France-Israel. Lobby or not lobby ? (2)

Criticism of Israel Stifled by the Law of Silence

Investigation · Today, criticising Israel in France is frankly a dangerous enterprise which on the face of it seems to be a great success for those who are busy trying to delegitimise any and every questioning of the Israeli government’s policies. The keynote? Forget the fate of the Palestinians and celebrate the current renewal of our political and economic relations. And yet French public opinion is not in tune with this line.

Paris, August 2015. — Communication operation “Tel Aviv-sur-Seine” organised by the Paris City Hall as part of the summer event “Paris-Plages”
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

“I’ve already said too much about that”. “I no longer make statements about that.” “What do you expect me to say?” “Right now, you’ll understand I don’t want to talk to you.” “I’m sure you’re right, but it’s a lost cause.” “Good luck for your investigation.” And these were the politest responses. Trying to question opinion formers, elected officials, journalists and intellectuals about the possible existence of a lobby (the very use of the word is controversial) operating in defence of Israel is to run the risk of total isolation. For this investigation I contacted by phone or by e-mail some 200 people between February and November 2020. Less than 30 replied.

The history of Franco-Israeli relations is a long one, it goes back to the very origins of Zionism and to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. And for many lucid observers, the current trend of Israeli politics is deplorable. “What has become of the Zionist dream? Caterpillar tanks and systems for spying their opponents,” is the way Rony Brauman sums it all up. And there are numbers to back him up: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), Israel is the eighth-ranking arms purveyor in the world, and its share of the market is increasing all the time. The sales of the countries three main arms manufacturers, Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael, amounted to 8.7 billion dollars in 2018, still according to Sipri, and all three figure among the 100 top arms firms in the world on the list drawn up by the Swedish institute.

Born in 1950 in Jerusalem where he grew up, Rony Brauman is an MD. For many years, he was head of Doctors Without Frontiers, then became a theoretician of emergency humanitarian action and (hoping he will not hold the term against me) what is called “une grande conscience”. Open-minded, affable, curious about everything, he co-directed in 1999 with Eyal Sylvan a remarkable documentary about the trial of Adolf Eichmann Un Spécialiste based on the book by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Israel is the only country ruled by the far right to be celebrated as a democracy. This is an undeniable diplomatic achievement for Israel but a very debatable one: American Jews are distancing themselves at top speed from the supporters of Israel, Israeli flags and collections for its army are banned from American synagogues and it is a source of embarrassment for an increasing number of Jews around the world.

And not only for Jews and not only in The United States and in France. “There is a feeling of injustice experienced by many young generations of Arabs and this is an important factor in that part of the world,” I was told by deputy Gwendal Rouillard, a member of President Macron’s party, la République en marche (LREM), elected from the town of Lorient, in the department of Morbihan. “It fuels ressentiment. When I say something like that, I feel like a veteran of struggles long past, and yet that rhetoric is totally up to date. This feeling of injustice in the way the Palestinians are treated carries with it such incomprehension, such humiliations that it would be a big mistake to underestimate the impact of political decisions in the Arab countries. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not peripheral, it is central.”

And yet the pro-Israel lobby and its backers do their best to downplay it, make us forget it, make it seem like just a link in the worldwide struggle between Islamist terrorism and the West, a breeding ground for anti-Semitism in all its forms—a factor it would be useless to deny—hiding behind the mask of anti-Zionism. In twenty years, the terms of the dominant analysis of the conflict have changed. The struggle of the Palestinian people against the occupation is now presented by the “friends of Israel” as an element of global terrorism’s war against the West. And the cyber-surveillance systems tested by the “start-up nation” against the Palestinians in the occupied zones mentioned by Brauman are sold around the world to countries like China and Saudi Arabia which are not exactly models of democracy.

Nor must we forget that since the end of the 19th century, many Jews have opposed political Zionism, starting with the Bund and its militant Communists or the great Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, who did not believe it was possible to create a nation in Palestine without the Arabs and advocated a single state, a utopia which today again seems to belong to the realm of possibility despite over 70 years of colonisation.

