For years, many in France have had the sinking feeling that something bad happened to Alain Finkielkraut, one of the most prominent contemporary French-Jewish philosophers.
Those who know him say the 56-year-old Finkielkraut has been in distress for the past four years, since Jews have become targets of North African immigrants.
The November 18 Haaretz interview with Finkielkraut, who has said in the past that harm coming to Jews reminded him of the dark days when Jews were taken from their homes to concentration and death camps, did not surprise many Jews.
While political figures and the media in France tended to link the recent riots to the distress closing in on the immigrants like a choke-hold, Finkielkraut volunteered an unequivocal opinion in the interview about the mentality of the rioters.
His remarks raised no storm in the Jewish press. "He spoke in the name of most of the Jewish community," said a prominent Jewish attorney who responds to any attack in France on Israel.
Then, last Wednesday, Finkielkraut's world turned upside-down. Le Monde, some of whose reporters obsessively follow goings-on in Israel, read the interview. Sensing a big fish had fallen into their net, they published excerpts that many in France thought made Finkielkraut look like a French-Jewish racist who could be an honored member of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.
Finkielkraut said in Haaretz that the message of the rioters was "not a cry for help or a demand for more schools or better schools. It's a desire to eliminate the intermediaries that stand between them and their objects of desire. And what are their objects of desire? Simple: money, designer labels, sometimes girls."
He was also quoted as saying: "In France... they teach colonial history as an exclusively negative history. We don't teach anymore that the colonial project also sought to educate, to bring civilization to the savages. They only talk about it as an attempt at exploitation, domination and plunder."
Only hours after publication, leftist organizations were vying with each other over who would be first to sue him or file a police complaint against the philosopher for incitement to racism.
Thursday, after receiving death threats, the philosopher decided to respond and repent. In an extensive interview in Le Monde yesterday, he said he "despised" the man who appeared in the article (in Le Monde). "He is he and I am I. To my shock, since Wednesday, it appears that he and I share the same name."
Finkielkraut, who went out of his way to praise the immigrants, said his original statements had been an attempt to force the political echelon to take responsibility for what was happening in the poor suburbs. "Integration is our obligation," he said.
Following the apology, lawsuits and police complaints were dropped. But even after his apology, one Jewish organization condemned Finkielkraut, calling him the pyromaniac of the Jewish community.