Published on 16 March 2023

Crif - Op-ed by Yonathan Arfi : "A Jewish view from France on the crisis in Israel"

In his op-ed, Yonathan Arfi, President of Crif shows his view, a Jewish view from France on the crisis in Israel.

What is a Jewish and democratic state? Because Zionism has always been conjugated in the plural, the Israelis have never given a definitive answer to this question, preferring pragmatism and compromise. No constitution, therefore, but for 75 years, there has been a permanent dialogue on the contours of the State of Israel.

This sense of compromise and the desire for a shared future seem to be fading in the current crisis, marked by unprecedented drama.

For many Jews in the Diaspora, including myself, the first reaction was one of observation: not indifference, but that of an attentive observer, initially confident in Israel's ability to quickly find its point of equilibrium while respecting both its Jewish and democratic values.

A few weeks later, it is clear that the division persists and that the question is no longer one of determining the technical details of this or that political proposal - which it would not be my role to comment on - but becomes a fundamental debate concerning the very definition of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

How does the state that embodies Jewish national emancipation define its democracy and its place among the great liberal democracies of the world? What definition of Jews should serve as the basis for the Law of Return, which gives the right to immigrate to Israel? How is the Jewish character of the nation-state of the Jewish people defined? These questions are also those of the Diaspora, which must make its contribution to the debate.

It is in the Diaspora that the Zionist dream was elaborated first as a utopia and then as a project. The Diaspora must avoid Israeli political life in the partisan sense of the term. Still, it carries some timeless messages for the Jewish people, which can shed light on the current crisis in Israel.

For several weeks, French Jewish voices have been delivering divergent analyses of the crisis in Israel. Crif's responsibility is to promote an honest, constructive, peaceful debate within French Jewry.

For the Diaspora, being Jewish means knowing what we owe to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Jewish condition throughout history can only blossom serenely in democracies (Israel, the United States, and Western Europe...), to which the immense majority of Jews gradually migrated in the 20th century. And the honor of Israel is to be one of the only states in the world to have directly constituted itself as a democracy.

Democracy, as we know, is elections, but it is also a free press, a lively network of NGOs, the right to demonstrate and adequate checks and balances. Today, as in the past, its democratic vitality is Israel's strength.

But like all democracies, it can fail. It weakens when the rule of law is overrun by a minority during the unacceptable violence in Hawara in revenge for the attack committed a few hours earlier. Whatever the grief and anger, these riots were an unbearable assault on democratic principles and Jewish values. It is also weakened when populist, stigmatizing, and hateful rhetoric appears in the Israeli public debate, even in the words of some ministers in office. They are not acceptable in any democracy. It is not a political judgment to say so. It is a moral position that holds the same way in France, Israel, and elsewhere.

But it is also my responsibility to remind everyone in France of the widespread condemnation of these riots, from the highest authorities of the State in Israel to the majority of Israeli citizens. No democracy in the world can know what it would do, faced as Israel is with permanent terrorism and the will of its enemies to destroy it. In this respect, Israel has become a laboratory for democracies.

Because hatred of Israel, which did not wait for the composition of this or that Israeli government, is anti-Semitic, I will strongly oppose in the public debate in France all those who will use the current crisis to delegitimize the right to of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. This is also a question of principles on which there is no compromise.

But above all, Israel must rediscover the sense of dialogue and compromise that has always enabled it to overcome its divisions. Israel will not escape this rule of life. And I wish President Herzog every success in bringing together the majority and the opposition to reach a consensus solution beyond political divisions.

As the state of Israel is facing a new wave of terrorism and Iran is on the threshold of a nuclear weapon, the solidarity of French Jews with Israel must not weaken in these times of crisis: on the contrary, it is growing in the conviction that it is in their heritage, both Jewish and democratic, that the Israelis will find a modus vivendi.


Yonathan Arfi, President of Crif