Buber was an extraordinary figure, whose essential work, I and Thou influenced Martin Luther King. He could not imagine a Zionism devoid of justice and asserted this forcibly in A Land of Two Peoples. “What the Bible teaches us so simply and so forcibly and which cannot be learnt in any other book is that there is truth and there are lies and that human existence is inexorably on the side of truth; that there is justice and injustice and that the salvation of humanity lies in the choice of justice and the rejection of injustice.”

But the embarrassment felt by Rony Brauman—and a few other people in France, less and less inclined to voice it publicly, contrary to the United States—the “injustice” which outrages Gwendal Rouillard and other French MPs (more than we might think though they keep it to themselves) can no longer be quoted, the public debate is currently so favourable to the pro-Israel current. Yes, criticism of Israel has become dangerous and on the face of it, this is a great success for those devoted to delegitimising any expression of it. In 2003, Pascal Boniface, director of the Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques (IRIS) wrote in his book Est-il permis de critiquer Israël ?: “There is no Jewish lobby, quite simply because the community of French Jews is such a mixed bag” but there is a “pro-Israel lobby, it is composed of Jews, naturally, but also people who are not Jewish.”

When he talks about it now, Pascal Boniface observes that “things haven’t changed, but it’s more complicated than it was seventeen years ago. The debate has hardened. I had a difficult time finding a publisher for Est-il permis de critiquer Israël? in 2003, but even more difficult for Les intellectuels faussaires in 2011. Since then, I have become persona non grata for many media.”

And then there’s this background noise, described in straightforward terms by a French academic who knows the Middle East well and who prefers to remain anonymous: mainly the debate on secularism, fuelled by draught laws like the one about to be tabled on “separatism” and by political movements (particularly le Printemps républicain, to be discussed later). There is a connection between the offensive against the pro-Palestinians in France and the attacks on the headscarves worn by Muslim women. At the end of the day, the same people are spreading Islamophobia and importing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into France, paradoxically enough [since this is what they accuse their critics of doing].

So, we may no longer think the circles of influence favourable to Israel are preaching to the converted but that they have won a real victory, a least a partial one. This is a far cry from the measly propaganda of the many French-speaking Israeli websites like JSSNews, Le Monde or which twist and distort the news, indulge in harassment, and lies. When “Arabs” and “Muslims” are targeted, no holds are barred.

But these are confidential sites with a limited audience, they are under the influence of Israel’s French-speaking community. Around 50,000 Jews of French origin live in the colonies and a good share of them are bored to death in their fenced-in air-conditioned bungalows. They flood the web with “news” about Israel, turning in a perpetual loop and in a rather distressing style. In 2014, for example, they insinuated that young Mohamed Abou Khdeir had been beaten and burned alive by other Palestinians because he was gay, when actually he had been executed by colonists.

More significant yet is the multiplication over the past four years of journeys by elected officials, national and local— including several by Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris—who publish gorgeous photos and enamoured accounts on their websites or in their electoral gazettes, or by groups of carefully selected journalists. These have a considerable influence as we shall see later on, and it is perhaps above all the visits by corporate leaders that show the extent to which Franco-Israeli relations are evolving. Of course the pandemic has temporarily put a stop to these outreach missions and discovery tours. In the spring of 2020, I myself was supposed to go there with a delegation of businessmen from Eastern France, a trip which has, of course, been postponed indefinitely. But, for example, in October 2018, 185 bosses from Brittany landed in Tel Aviv for an exploratory tour organised by the Union of companies of the department of Ille-et-Vilaine. “Israel turned on the charm for them” was how the newspaper Ouest-France summed up the event. Investments and markets were discussed, but not “war and conflicts”. “I was a little worried at first,” one of the Brittany bosses said, “I thought it was more or less a war out there.” He was enchanted by the prospects, the people he talked to were affable and the hotels quite pleasant.

Israel is a small but dynamic market; France is not very active there yet. The French ambassadress in Israel at the time, Hélène le Gall comes from a family of Britons, hosted a gathering of the Brittany executives in the gardens of her Jaffa residence and urged them to take their cue from this start-up nation to make Brittany a “start-up region”. Politics were not on the agenda, nor was Palestine except incidentally, in connection with the business climate. There was also in 2019 a delegation of the heads of several major French corporations, including the mastodon Bouygues (at the heart of the French business world and the power structure, public works, telecommunications, media). All came home waxing enthusiastic over their initiatory journey through the inner workings of the start-up nation.

