A Jewish city councilor in the French city of Toulouse apologized Friday but refused to resign from his post as demanded on Thursday by the city’s mayor, after he told an Israeli radio station there were “too many Arabs” in Toulouse.
In a statement sent to the France 3 television network, Aviv Zonabend, who is also a deputy mayor of the city, pleaded “clumsiness” in his choice of words due to a poor mastery of Hebrew, including “in its nuances and subtleties.” Zonabend said he had erroneously used the word “Arabs” instead of “Islamists.”
Mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc cannot fire the elected Zonabend. Nevertheless, he announced that he was relieving the councilor of his delegated duties in the council.
Moudenc had demanded the resignation of Zonabend after obtaining the “sworn translation of the interview” given to Army Radio and then reported upon by The Times of Israel.
Zonabend said he apologized to those he offended.
“I unequivocally reaffirm my friendship and my constant sympathy for all Muslims who respect the laws of our republic,” he said.
“Throughout my entire career, all of my comments made so far, all of my actions demonstrate my anti-racism,” said Zonabend. “Two words were taken out of context, about the safety of Jews wearing the kippah, by media hungry for buzz. They were enough to wake the foul beast, judging by the surge of anti-Semitic emails that I have received.”
Zonabend said he was refusing to resign “because that would be accrediting the unfair label of racist that some have promptly assigned to me.”
He stressed that the matter of substance in the affair was the “cultural anti-Semitism that is endemic to much of the Arab-Muslim community” and said he remained convinced of the need to fight such dangers.
Zonabend, the only Jewish member of the Toulouse city council, lamented during a Hebrew-language interview with Army Radio on April 25 that there were “very many, too many” Arabs in the city, making up 11-12 percent of its population, and “very few” Jews.
His comments on Arabs caused an uproar when many French news outlets cited the report in The Times of Israel’s French edition.
Moudenc had said Zonabend’s statements were “in profound violation of the spirit of tolerance and respect” to which he and his council were committed.
While noting that the councilor had never made such statements previously, “the fact remains that they have actually been pronounced, moreover in the context where Aviv Zonabend was presented as an elected official of our city,” Moudenc said.
In his interview with Army Radio, Zonabend revealed that his office had received an envelope with white powder several weeks earlier, adding that “we still don’t know what the substance is.”
He said all European Jews should stop wearing kippahs in public and asserted that “the future of the Jewish people in Europe is hopeless,” after a series of high-profile attacks on Jews.
Asked about a statement by a prominent Jewish community leader in Germany advising people against wearing Jewish skullcaps in big cities, Zonabend said: “Only in Germany? I think we need to remove the kippahs in all of Europe.”
“My son wears a kippah, but I prefer that he wear a hat on top,” he said.
Zonabend said that while he himself isn’t religious and therefore doesn’t wear a kippah, he does wear a pendant bearing a Star of David — but usually hides it under his shirt.
“Anti-Semitism in Europe, in France, in Toulouse, is no longer just by the far right, but from political Islam,” Zonabend said, adding that Muslims in France had “violently” opposed a public letter condemning anti-Semitism.
The open letter published Sunday in the Parisien newspaper blamed “Islamist radicalization” for what it said was “quiet ethnic purging” in the Paris region, with abuse forcing Jewish families to move out. It called for certain passages of the Quran to be removed on the grounds of rising anti-Semitism.
Zonabend said many Muslims in the municipality were having “difficulty” accepting his outspoken Zionism. When he travels to Tel Aviv, a “sister city” of Toulouse, to promote joint projects, “it disturbs them. They say, ‘Why don’t you also go to Ramallah or Palestine to do the same?'”
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.