Councilor blames weak Hebrew; meant to talk about Islamists

Toulouse mayor threatens to sack Jewish deputy who said ‘too many Arabs’ in city

Aviv Zonabend’s comment in Hebrew interview draws condemnation from Mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc, who hires a translator to confirm the remark was made

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Aviv Zonabend, a Jewish deputy mayor of the French city of Toulouse, on March 26, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Aviv Zonabend, a Jewish deputy mayor of the French city of Toulouse, on March 26, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)

A Jewish deputy mayor in France has come under fire for saying there are “too many” Arabs in Toulouse, following a Times of Israel report on an interview he had with an Israeli radio station. The city’s mayor has threatened to take action against the deputy mayor, Aviv Zonabend, and even fire him, if a translator confirms he made the remark.

Zonabend, the only Jewish member of the Toulouse city council, lamented during a Hebrew-language interview with Army Radio on Wednesday that there are “very many, too many” Arabs in the city, making up 11-12 percent of its population, and “very few” Jews.

Many French news outlets over the weekend cited the report in The Times of Israel’s French edition, and Mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc strongly condemned Zonabend’s remark.

The Jewish council member explained, in a statement carried by French media, that he had meant to talk about Islamists, not Arabs, adding that he was speaking in “hesitant Hebrew, a language I do not speak.” He noted that he has nothing against the city’s Arab population and that he has strong ties with the local Muslim community.

But Mayor Moudenc issued a statement on Friday condemning the remarks with “utmost firmness,” saying they contradict the values of tolerance he tries to promote and adding that it is “intolerable that the dialogue we are cultivating with and between religious communities is trampled.”

“That’s why I have asked for a professional translator to check if what was published matches what was said,” he added, implying that he would fire Zonabend if the translator confirmed the remarks.

In his Wednesday interview, 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 yarmulkes in public and asserted that “the future of the Jewish people in Europe is hopeless” after a series of high-profile attacks on Jews.

A man wearing a skullcap looks on as people take part in a demonstration called by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France on July 31, 2014, in front of a Lyon synagogue. (AFP/Romain LaFabregue)

Asked about a statement issued Tuesday by a prominent Jewish community leader in Germany advising people against wearing Jewish skullcaps in big cities, he 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. While he himself isn’t religious and therefore doesn’t wear one, Zonabend said, 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.

The manifesto sparked anger Monday from some Muslims who said their religion was being unfairly “put on trial.” But others said they’d help counter extremism.

Muslims pray in the street for Friday prayer in the Paris suburb of Clichy la Garenne, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

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?'”

But Zonabend also accused Israel of making it hard on French immigrants by not recognizing professional diplomas acquired in France and requiring them to take additional courses in Israel, saying the practice amounted to the country “not accepting” the French aliyah.

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