PARIS — Two months after French chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim’s scandalous resignation over plagiarism charges, the newly elected president of the community’s umbrella representative group, Roger Cukierman, knows he will have a hard time restoring French Jewry’s trust in its institutions.
“A great majority of French Jews don’t feel well represented by their institutions, just as most French people don’t identify with their politicians,” Cukierman told the Times of Israel this week following his election.
“This ‘crisis of representation’ isn’t specific to the Jewish world,” he continues. “For the next three years my biggest challenge will be making CRIF more open-minded, and adapting to escalating anti-Semitism in France, which is of a more violent and dangerous strain since the Toulouse killings.”
After two successive terms between 2001 and 2007, Roger Cukierman, 76, was again elected by the General Assembly on May 26. He was declared the victor in the second round of voting, earning 61 percent of the votes against Arie Bensemhoun, the head of the Jewish community of Toulouse.
Cukierman is replacing Richard Prasquier, who completed two consecutive terms in May.
The CRIF umbrella representative body of 72 major French Jewish organizations was born in 1944 during the resistance to the Nazi occupation.
But on the eve of its 70th anniversary, many voices within the Jewish community are questioning its capacity to renew itself and attract young people.
‘I have a lot of respect for Roger Cukierman, but his recent reelection could be compared to a potential reelection of Jacques Chirac in France’
“I have a lot of respect for Roger Cukierman, but his recent reelection could be compared to a potential reelection of Jacques Chirac in France,” says Alain Granat, chief editor of Jewpop, a French Jewish online publication for 18-35 year olds.
“Where are young Jewish leaders at CRIF?” he asks. “Who are the next in line? We’re nowhere where we should be on that matter.”
To Jonathan Hayoun, president of the French Jewish Students Association (UEJF), the core of the problem lies elsewhere. He explains the CRIF’s first challenge is to boost participation in Jewish organizations.
“People can’t feel represented by their institutions if these same institutions don’t make them want to get involved at the community level,” he says. “We need to make Jewish associations more modern and appealing to young people.”
He announced that from June 2013 onwards, the UEJF president will become an outright member of the CRIF executive committee.
“This is definitely a step forward, but it’s not enough yet,” he adds. “We’re determined to have more young people in decision-making positions.”
Pointing to the lack of newer volunteers, Marie-Helene Londner, 56, honorary chairman of Casim (Comity of Israelite Social Action of Marseille), says the recession is partly to blame.
“If I were about 25 or 30 today, struggling to find a job and build a family, getting involved in Jewish community service during my free time would probably be one of the last things on my mind,” she says. “It’s sad, but at the same time, I can understand that young people have other priorities at the moment.”
However, she’s also quick to point out the lack of trust in Jewish institutions.
‘When the Bernheim scandal broke, young people stopped idealizing Jewish institutions and started seeing them more objectively’
“No doubt the aftershocks of the Bernheim scandal are still reverberating,” she continues. “When the scandal broke, young people stopped idealizing Jewish institutions and started seeing them more objectively — with their strengths and weaknesses, like in any other community.”
On the other hand, Granat believes CRIF’s image suffers mainly from its right-wing, conservative stance, which excludes a great number of left-leaning Jews.
“Even though we will always support Israel, we have to adopt a low profile from now on, otherwise people will continue seeing us as the back room of the Israeli embassy, and we’ll keep losing credibility at home,” Cukierman says.
In the past, the CRIF chair was well known for his vivid political interventions. At the 2003 CRIF annual banquet, he prompted a public outcry when he accused the alleged “red-green-brown alliance” — referring to the extreme-left, the Green party and the extreme-right — altogether of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
Two years later, he thoroughly criticized the French government for the alleged “incompatibility between France’s foreign policy and its domestic fight against anti-Semitism,” referring to France’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘Even though we will always support Israel, we have to adopt a low profile, otherwise people will continue seeing us as the back room of the Israeli embassy’
“CRIF hasn’t got any true political power beside its capacity to gather a large slice of the French political scene at its annual dinner — a dinner which has become very caricatural, and which is more and more criticized, even ridiculed,” says Granat.
“Sometimes, this institution has a tendency to react to so-called displays of anti-Semitism in the media, which makes it lose its credibility,” he adds. “It seems to me that this attitude is counter-productive.”
To Hayoun, CRIF will only gain more credibility if it also gets involved in the fight against racism in general in France, and not only anti-Semitism.
“The UEJF believes, as does CRIF, that anti-Semitism is not an ordinary form of racism,” he says. “But if CRIF doesn’t overtly support the fight against racism like we do, along with secular, non-Jewish groups, how are we ever going to be taken seriously in our fight against anti-Semitism?”