobody gives a hoot about France”

There would seem to be no end to the debate between those who favour the use of the word lobby and those who have reservations. “I don’t really believe in the lobby. That works in the US, but even there it’s starting to break up,” the head of a big firm established for many years in Israel explained. “You know, among the French living in Israel there are many strands, trends and sub-trends, it’s a mixed bag. In France there are people who are pro-Israeli, but it’s not really a group of people, it’s not very structured.” “Of course, there are pro-Israeli networks, but there are also pro-Palestinian ones. There are pro-Russian and anti-Russian networks too,” is the opinion of Constance Le Grip, a deputy with Les Républicains (LR), Sarkozy’s party. “That’s life,” she said.

But the pro-Israel lobby—I’ll use the word because at bottom I see no serious objection to it- also has its Achilles heels in France. “Today, Israel is only interested in the United States and the European Union. Nobody gives a hoot about France in Jerusalem”, said a former ambassador. One sign of the relative disinterest in our country: for over a year now, Aliza Bin-Noun, Israeli ambassadress in Paris, has not been replaced. Two chargées d’affaires, Talya Lador-Freshr and then Irit Ben-Abba Vitale followed one another and now the Embassy’s Minister Plenipotentiary, Daniel Saada has taken over the role during this long interim. An Israeli diplomat stationed in Paris assured me, off the record, that this is not the sign of any sulking, but rather a consequence of the political climate in Jerusalem, for the French post is one of eleven that are appointed directly by the government and are therefore notoriously political. Now since the government has been divided in recent months between the Likud and the Blue and White Alliance led by Benny Gantz, it seems the government has been incapable of agreeing on a name for the Paris appointment. We’ll know more after the March 2021 election.

Elnet’s webinar

Propaganda-wise, the lobby’s efforts go round and round on communitarian radio stations and specialised websites. Gone are the days of the mass gatherings “Six Hours for Israel” which were so fashionable in the nineties or the huge fundraisers in support of the Israeli army at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. Elnet, the lobby’s main mouthpiece, does not so much target French Jews and public opinion in general as it does the French elites. Its webinar on 7 June 2020, MC-ed by TV journalist Paul Amar, had a prestigious but unsurprising cast: former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and several MPs: Aurore Bergé (the poor lady who believes Israel to be “a miracle,” is an ardent partisan of French-style secularity and chairman of the Friends of Israel Group in the National Assembly) Sylvain Maillard and Meyer Habib, who accused in passing France-Inter of “inventing news items”, etc. Sensing the exasperation of even the most convinced listeners, Paul Amar finally cut him off and handed the floor to Constance Le Grip. Among the other guests was Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of Drancy, who recited for the umpteenth time the tale of his discovery journey to Israel and the colonies, where he met with army officers and officials elected by the “settlers.” By the beginning of December 2020, this Elnet webinar could boast only 81 hits on YouTube, scarcely more than the number of participants in that oath of allegiance ceremony.

Stifle any and every debate

Actually, it is perhaps first on the social networks that the lobby’s most radical partisans express themselves in an unrelenting counter-offensive whenever critical voices make themselves heard. I can bear witness to this personally. When I published in 2017 Mariage gay à Tel-Aviv, an investigation into a marketing strategy of pink washing developed by Israeli authorities to attract gay tourists from the West, I was bombarded with insults on the social networks and death threats preluding presentations of the work in bookstores in Toulouse and Geneva.

Anathema replaces dialogue, debate gives way to insults. On the whole, many personalities find discussion impossible, so weary are they of decades of insults. And when debate disappears, so does its object. “The capacity, not to argue or refute, but to prohibit the adversary’s speaking has become so powerful” deplores a former official with the Foreign Ministry who sees the subject itself as a “booby trap.” “As the years go by, any debate on that question has become practically impossible in Europe” bemoans Hubert Védrine, former general secretary of the Presidential Palace (Élysée) and one-time French Foreign Minister. “The Likud and its stooges abroad have succeeded in making any criticism of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories and the living conditions they inflict on the Palestinians appear to be anti-Zionist, or even anti-Semitic."

“Paradoxically, it is in Israel that a few intellectuals, a few journalists, a few media, not very many, are still keeping the debate alive in the belief that the Palestinian question has not been rendered completely obsolete by the new anti-Iranian coalition with several Arab countries and the overall battle against Islamism.”

However, the situation appears explosive on all sides. “What worries me most is the hatred of Jews and Israel, so present on the social networks,” says Constance Le Grip, who was advisor to the presidency under Nicolas Sarkozy. “To be a friend of Israel is to be exposed to insults and slander.”

Hatred of Jews? Hatred of Israel? Hatred of Palestinians? Misunderstandings? Impossible dialogue? Lies and shams? Let’s try to unravel some strands.

Partial failures

The pro-Israel lobby has succeeded in sowing widespread confusion. It has managed to extend its fan-club by reducing any and every criticism of Israel’s policies to anti-Semitism, but above all it has managed to discourage many critics, to silence them completely. “The cowards! If you only knew!” is the indignant cry of one MP from a major city. And yet France, at least officially, has not gone back on its word. Last July, the President of the Republic told Benyamin Netanyahu very firmly via video link that he opposed the annexation of occupied Palestinian territories, “in violation of international law.” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, addressing the Sénat at the end of June had also condemned an “annexation plan which would steer us irreversibly away from the creation of a viable Palestinian State, both politically and economically.” Bernard Heilbronn, chairman of the Association France-Palestine solidarité (AFPS) “applauded with both hands. I couldn’t have put it better.”

Better still, early in the summer of 2020, many European MPs, including several members of the Renew Group, belonging to LRem, signed an appeal against the annexation, Some of the signatories are high-placed personalities: Gilles Boyer, very close to ex-Premier Édouard Philippe, former ministers Pascal Canfin and Nathalie Loiseau, former editorialist for foreign affairs at France Inter, Bernard Guetta, as well as Stéphane Séjourné, a devoted follower of Macron since the beginning of his presidency, who is again a political advisor to the Elysée, while keeping his seat in the European parliament.

The problem is that all this is very confidential and the omerta in question goes way back. The lobby’s chief ally in France is not the raging rhetoric of a few relentless defenders of the cause on the social networks but rather the silence of those who should be speaking out or at the least informing the public, and first of all, our journalists. And the lobby needs this precious ally, for the fruits of their efforts do not always live up to their expectations. “They are powerful, well organised, they work hard, but still: the high court’s ban against BDS and boycott actions in general doesn’t look like it’s going to stick, the finagling around anti-Zionism has come a cropper, and the France-Israel cultural season wasn’t a great success,” Bernard Heilbronn opines. Faced with these semi-failures, the pro-Israel lobby in France, with its solid financial backing, has shifted into high gear.

A making of

I approached 73 national MPs, with at least two follow-ups in each case. Five deputies answered me for the record and their answers will appear in the articles that follow, four answered off the record and eight deputies and senators expressed their refusal to take part. I also approached 36 firms included in the CAC 40 (only four of which have no activities in Israel) and some twenty other firms, also with several follow-ups. I received four cordial refusals to reply, and only three more or less in-depth conversations, two of them off the record. I also contacted several dozen journalists, intellectuals, academics, diplomats, party leaders, local elected officials, company heads and leaders of associations. Few were willing to talk to me, several refused categorically to deal with Orient XXI.

I wish to thank those who agreed to enlighten me without prejudice. They will be mentioned by name throughout the series of articles, along with four essential actors on this subject: Francis Kalifat, chairman of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives en France (CRIF), Arie Bensenboum, General Director of Elnet France, Alice Garcia, advocacy officer with the Forum of French NGOs for Palestine and Bertrand Heilbronn, President of the Association France-Palestine Solidarité (AFPS). In a democratic country, it is a citizen’s duty to answer the questions of the media. These people and a few others did not shirk their responsibility. I wish to thank them here which does not, of course, mean I approve their viewpoints. But in my opinion, a journalist’s duty is to neglect no point of view.