It is early days but initial signals from the Elysee Palace suggest that President Nicolas Sarkozy is genuinely committed to opening a new chapter in Franco-Jewish relations.
Since 1967, French Middle East policy has been consistently hostile and displayed cynical disregard for Israel’s security needs.
In the course of a keynote speech delivered at the annual banquet of the French Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, Sarkozy outlined his views on a wide variety of issues related to the Jewish people and Israel. This was the first time that a president of the Fifth Republic had ever accepted such an invitation.
Sarkozy’s remarks resonate well. Besides warm expressions of friendship and admiration for the Jewish people and Israel, he vowed to do his utmost to promote a Middle East peace settlement adding the caveat that “France will never compromise Israel’s security.” He also predicted a marked improvement in relations between Israel and Europe as a whole when France assumes the EU Presidency in July 2008. Sarkozy reiterated his pledge to combat anti-Semitism and undertook never to meet or shake hands with representatives of any country that refused to recognize Israel.
But what stunned the audience was his unexpected bombshell about Holocaust education, which, due to frenzied opposition was subsequently slightly modified.
Sarkozy expressed the need to convey the message of the Holocaust to young people in a more meaningful manner. To achieve that, he proposed that 10 year old schoolchildren symbolically adopt a Jewish child of a similar age who had been deported from France and murdered by the Nazis. “Nothing has more meaning for a child, than the story of a child his own age, who played the same games and shared the same joys and hopes, but who in the early 1940s had the misfortune to be defined as a Jew.”
The audience of over 1,000 responded with a standing ovation. However, by the next day Sarkozy was assailed with fierce attacks from his political opponents, school teachers, and psychologists arguing “No educational project should be constructed on death.” Polls indicate that over 80 percent of French citizens opposed his initiative. Undoubtedly many were motivated by profound feelings of guilt and shame relating to French collaboration with the Nazis especially during the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz.
The campaign against him also incorporated anti-Semitic elements. National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen, previously convicted for describing Nazi gas chambers “as a mere footnote of the Second World War” and the Nazi occupation as “not particularly inhumane,” attacked Sarkozy’s proposal as morally outrageous and criminal.
“The poor children will feel guilty and broken,” he said.
But Sarkozy must have been stunned when Simone Veil, the former minister and former president of the European Parliament, seated at his table, also bitterly condemned his proposal. It has been suggested that the 80-year-old Jewish Auschwitz survivor was hyper-sensitive because she feared that singling out Jewish suffering would be bitterly resented by the French people who would also take exception to repeated reminders of their behavior during the Nazi occupation.
Unfortunately, she seemed to have lost the plot when she somewhat hysterically exclaimed “My blood turned to ice” and declared, “It is unimaginable, unbelievable, traumatic, and above all unjust. You cannot inflict this on little 10-year olds. You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. This history is much too heavy to carry.”
Experts in child psychology maintain that Sarkozy’s critics exaggerate the trauma such a project would inflict on children. True, the story of a youngster denied life because of anti-Semitism would have an emotional impact. Yet the gruesome fare of violence, brutality, and horror to which children are exposed daily on TV, the Internet, films, and newspapers do not seem to distress those attacking Sarkozy. There is in fact no evidence to suggest that sensitively presented memories of the fate of Jewish youngsters during the Holocaust would create psychological distress among schoolchildren. After all, there have been numerous versions of Anne Frank’s diary and similar biographies written for youngsters without a single recorded case of trauma.
Sarkozy himself was nonplussed by his enraged critics, telling them, “believe me, you will not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of a country. Any psychiatrist will tell you that you must tell a child the truth.” He added, “Make our children open their eyes…It is ignorance not knowledge that produces these abominable situations. If you don’t talk to children about this tragedy, then you should not be surprised if it repeats itself.”
The reality is that despite the recent flood of Holocaust remembrance including designation of Holocaust memorial Days, Holocaust commemoration has become impersonal and the repeated recitals of the statistics of murder no longer move people. Yet personalized biographies of Anne Frank, a popular TV series along the lines of Holocaust, or a movie like Schindler’s List, achieve greater impact on the public than gruesome montages of mass graves or sterile commemorations and ceremonies.
The depersonalization of Holocaust memory has also paved the way for attempts to trivialize the uniquely Jewish aspect of the Holocaust. Of late, even Muslim groups have been trying to hijack Holocaust commemoration and transform it into a vehicle to combat what they describe as Islamophobia.
In this context, Sarkozy’s proposal to twin youngsters with Holocaust tragedies involving people of their own age would represent the most creative and meaningful model for Holocaust remembrance ever launched. Serge Klarsfeld, the distinguished Jewish Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter, himself a survivor, praised the president for his courage. “In about 30 years, a century after the Holocaust, the 10 year old schoolchildren of today will be adults, and France will be the only country in which a precise memory of Jewish children who were deported, will survive.”
It took extraordinary courage for a French President to launch a program focusing on former shameful behavior of his own people. It earned him no kudos, especially at a time when his public support has plummeted. He heads a nation whose record on anti-Semitism is hardly admirable. His constituency includes many Arabs who are outraged by his scheme. And having had a Jewish grandfather will encourage his critics to accuse him of bias. Clearly, in contrast to most contemporary leaders, Sarkozy displays determination to promote what he considers to be just, rather than conforming to political correctness.
We must never take our friends for granted – especially during these difficult times, when the world responds with deafening silence as the Iranians and their allies proudly proclaim their determination to fulfill Hitler’s Final Solution. Many leaders pay tribute to dead Jews but seem less willing to protect the living. Even the watered down version of Sarkozy’s original plan – of entire classes instead of individual children being paired with a young Holocaust victim – will cater for both the living and the dead. The Jewish people should say “Bravo President Sarkozy”- convey our appreciation, and pray that other European leaders emulate his courageous lead which will both elevate Holocaust commemoration and immunize future generations against hatred and bigotry.
This article can also be read at http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1204546409795&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull