An American Watching Anti-Israeli Bias in France – Interview with Nidra Poller

, October 31, 2006

From Manfred Gerstenfeld: European-Israeli Relations: Between Confusion and Change?

“Few people abroad realize that the French media are government-influenced in a subtle manner. Don’t misunderstand me: this situation is in no way comparable to that of the Soviet Union under communism. The French system operates in a different way. It is hard for a journalist to find work. If one gets fired, it is difficult to get another job. This is a powerful incentive to stay in line, and almost all journalists do. That line is left-wing orientation, Third Worldist, anti-American, and anti-Zionist.”

Nidra Poller observes France through vignettes. She is an American who came to France in 1972 and has worked since as a writer of fiction and translator from French to English. A few years ago she switched to journalism. Poller writes for various American publications, both hard-copy and online.

“It took me many years to realize that I had left the United States, a highly-developed and powerful country, and gone to live in a declining one. For decades I translated French texts into English, and only slowly understood that the language and its philosophical configuration also reflect this reality.

“An author who writes in English usually wants to make a point. Step-by-step he reaches his goal. In French texts the author often raises an issue, dances with it a bit, drops it, raises it again, dances again, drops it once more. It is a circular process. In my translation work, I once came upon a major exception: the writings of the Lithuanian-born philosopher Emanuel Levinas, which reflect Jewish thinking. I consider this the most important of all the translations I did.”

Loving Anti-Israeli Israelis

Poller returns to the subject of the press. “The French elite and the media love Israelis and Jews who strongly criticize Israel. Some are hardly known in Israel, such as Michel Warshavsky. Filmmakers such as Amos Gitai and Eyal Sivan are other examples of Israelis against Israel. Many French media present these people, who are on the margins, as mainstream Israelis.

“On the other hand, an important French Jewish intellectual like Daniel Sibony, who is a psychoanalyst, mathematician, and essayist, is hardly published anymore in major media. He has done important research on relations between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and also comments on current affairs. Another balanced commentator on the Middle East, Alexandre Adler, fell out of favor in the major media.”

Poller says that a biased press can use many methods. “The daily Le Monde, for instance, reported on the findings of the IDF commission that investigated Palestinians killed by an unidentified source on a Gaza beach. The paper writes in a style of ‘What do you expect them to say? Of course, they say they didn’t do it.’

“Although the IDF report stated that the Palestinian deaths were not caused by Israeli shelling at the time these people were killed, it said the commission would investigate further to determine whether the deaths could have been caused by an unexploded Israeli shell fired on an earlier occasion. This meant Israel was making an all-out effort to investigate the matter. Le Monde, however, insinuated that the report was unfinished, using the word inachevé, which can mean ‘half-baked.’ They also continued to post their earlier articles, such as the one falsely titled ‘Israeli Gunboat Shells Gaza Beach, Killing 8 Civilians.'”

Highly Selective Reporting

“This example from Le Monde is typical. During the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in summer 2005, some French television reports focused on Palestinians telling what happened to them during the intifada, as if Israel had started it. They interviewed people who said they were going to take back their land, their vineyards and olive trees, fix up their homes and live happily ever after. Later, the media showed brief images of the torched synagogues. From then on, Gaza was off the screen.

“French television could not show the happy ending, couldn’t show the man now living in his home. Because most likely he isn’t. Probably terrorists were using it as a base to shoot rockets at Israel. When Islamic Jihad and Hamas do this, or when Al Qaeda establishes a base in Gaza, it does not get media attention. Hamas and Fatah fighting each other is also not television news, even if there are deaths. But the beach incident brought Gaza back onto the screen.”

Poller says that most French get their news from television. She points out that against this distorted background, the Palestinian reactions in Gaza to the Mohammed-cartoon jihad came as a great shock. “French television showed a European cultural center being burned and violent calls from the population for the French to leave Gaza. This did have an effect on French public opinion.”

Poller notes that the impact is slow. “One could probably mobilize a larger, reasonably pro-Israeli sector of public opinion if the French media were more diverse. Many people are ashamed to say something if they think that everybody disagrees with them and that it is bad to make their opinions heard. Nevertheless, the pro-Palestinian organizations are slowly discrediting themselves.

“There is one important French journalist who doesn’t toe the general line with regard to Israel, Yvan Riofoul of Le Figaro. His approach is uncommon for France. He doesn’t practice access journalism, which means hanging around with political figures. Riofoul is independent, writing what he thinks without courting people. Initially he was hesitant about the Middle East, but now he is more outspoken on the subject. Other journalists in the same daily, however, follow the dominant line.”

Little Independent International Newsgathering

“There is very little independent newsgathering internationally. Much of the foreign news comes from Agence France Presse, a news agency that is partly owned by the French government and is biased against Israel. The French government is proud to have banned the Al-Manar television station with its many anti-Semitic programs. Yet an authorized French Muslim radio station, Méditerrannée FM, broadcasts a two-hour Sunday talk show where callers virulently bash Jews, Americans, and the French.

