Yet in the course of a keynote speech delivered at the annual banquet of the French Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, President Nicholas 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 expressions of friendship and admiration for the Jewish people and Israel, he vowed to do his utmost to promote a Mideast peace settlement, adding that "France will never compromise Israel's security." He also predicted a marked improvement in relations between Israel and Europe when France assumes the E.U. presidency in July. 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 later 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 more than 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. Polls indicate that more than 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.
Experts in child psychology maintain that Sarkozy's critics exaggerate the trauma such a project would inflict. The gruesome fare of violence, brutality and horror to which kids are exposed to daily on TV, the Internet, films and newspapers does not seem to distress those attacking Sarkozy. There is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that sensitively presented memories of the fate of young Jews during the Holocaust would create psychological distress among schoolchildren.
The reality is that despite the recent flood of Holocaust remembrance, including the designation of memorial days, has become impersonal, and the repeated recitals of the statistics of murder no longer move people. The depersonalization of Holocaust memory has also paved the way for attempts to trivialize the uniquely Jewish aspect of the Holocaust.
It took extraordinary courage for a French president to launch a program focusing on the shameful behavior of his own people. It also earned him no kudos at a time when his support has fallen.
He heads a nation whose record on anti-Semitism is hardly admirable. His constituency includes many Muslims and Arabs who are outraged by his scheme. And having had a Jewish grandfather will encourage Sarkozy's 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. The Jewish people should yell "Bravo, President Sarkozy!" to 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.
Isi Liebler is a Jerusalem-based columnist.