French Kissing

"La France et Israel: Une affair passionnelle" ("France and Israel: An Affair of Passion") by Eli Barnavi and Luc Rosenzweig, Perrin, 190 pages "Lettre ouverte aux Juifs de France" ("An Open Letter to the Jews of France") by Eli Barnavi, Stock-Bayard, 117 pages

"La France et Israel: Une affair passionnelle" ("France and Israel: An Affair of Passion") by Eli Barnavi and Luc Rosenzweig, Perrin, 190 pages

"Lettre ouverte aux Juifs de France" ("An Open Letter to the Jews of France") by Eli Barnavi, Stock-Bayard, 117 pages

Eli Barnavi's term as Israeli ambassador to France started off with an unfortunate accident. In December 2000, as his car was being escorted with pomp and circumstance to Elysee Palace where President Jacque Chirac was waiting for him to present his credentials, one of the motorcycles in the grand presidential motorcade crashed. The injured motorcyclist had to be evacuated by ambulance.

This was not the only unsettling incident in Barnavi's early days as ambassador. Within months of being sent off to Paris by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, he found himself with a new boss: Ariel Sharon. Barnavi, a Peace Now activist, wondered what to do. Many French Jews expected him to resign. Others hoped he would step down and give his seat to a right-winger supportive of the new government. But then Sharon came to France, and all Barnavi's misgivings melted away.

To his surprise, the leftist ambassador discovered that Sharon was a "polite, courteous, compassionate man, with a good sense of humor and an insatiable appetite." He was not the only one who was surprised. The French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, a man known for his toughness and his sharp tongue, especially on matters involving Israel, whispered to the Israeli ambassador as they were leaving the meeting with the president that Sharon was a "charming man."

And if that were not enough, Barnavi asked then-foreign minister Shimon Peres how his service under Barak compared to his service under Sharon. "I feel like I've moved from a concentration camp to Club Mediterraneane," replied Peres. For that and other reasons, Barnavi decided to stay on.

He had wanted to be a diplomat from the time he was young; it was an unfulfilled dream of his. So when he was offered the post of ambassador to Paris, he accepted without hesitation. It was an opportunity to merge the two identities racing around inside him: Israeli and French. He knew France well. He had written his doctorate on medieval French history, and he felt at home in its culture and lifestyle. Only the accent kept him from sounding like a full-fledged French intellectual.

A friend said she could help him get rid of his foreign accent within two weeks, but Barnavi said no. "I am not French and never meant to be," he writes in one of his books. "I may be very attached to France, but I am still an outsider, looking in - an approach that has been helpful to me as a diplomat."

Barnavi succeeded at his job, as anyone who knows France can tell you. Unfortunately, this success was cut short by Peres, who recalled him to Israel after two years in office. These two books were written prematurely, after he was asked to pack his bags earlier than anticipated. Both sum up a period that is clearly one of the stormiest in the history of Israeli-French relations.

He had barely landed in the City of Lights when the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted. France was upset with Israel. Tempers flared in a way that the Jews of France had not seen since Israel's establishment. Anti-Semitic incidents were reported all over the county; synagogues were set on fire; diatribes against the Jews became bon ton. Barnavi, the new ambassador with dovish views, plunged headlong into the maelstrom.

In "La France et Israel: Une affair passionnelle," Barnavi talks to French journalist Luc Rosenzweig about the love-hate relationship between these two high-strung countries. "Lettre ouverte aux Juifs de France" is a long letter to the Jews of France, tracing the highs and lows of his relationship with the anxiety-ridden Jewish community. Occasionally, he expresses an opinion about them or offers a word of advice on how to behave in the future.

Barnavi emerges as a true virtuoso, completely at ease with the French language. Like a trapeze artist, he never ceases to amaze. He is never at a loss for words. There is no experience that is foreign to him. And indeed, he needs all the resources he can muster to address the complicated relationship between Israel, France and the Jewish community. In his open letter to the Jews of France, he candidly reminds them of how suspicious they were of him in the beginning, and how panic-stricken they were at the sight of a left-wing historian coming to represent the State of Israel.

"You saw that we got along not badly," he writes. "You saw that a dangerous leftist can also be a Zionist and a patriot; that one can have different opinions but do a good job safeguarding Israel's interests; that political moderacy is not necessarily weakness ... It is hard to be the Israeli ambassador to France. There were times I asked myself if my real job wasn't Israeli ambassador to the Jewish community of France."

