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A French court has found the editor-in-chief of the influential daily newspaper Le Monde and the authors of an opinion piece in the paper guilty of "racial defamation" against Israel and the Jewish people, the British daily The Guardian reported Saturday.

In a ruling hailed by French Jewish groups, the court ordered Jean-Marie Colombani and the three writers to pay a symbolic one euro in damages to the France-Israel Association and to Lawyers Without Borders, according to The Guardian.

Both organizations alleged that the June 2002 op-ed entitled "Israel-Palestine: the Cancer," contained comments that "targeted a whole nation, or a religious group in its quasi-globality," and constituted racial defamation, The Guardian reported.

The groups argued the article violated anti-defamation laws after the authors committed a "semantic slip," shifting from using the phrase "the Jews of Israel" to "Jews in general." The authors meant to aim their criticism at "certain Israelis" yet made reference to "the Jews."

Among the excerpts which sparked the controversy was: "The Jews of Israel, descendants of an apartheid named the ghetto, ghettoize the Palestinians. The Jews who were humiliated, scorned and persecuted humiliate, scorn and persecute the Palestinians. The Jews who were the victims of a pitiless order impose their pitiless order on the Palestinians. The Jews, scapegoats for every wrong, make scapegoats of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority."

Colombani, who co-wrote the piece with sociologist Edgar Morin, writer-lecturer Daniele Sallenave, and MEP Sami Nair, claimed that portions of the article had been taken out of context, and that the article represents "a lengthy and more balanced piece" that "did not undermine or attack the fundamental values of democratic societies."

Nonetheless, the appeals thus court reversed a lower court ruling, deciding last week that the passages violated French defamation laws, The Guardian reported.

The French umbrella group for Jewish associations, CRIF, said it "noted with satisfaction" the appeal court ruling, adding that the verdict "clearly set limits on a deviation that consists of incriminating 'the Jews' in the name of a criticism of Israel."

"We have always considered that criticism of Israeli policy falls under the category of the free and democratic exchange of ideas, but that debate cannot express itself as a demonization of Israel nor of the Jews," the group said.

Catherine Cohen, the attorney representing Le Monde and Nair, said she would appeal the ruling to France's highest court, saying "we cannot allow jurisprudence like this to stand."

"The article was a critique of a policy, of [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's policy, it wasn't a racial criticism," Cohen said. "The remarks were taken out of context; the plaintiffs argued that they were against Jews, but a few paragraphs later, the piece says that all occupiers behave the same way.

"This is a very serious matter for intellectuals, for commentators who express their point of view on a very complex issue," Cohen told The Guardian.

"Of course these authors are not anti-Jewish, nobody believes that," she said. "In reality, this kind of case does not belong in a court of law - the groups should have written their own rebuttal in the paper."