“Why is this permitted? Because there is an increasing fear in France of what the Muslims may do. This leads to much self-censoring. Before the war in Iraq started, there was a big peace march in Paris. Many of those who marched were jihadis, anti-Semites, and phony pro-Palestinians. The French media represented them as if they were all angels.

“And there was a big protest march in May 2005 when President Bush came to France for the D-Day commemoration. I watched the marchers go by. You could divide them into three broadly-equal groups. The first were airy-fairy angelic people, left-wing politically inclined individuals, ecologists, and antiglobalizationists. The second third were jihadi-type people. The last third were a kind of scruffy anarchists, high on drugs and alcohol, with Rotweilers and pitbulls. Most journalists only looked at the angelic people at the beginning. I have photos from that march that show the others.”  

American Journalists Misreport

“The misreporting is not limited to matters concerning Israel or Jews, but is global. One finds it even among American reporters. A well-known Washington Post correspondent wrote that you couldn’t see the kind of people who participated in the autumn 2005 riots if you were sitting in a trendy bistro in the Marais, a central Parisian district. This is untrue. Every type of person who lives in France can be seen there: North Africans and Chinese, people from the suburbs, including women in hijab, and juvenile delinquents. Yet false images of the central districts of Paris as protected elite enclaves are diffused worldwide. I’m not saying however, it’s the same as the banlieue.

“There is little criticism of France in national media. It seems to be a deep-seated cultural problem. One can only speculate on its origin. Perhaps it has to do with French education. French people are constantly criticizing their children, and the same attitude prevails in the schools. Perhaps French people feel so threatened by any sign of disapproval, because of the carping criticism they hear in their youth, that they reject it. Children who have been educated in a supportive, loving, warm, and simultaneously disciplined environment may handle criticism more easily.

“The French societal system, though, shows many signs of breaking down. Many teachers are physically maltreated by pupils. Courts often treat criminals like poor innocent victims. There is a shortage of jails. The autumn riots, and some minor outbreaks since then, showed that you can attack the police for hours and they will not make you stop. For me as an American, who knows that my country is violent but also that it has strong police forces, laws, and jails, this is hard to comprehend.

“During the autumn riots, a high-ranking police officer said on television that the police had to be very careful because if, by chance, they should harm one of the youngsters from the banlieue, the disturbances could get out of hand. I cited this explanation recently when I gave a talk at a school in Boston. A pupil interrupted me and exclaimed: ‘How can you say that? You are interpreting.’ I had to repeat that I was quoting a police officer, and added that they are afraid it would trigger an uncontrollable outburst of violence. As usual, the taxpayers are paying most of the cost of the destruction caused by the rioters.”

Violent Climate Affects the Jews

“A violent climate like this affects the Jews. The most pronounced example was in June 2006 when a group of black supremacists, who call themselves Kemites of the Ka Tribe, marched aggressively through a Jewish quarter of Paris. The Ka focus their hatred on Jews. They have received an order to disband, but say they won’t comply. These are big husky men, several are ex-convicts, and they wore brass knuckles. They did not do anything, just walked through the Rue des Rosiers, threateningly as if they were ready to commit a pogrom. The police were called but didn’t come until twenty minutes later.

“The next day I went to speak with some Jews there. Several said that it was perhaps better that the police didn’t come. Their arrival would have provoked the marchers into violence, and the police would not have been able to stop them.”

Poller remarks that when talking to French Jews, many mention that they do not see a future for Jews in France. “Yet people make individual decisions, as always in human history. They may say ‘I’ll stay a bit longer,’ or ‘Nothing is really as bad as it looks and I’ll stay,’ or ‘Our children will leave.’ In particular, the strongly religiously identified Jews, the more traditionally observant ones, and the Zionists all think about leaving. When Jewish children are beaten up, mainly by Muslims, their parents start to make decisions. There is a clear trend among Jews to move their children from public schools to private ones.”

Poller says she does not want to generalize. “Many Jews are not directly confronted with these problems. There are good public schools as well. Many Muslims are fine people with good children who are friendly to each other and with non-Muslim schoolmates. There is considerable integration in France and many immigrants are not subject to discrimination. The majority are far from being thugs.”

Soft-Speaking Jewish Community Leaders

“As an American I find French Jews to be too conciliatory and trusting. They are very happy that they have access to the authorities. Roger Cukierman, who heads the CRIF, the umbrella body of French Jewish organizations, is received by President Jacques Chirac on request. But, no matter what measures the president promises, it is useless, they will not be implemented. The Jewish community speaks softly about many matters that should be forcefully exposed.

“A French Jew, Sebastien Selam, was murdered in November 2003 by a Muslim neighbor for apparent ideological reasons. The mainstream press played the story down and so did the Jewish media. When in February 2006 another Jew, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped by a gang led by a West African Muslim, the media gave it more attention than is usual for murder cases. They had to do so because a group of about forty people were directly or indirectly involved with the crime.