Whenever he appeared on television, there was always someone who criticized him - for not giving the person who maligned Israel a punch in the face; for not shutting up Leila Shahid, the Palestinian representative in Paris; for not being tough enough in defending Israeli policy. There was always some Jewish patriot who wondered why the Israeli ambassador didn't ride into the television studio on a tank, to show those French anti-Semites who's boss.

But Barnavi preferred the soft-spoken over the aggressive, conciliation over confrontation, the language of peace over declarations of war. "But I want you to know that I didn't come here to be liked," he writes," and winning an argument is not measured by how loud you shout. There is nothing easier than firing up an audience that is already on your side. There is nothing harder than gaining the confidence of a public that does not think as you do."

Barnavi speaks to the Jews of France like a person speaks to his close kin. He worries that they were becoming too religious. The identity of French Jewry revolves around two axes: Israel and the synagogue. In recent years, the status of the synagogue has risen, especially among Jews of North African descent. In Barnavi's mind, this phenomenon is associated with a return to the Jewish lifestyle of the ghetto.

"Yes, I'm concerned," he tells them, "because I saw with my own eyes how close you are to the danger of being taken over by religion. If you embrace radical Judaism, you are liable to cut yourself off from the society around you and the rest of the world. That is the challenge of the modern Jew: to find some way to preserve Jewish identity without retreating into a mental and cultural ghetto."

Barnavi addresses the anti-Semitic incidents of the past two years which have left the French Jewish community in a state of shock. Many Jews expected him to mince no words and declare the resurrection of anti-Semitism, but this was not the approach he chose. "In an anti-Semitic country, anti-Semitism is a significant political force and a moral code," he explains. "That was true of the Third Republic, the hothouse of the Dreyfus affair. The Fifth Republic - France today - is not anti-Semitic. Not the elite and not the public at large - Jacques Chirac's France is not Hitler's Germany, and the violence against the Jews in the suburbs is not a reincarnation of Kristallnacht."

The people of France, he says, would have no problem electing a Jew for president, and they have no objection to Jewish neighbors. In fact, Frenchmen think that French Jews have more in common with French Catholics than with their co-religionists in Israel.

In "La France et Israel: Une affair passionnelle," Barnavi says that the attacks on the Jews should be a warning sign to the French. Many prefer to lay the blame on wayward youth - second-generation North African immigrants living on the outskirts of the big cities in poverty and hardship. Pundits like to describe the violence against the Jews as a way of letting off steam among immigrants on the margins of society.

"Setting fire to a car and setting fire to a synagogue are not exactly the same thing," Barnavi points out, in response to Rosenzweig's question. Barnavi also expresses surprise and dismay at the silence of French leaders, who have done little to calm the Jews' fears or denounce the Muslim pogromchiks.

Taking a panoramic look at the ideologies in France today, Barnavi can see that French anti-Semitism of old still runs deep. He knows there are people who would love to see the Jewish state vanish in thin air. This is especially true for the far-right and the far-left. "Their views coincide when it comes to anti-Semitic hatred of Israel," says Barnavi. "The far-right is even more anti-Jewish than it is anti-Arab."

What upsets Barnavi is the comparison made between France's war in Algeria and Israel's war with the Palestinians. The French media has a bout of Algeria syndrome every time it discusses the second intifada, he says. At the same time, he admits to Rosenzweig that the battle for Israel's image was lost before it began.

"Why all this eagerness to report the goings-on in the Middle East as opposed to other trouble spots in the world?" he asks his interviewer. "Why do two million dead Sudanese weigh less on the conscience of the West than 2,000 Palestinians? Why does everyone's heart bleed more for Bethlehem than for Grozny? Why do they keep an exact listing of every Palestinian casualty and ignore hundreds of Algerians who are butchered every other day? Israel lost the battle because of the pictures. One picture of a Palestinian boy facing an Israeli tank, and the game was over."

Barnavi has a suggestion for the Jews of France. In his open letter to them, he urges them to begin an open dialogue with Israel - but not the kind based on persecution, national catastrophes or anti-Semitism. "Become Israeli," he says, "but without giving up your Frenchness. You don't have to choose between being French or being Israeli. You can be both, no matter where you live. It's even good for us, because we need bridges to France and Europe. And who can do the job better than you?"

And if the going gets rough, Barnavi promises to be there for them, to extend a loving hand.