A local Jewish leader was among a delegation that met with France’s president to urge government action against anti-Semitism and in support of Israel.
Mark Levenson of West Orange, a Newark attorney and chair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, traveled with a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Delegates spent five days in Paris, followed by a week in Israel.
Traveling in his “individual capacity” as an invited guest of the Presidents’ Conference, Levenson was among some 100 participants on a mission led by Mort Zuckerman, a former chair of the organization and the publisher of the New York Daily News.
In a two-hour meeting with French President Francois Hollande, and in a separate one-hour session with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, members of the group expressed support “for our French brothers and sisters” in the Jewish community, Levenson said in a Feb. 15 phone interview from Jerusalem.
Anti-Semitic attitudes in France are “not as bad as some people might suggest,” he said. “But we were there to push the government to act against any acts of anti-Semitism and make as safe a climate as possible for French Jewry. We also wanted to press France to have Hizbulla labeled a terrorist organization.
“We were very impressed with both men. We felt they detest and abhor all acts of anti-Semitism, and they said straight out that anti-Semitism was not to be tolerated. They want French Jews to be free citizens.”
Levenson noted that while “France has interests that don’t coincide fully with Israel’s,” the two French leaders “were very respectful and it was a constructive dialogue. They heard us out. We heard their position. There were extensive questions and answers. But they did not make any specific commitments to us.”
In an address to the delegation at Elysee Palace on Feb. 6, Hollande pledged to strengthen sanctions against Iran and affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense. In addition, said Levenson, Hollande said his country stood “alongside the Palestinians in their efforts to establish a state.” According to Levenson, Hollande said that “it’s in Israel’s own interest because as long as Palestine doesn’t have recognized borders, neither will Israel. Until Palestine achieves stability, Israel will not achieve security.”
“We sought to press France to press the Palestinians to come back to the bargaining table without any preconditions and to be more supportive of Israel on some international issues,” said Levenson.
Last fall, France supported the Palestinians in their successful campaign to achieve non-voting observer status at the United Nations.
“We were concerned that France doesn’t recognize the position Israel is in and that there is no substitute for negotiation,” Levenson said. “The more the Palestinians are able to get without negotiating, that is no way forward.”
In his talk, Hollande also said his government wanted Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume.
After five days in France, the group met with leaders of the Israeli government and many of its newly elected political leaders.
Levenson said the range of new leaders and parties suggested that “there is a much more pluralistic view” and “understanding [that] there has to be a little more religious openness in Israel, and the middle class has to be expanded.
“There are 48 new Knesset members out of 120 members,” said Levenson. “There is a high percentage of women. There is a high percentage of young people. So those who are tired of the old politicians in Israel are certainly going to get a new breed.”