Drawing the line between party gossip and hate
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, January 5, 2002)

It was probably the easiest investigative assignment in newspaper history: The Guardian set out a few days ago to learn who Barbara Amiel was talking about when she reported "the ambassador of a major EU country" had claimed, in her London home, that the cause of the current world crisis was "that shitty little country Israel."

Which guest of Lord and Lady Black said such a thing? It probably took the Guardian one phone call to confirm the answer that every knowledgeable reader of Ms. Amiel's Daily Telegraph column had guessed: the French ambassador, of course. A diplomat named Daniel Bernard.

Anti-Semitism has been a nasty undercurrent in French society for generations, and French diplomats the harshest Western critics of Israel. Charles de Gaulle once called the Jews "an elite people, sure of itself and dominating" -- breathtaking words from, of all people, a Frenchman. The France of today, where the racist National Front gets about 15% of the vote, is a leader in anti-Semitism. Since the start of the current intifada in Israel, anti-Semites have perpetrated some 250 incidents in France, ranging from the defacing of Jewish storefronts to the burning of a synagogue. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has calculated there are about as many attacks on Jews in France as in all other countries outside the Middle East.

In October, the Anti-Defamation League claimed French authorities showed little interest when, for instance, a Jewish kindergarten in Marseilles was partially burned and the arsonists left behind two messages, "death to Jews" and "bin Laden will conquer." On Wednesday, the Israeli government called in the French ambassador and suggested Paris take a more serious look at these outrages.

French history intensifies the meaning of these incidents. The Dreyfus Affair, which began when a Jewish army officer was railroaded on a treason charge in 1894 and officially ended with his exoneration in 1906, left the country divided. Decades later, many on the French right remained angry the supporters of a Jew had proven the French army corrupt. They eagerly persecuted the Jews under the Nazis' wartime puppet regime at Vichy.

After the war, French governments pretended that Vichy was a purely German invention, that few French citizens had supported it and that France did not collaborate in the Holocaust. French textbooks claimed the Jews had been deported by the Germans alone. When Alain Resnais made his documentary about the Holocaust, Night and Fog (1956), he included a shot of a French gendarme guarding a Jewish transit camp. The censor cut it out.

Scholarship, notably the book Vichy France and the Jews (1981), by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, eventually wore away this comforting fiction and France began to face up to the shame of its recent past. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac admitted France's responsibility for the deportations. The Church also apologized.

This combination of guilt, denial, and tardy confession created a nervous, resentful atmosphere that Henry Rousso, a French historian, called Le syndrome de Vichy in the title of his book on history and memory. The Jews (650,000 in France) remain a living rebuke to France's Vichyite past. And in the Middle East, France takes the Arab side more often than not.

Barbara Amiel's revelation has produced a variety of responses. In Paris, Le Monde headed a report from its London correspondent "L'ambassadeur de France à Londres, dernière victime de l'indiscrète Lady Black." The man from Le Monde considered her report an outrageous breach of the ambassador's privacy. But in Newsday, the former mayor of New York, Ed Koch, urged Israel's supporters to stop visiting France and to boycott French wine, cheese, perfume and clothing until Paris recalls Ambassador Bernard and fires or demotes him. Jackie Mason, the comedian, and his collaborator, Raoul Felder, wrote in their newspaper column that the views of the French no longer surprise anyone ("they can't help themselves") but found it odd that Mr. Bernard was too dim to know that his host, Lord Black, owns the Jerusalem Post.

Dalton Camp, in The Toronto Star, acknowledged the ambassador's remark was undiplomatic ("in a general, nondescript way") but insisted it should not have been reported. At a party, he wrote, one can "say outrageous things in pique or bad humour and be forgiven" rather than forced to read of one's indiscretions in the press. Mr. Camp suggested the ambassador was possibly drunk, bored, or angry at those around him. These factors, apparently, would have made his words forgivable.

Mr. Camp noted some people thought the ambassador's statement anti-Semitic, but "it is still possible for one to be critical of Israel, as are many Jews, without being an anti-Semite." If people report private conversations, he asked, then who can feel safe as a guest at any table? And without freewheeling conversation, "dinner parties may become more crashing bores than ever before ..."

Little in the story or its aftermath is extraordinary. French ambassadors still talk like French ambassadors, and some people still mistakenly imagine that a journalist should (for the sake of good form) ignore a story that's rich in political and historical meaning, even when it's dropped in her lap. One surprising implication did emerge: Apparently, the dinner parties Dalton Camp attends are saved from ennui only by startling remarks about shitty little countries.

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