“Even then, one heard voices saying ‘It wasn’t really anti-Semitic. The kidnappers were looking for a Jew to attack because they think Jews have money.’ The anti-Semitic character of this stereotypic statement becomes even clearer when one makes a paradigm shift: ‘It wasn’t really anti-Semitic, they were looking for a Jew because Jews poison the wells.’ Or, ‘It wasn’t really anti-Semitic, they were looking for a Jew because Jews killed Jesus.’

“Observing from the outside, one has the feeling that the Jewish leaders always go along with the general mood, even if in the Halimi case it was less so because the shock was so great. This going-along, however limited, will give the government the chance to lie low and avoid the issue on the pretext that nothing can be confirmed until the case comes to trial, which will be two or three years from now.

“There are many other ways French Jewish leaders go along with French government policy. For instance, they reassure American Jewish leaders about anti-Semitism in France, saying it isn’t that bad.”

Inviting Israeli Leaders: A Sop

“Another sop the French government offers French Jews is inviting Israeli leaders, such as President Moshe Katsav and former prime minister Ariel Sharon, for state visits. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is the latest in this series. The visiting Israeli politicians go along with the prettied-up version of reality.

“Olmert, during his official visit to France in mid-June, said Jacques Chirac is one of the greatest leaders in fighting anti-Semitism. If one looks back at the first intifada years this is not true. Many observers explain that Chirac cares for ‘his’ Jews but doesn’t care a fig about Israel. He feels badly about the Shoah and publicly acknowledged France’s responsibility for the actions of the Vichy government. But, considering that much of today’s anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism, Chirac’s attitude becomes clear.

“One recent positive development is the France-Israel project for technological and cultural collaboration. It is another sign that French authorities may realize they have allowed the Israel-bashing to go too far.”

Is Change Possible?

Poller says that any future switch in the French attitude toward Israel will not be impelled by the media but will have to come from other directions. The same is true for other issues such as anti-Semitism in French society.

“In private conversations, one increasingly hears non-Jews say they are shocked by the blatant verbal attacks on Jews, such as the diatribes by the half-African comedian Dieudonné. Even some people on the far Left are becoming aware of this, and seeing the alliance of their movements with anti-Semitic radical Muslims as a mistake.

“However, Jews and Israelis who claim that the French Jewish community is just imagining anti-Semitism reinforce anti-Jewish attitudes. As do foreign visitors who tell about seeing men wearing kippas on the street, unmolested, as if that sums up the general situation in France.”

Indicators for Society at Large

Poller considers the Jews as indicators for what happens in French society at large. In early 2005, during a major high-school student protest against educational reforms proposed by the then minister of education François Fillon, demonstrators at Place de la République in Paris were attacked by North African thugs who kicked them and stole their handbags, iPods, and cell phones.

She wrote:

What does it mean when the smashers start smashing the demonstrators? Voices have been warning that the passions unleashed by the virulent anti-Zionism fostered at all levels of French society since the autumn of 2000 would not stop with Zionists and Jews; they would turn against the society as a whole. The warning was majestically ignored. As anti-Zionism morphed into anti-Semitism and joined hands with anti-Americanism, we witnessed an increasing trend to self-destructive histrionics. The connection with reality is easily damaged in a culture that tends to take the word for the deed, the posture for the position, the pretension for power. The public has been fed heavy doses of propaganda from the very media that should have been helping responsible citizens understand the great upheavals taking place in the Middle East, with repercussions in their own daily lives. Instead, conflict is blamed on Israel and the United States, while conflict in Europe is stubbornly denied.1

“It turned out this was only the beginning of ethnic unrest fomented almost exclusively by Maghreb and West African Muslims. During the French autumn riots more than ten thousand cars were torched and many shops, schools, and kindergartens were burned or vandalized. In spring 2006, again, thugs attacked demonstrators who marched against employment reforms.”

Attacks by violent young Muslims targeting French society at large are becoming more frequent. Poller considers that her 2004 analysis presented in a lecture in the United States remains valid for the present reality and future of French Jews. She summed it up:

Jews cannot sue; they cannot speak out; they cannot write about what’s happening. If one does, one is accused of “upsetting the harmony of France.” Jews are in a “virtual ghetto”: their choice is either to be publicly anti-Zionist or to face exclusion or victimization. And the Jews think it will blow over! They are very Frenchified, have lived there for generations, and also they are afraid that if they make too much “noise,” they will lose the limited police protection they have now.2


1. Nidra Poller, “The Death of France’s ‘Multiculturalism,'” FrontPageMagazine.com, 30 March 2005, www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Printable.asp?ID=17511.

2. Debbie Levison, “Novelist Nidra Poller Delivers Chilling Message: No Solution in Sight to French Anti-Semitism,” Jewish Ledger, 5 May 2004,  www.jewishledger.com/articles/2004/05/05/news/news07.prt (talk at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, CT).

Nidra Poller

Nidra Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972. She is the author of Karimi Hotel et autres nouvelles d'Africa (Paris: l'Harmattan, 2011) [French] and many articles on European Jewry and Israel relations.