FOCUS ON ISSUES
French Jews fear restitution focus will prevent setting record straight
By Lee Yanowitch
PARIS, March 29 (JTA) — French Jewish leaders, unlike their American counterparts, are taking a low-key approach to the restitution issue.
While multimillion dollar lawsuits against banks and insurance companies accused of profiting during World War II from looted Jewish assets have made international headlines, the Jewish leadership in France has focused its energy on setting the historical record straight.
CRIF, France’s umbrella group for secular Jewish organizations, believes that re-educating the French about their country’s role in the persecution of Jews is more important than material redress.
And they fear that stressing monetary compensation would obscure the message they are trying to get across.
“We are in the process of rewriting history. There is no price tag on teaching the French about their role in the Holocaust. It would pollute the subject if we started announcing figures,” Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, told JTA.
Jewish leaders here have made repeated efforts to force the French to come to grips with their wartime past. It is only in the past few decades that the French have seen cracks appear in the French myth that their nation was united in their struggle against the Nazis, who occupied France from 1940 to 1944.
And it took until 1995 for a French president to publicly acknowledge the collaborationist Vichy administration’s active involvement in stripping Jews of their rights and deporting them to death camps.
“Everything we’ve done in the past 25 years is in danger of being destroyed by material demands, Hajdenberg said, suggesting that pushing France to confront its Vichy past is the “most important thing today in order to fight anti-Semitism and totalitarianism.”
Hajdenberg and his colleagues feel this is particularly pressing given that France’s extreme-right National Front, with 15 percent of the nationwide vote, is the most powerful fascist party in Europe.
Of all the European countries that came under the Nazi boot during World War II, France suffered the most widespread looting and confiscation of Jewish property.
Most of the 76,000 Jews deported from France during the war were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Only 2,500 returned.
France’s Sephardi Jews, most of whom emigrated from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, are less concerned about the problem of setting the record straight.
While most Ashkenazi Jews — who make up 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s 700,000-strong Jewish population — back the CRIF’s diplomatic stance on restitution, voices of discord are making themselves heard, accusing CRIF of not wanting to ruffle any feathers.
“It is a well-known fact that France’s Jewish leadership has always wanted to be in with the powers that be. But many of the heirs of Holocaust victims contest what the CRIF is doing,” said historian David Douvette.
At the same time, the New York-based World Jewish Congress is annoyed at being excluded from French negotiations on Holocaust-era claims. Some WJC officials have accused their CRIF counterparts of not asking for money because they are afraid of fomenting anti-Semitism.
But Hajdenberg contends that he, too, believes victims should be compensated; he just disagrees with the high-level pressure used to force countries to come to an agreement.
A compensation deal Hajdenberg had reportedly planned to sign recently with the French Banking Association fell apart at the last minute amid discord among French Jewish leaders.
The banks went ahead with the proposal anyway, announcing last week that they would take “comprehensive measures” to compensate survivors for lost assets.
News of the deal triggered a threat of resignation by members of the Matteoli Commission, a French government-appointed panel investigating the looting of Jewish assets during the war.
Hajdenberg is also under fire from his colleagues for going on a “peacemaking” tour of the Middle East earlier this month, where he met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. He was not received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In protest, CRIF’s single largest member, the Consistoire, which tends to the religious needs of French Jews, has pulled out of the umbrella group.
Consistoire President Jean Kahn is furious that he was not consulted about either the bank deal or the Middle East trip.
There is even talk of forcing Hajdenberg to resign.
Meanwhile, Jean Matteoli, a concentration camp survivor and former Resistance fighter who heads the commission that bears his name, outraged French Jews by saying in a newspaper interview that Jewish victims of the Nazis should be treated no differently than other victims.
The interviewer then suggested that a distinction should indeed be made, given that Jews were deported to death camps for the sole reason that they were Jewish.
Contradicting the widely proven fact that the Vichy regime drew up the lists of Jews who were arrested by French police and deported on French trains, Matteoli answered: “It was the Germans who made that distinction.”
Hajdenberg declined to comment about Matteoli’s remark, but a high-ranking source inside CRIF called for Matteoli’s resignation.
“These remarks are unacceptable and totally incompatible with his role as president of the commission,” the source said.