How powerful is the pro-Israel lobby in Europe?
I’ve just finished reading a book on CRIF, the dominant Zionist organization in France, that provides some light on that little-discussed topic in a measured and scholarly way.
Written by Samuel Ghiles-Meilhac, Le CRIF: De la Résistance juive à la tentation du lobby (CRIF: From the Jewish Resistance to the lobby temptation) traces how a supposedly broad church has come to define itself narrowly as a defender of Israel’s worst excesses.
The representative council for Jewish institutions in France, or CRIF as it’s better know, bands together more than 60 groups ranging from scouts to lawyers. Its origins were in secret meetings during the Second World War, aimed at ensuring that Jews would never again have to endure the suffering inflicted on them by the Vichy regime, which helped deport over 75,000 Jewish refugees and French citizens to Nazi death camps.
Documents studied by Ghiles-Meilhac show that when its inaugural charter was being drawn up in 1943 and 1944, there was a lively debate about whether or not it should have a Zionist orientation. Communists taking part in the drafting discussions argued forcefully and with some degree of success that it shouldn’t declare support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
That changed in 1977, when a section titled “links with Israel” was inserted into the council’s revised charter. It described the state of Israel as “the privileged expression of being Jewish”.
Snubbed by Bibi
Nonetheless, the CRIF has not always blindly followed a line dictated to it by the Israeli government. In 1999, Benjamin Netanyahu (nearing the end of his first stint as prime minister) snubbed a delegation from the council in Israel because its president Henri Hajdenberg had recently exchanged pleasantries with Yasser Arafat during a meeting in Egypt.
There is no such friction with Netanyahu this time around. In June 2009, the council threw a party in his honor when he visited Paris, giving the prime minister a “triumphal reception” (Ghiles-Meilhac’s words).
Climate of censorship
Lurching more and more to the right, CRIF has tried to create a climate of censorship. In September 2000, the TV channel France 2 broadcast images of Israeli troops killing the Palestinian child Mohammed Al-Dura. Alarmed by how the footage increased awareness among the French public about the routine violence of the Israeli state, French politician Philippe Karsenty used a CRIF event to claim that “the child is not dead” and to accuse France 2 of anti-Semitism. Four candidates for the post of CRIF’s president were in attendance when Karsenty made those remarks; none of them took issue with him.
Another channel, ARTE, was told by CRIF in 2004 that it should interest itself in themes other than the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Careful not to exaggerate CRIF’s influence, Ghiles-Meilhac identifies instances where French policy has differed from that proposed by the council. Yet he demonstrates how CRIF has become the “second voice of Israel” in France, in effect serving as an adjunct to the official Israeli embassy. Its annual dinners have offered a platform, where leading political figures make what they consider as important policy announcements. François Fillon, the prime minister, stated his intention to seek new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme at the 2010 event.
Ghiles-Meilhac agrees that CRIF enjoys close links with Nicolas Sarkozy. These were cultivated when he was minister of the interior and flaunted publicly after Sarkozy’s election as president. In 2008, Sarkozy became the first French president to attend CRIF’s annual dinner.
But it was Bernard Kouchner, foreign minister from 2007 until last year, who proved to be especially malleable. When PNGO, the Palestinian network of non-governmental organizations, was named as a recipient of a French human rights award in 2009, CRIF went ballistic. After trying to smear the reputation of the network by insinuating it was a front for Hamas, the council succeeded in having the presentation ceremony for the award moved from the Quai d’Orsay, the foreign ministry’s headquarters, to another venue. Kouchner still turned up at the ceremony but used his speech to castigate PNGO for exhorting a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions. According to Ghiles-Meilhac, it was probably “unprecedented” for the Zionist lobby to have such a direct say in the running of an official government event and the content of the message delivered at it.
If you understand French, I’d strongly recommend that you check out this fascinating book.