During a closed meeting with the heads of France’s Jewish organizations Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened the complacency of French Jewry to the state of Jews in Spain prior to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, which led to their expulsion from the Catholic kingdom, The Times of Israel has learned.
The meeting, which took place at Netanyahu’s hotel in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, lasted about an hour and was attended by the heads of France’s three representative Jewish organizations: the Consistoire, which deals with religious affairs; the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations (CRIF), which functions as the community’s political branch; and the United Social Jewish Funds, which deals with education and culture.
While Netanyahu’s public call during his two-day visit to Paris for French Jews to emigrate to Israel drew sharp criticism from domestic political opponents as well as from community leaders in Europe, his meeting with the Jewish leaders was described by participants as “harsh” and “deeply insulting.”
One meeting attendee, who would not reveal his name for fear of political epercussions, described Netanyahu’s unapologetic call in the meeting for French Jews to leave their country as “extremely smug” and “patronizing.” “Imagine if following a terror attack in Netanya the French president would arrive in Israel and call on Jews to leave for France,” he said. “As it is, Jews are perceived by some [in France] as a fifth column.”
Another participant detailed the meeting as it unfolded. “He [Netanyahu] started by saying that the job of an Israeli prime minister is to tell Jews to come to Israel, just as the job of a French prime minister is to tell Jews to remain in France,” this participant said.
Netanyahu then cited the academic research of his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, who specialized in the Jews of the Spanish Golden Age. The elder Netanyahu studied the writings of 15th century Spanish-Jewish sage Isaac Abravanel, who felt all was fine before being expelled along with his entire community by Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1492.
“He [Netanyahu] added: ‘Of course you love life here and think things are fine, but they’re not.’ He said that a bit severely, but not meanly.” Netanyahu acknowledged the financial and professional difficulties facing French immigrants to Israel — in what the participant understood as tacit criticism of the Israeli bureaucrats in the room — but insinuated that those hardships were less severe than actual existential danger, the participant said.
At the same time, French parliamentarian and Netanyahu confidant Meyer Habib was repeatedly accused by French Jews of providing the Israeli prime minister with a lopsided view of the complex reality in France, circumventing the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the French Quai d’Orsay, and the Jewish institutions in the process. “He [Habib] has a tendency to interfere and take over communication with Netanyahu without asking community leaders what they want,” one meeting participant said. “Truth be told, he is the only one who has Netanyahu’s ear. Netanyahu listens to no community leader other than Meyer [Habib]; we get the sense that he’s heard everything already from Meyer. “It’s strange conduct,” he added diplomatically, but noted Habib’s deep commitment to the Jewish community and his intimate knowledge of it, as former vice president of CRIF.
“Nevertheless, Bibi [Netanyahu’s] image [of France] is that of Meyer. That much is clear, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s difficult to always have someone between you and the other, even if he’s good… at some point you’ve had enough.” An official in the Prime Minister’s office, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, said that in his speech at the Grand Synagogue of Paris, Netanyahu clearly said that “Jews have the right to live wherever they want,” but “have an opportunity that did not exist in the past, to live freely in the only Jewish state, the State of Israel,” where they will be “greeted with open arms and an open heart.”
As for the claims regarding Netanyahu’s over-reliance on Habib, the official said that Netanyahu held several meetings with Jewish leaders in France during his visit and heard all their opinions, not just Habib’s.