In Tel Aviv, economic diplomacy gets the job done. The local branch of Business France, a department of the Ministry of Finance which has the task of accompanying French investments abroad, so dear to the heart of President Macron, and which is there to help companies that wish to further extend their activities.

In a phone conversation with the head of a firm which has been established for years in Israel, I questioned him about Palestine and he simply failed to answer. There was only silence on the line. I repeated my question, still no answer. I repeated it a third time and the penny finally dropped: he didn’t give a damn. “Today, politics isn’t in charge of the economy any more,” he confirmed a little later in our conversation. “There are Israelis who do business and Palestinians who do business, they don’t give a damn about Netanyahu, they just want to work together”. I questioned a French MP (LREM) about his party’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, because there seems to be such a huge gap between the positions of his colleagues like Sylvain Maillard who has no problem being seen at the Cercle Interallié in Paris in the company of delegates from the colonies, and that of Gwendal Rouillard, a resolute opponent of the expansion of those same colonies. He too failed to answer. I put my query to him twice. The only argument he gave to justify his non-response was “three suspension points...”

These repeated silences seem to signify another victory of the pro-Israel clan in France. “Palestine seems to be a lost cause and what’s more, if you take it up, you’re afraid of being branded an anti-Semite. There’s something wrong, something’s out of kilter” is Clémentine Autain’s indignant reaction. She’s a deputy with the left-wing party, la France insoumise (FI). And yet public opinion is on a very different wavelength, it persists in giving its support to the Palestinians. According to an IFOP poll taken in May 2018 and commissioned by the French Union of Jewish Students (UFJF), 71% of French people believe that Israel bears a heavy responsability in the lack of negotiations with the Palestinians. They don’t often say so, but 57% of them have a “negative image” of IsraeI and for 69%, Zionism is an ideology which serves Israel as a justification for its occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land. And yet they seldom act on this conviction, for fear perhaps of that confusion surrounding the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, very present in people’s minds. Indeed, 54% of French people believe that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism.

And yet there too, the tactic is not a complete success. By adding anti-Zionism to the definition of anti-Semitism, in the footsteps of The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (INRA), the “Maillard resolution” was adopted in November 2019 by a skimpy majority in the Chambre des deputies of the National Assembly: 154 in favour, 72 against and 43 abstentions out of a total of 577 deputies. But over 300, many of them members of the President’s party, did not take part in the vote which is a sign of the existence of genuine divisions, I will come back to this later.

“Do not play games with anti-Semitism,” wrote Esther Benbassa, Senator from Paris for the French Green Party (Europe écologie les verts, EELV). Let us snatch criticism of Israel from the claws of the current Israeli government. A political criticism, in no sense anti-Semitic.”

Yet the author of Être juif après Gaza (Being Jewish after Gaza), published in 2009, and who asked, in the same vein as Martin Buber, “by becoming Israeli, were those Jews struck by amnesia to the point of forgetting the basic principles of ethics, the every foundation of their Jewish identity?” She often feels terribly isolated. “The fact that I support the Palestinian cause does not make me popular with the Jews of France,” she wrote in Haaretz last summer. Esther Benbassa is an historian and is as worried about the rising tide of racism in Israel and in France as she is about the progress of anti-Semitism in our own country.

It is perfectly obvious that the anti-Zionism preached on the Net and sometimes in the streets by feeble-minded types spoon-fed for years on the vicious revisionism of the far-right activist Alain Soral or his confederate, the one-time stand-up comedian Dieudonné, is nothing but a fig leaf meant to hide their spineless Jew-hating.

But something else is just as obvious: never have the fans of Israel been so active within public institutions and the public sphere. One may call it a lobby or prefer the more neutral term “circle of influence,” but the debate is by no means semantic, it is political. We do not seem to have grasped the in-depth activism of these “friends of Israel” in the National Assembly, the Senate, city councils of Paris, Nice and other big cities, in the chambers of commerce and editorial offices.