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France’s chief rabbi refuses to step down amid scandal

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-04-10

France’s chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, dismissed calls for his resignation on Tuesday following his recent admission to several counts of plagiarism and misleading the public as to his academic qualifications.

France’s chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, refused to resign from his position on Tuesday amid outrage over his recent admission to several counts of plagiarism and allowing the public to falsely believe he was a qualified philosophy professor.

Bernheim, who fended off accusations over his academic record for weeks, quietly owned up to his guilt last Wednesday, as news broke that France’s former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac had confessed to stashing 600,000 euros away in an offshore bank account. While the rabbi’s admission was largely overlooked by French media in the frenzy caused by the Cahuzac scandal, many in the country’s Jewish community were shocked by the news.

Amid growing pressure to quit, Bernheim responded in an interview with France’s Radio Shalom, saying his resignation would amount to a “desertion”.

“It would be an act of pride and against the collegial structure that presides over decisions. I assume my functions fully,” he said. “I ask for forgiveness from all those close to me, my family and the community as a whole that I have disappointed.”

A modern Orthodox Jew, Bernheim was elected chief rabbi in 2008 and appeared to be at the height of his career when his credibility was called into question last month after a blogger accused him of copying a 1996 text by the late French post-modernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard to use in his 2011 book “Forty Jewish Meditations”.

Bernheim countered the allegations by portraying himself as the victim instead. He claimed that Lyotard had plagerised notes from lectures he had delivered in the 1980s when he worked as Jewish student chaplain in Paris. Two weeks later,  Bernheim admitted that Lyotard had in fact authored the disputed text, blaming the error on a student researcher he had hired to help write the book.

Accusations pile up

In the months leading up to his admission, the rabbi had risen to prominence after publishing a booklet laying out what would serve as the main intellectual argument used by France’s multi-faith opposition to the government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption.

His philosophical and historical defence of traditional marriage went on to attract the attention of former Pope Benedict XVI, who unexpectedly praised it in his annual speech to the Vatican Curia last December, calling it “profoundly moving”.

After the plagiarism scandal broke, however, even Bernheim’s much applauded booklet came under scrutiny.

Jean-Noel Darde, a French academic who fights against plagiarism and has been one of the sources of the accusations, said on Tuesday that Bernheim had also plagiarised in that leaflet, prompting France’s largest Jewish association to demand an explanation of the rabbi’s behaviour.

Yet the accusations don’t stop there. In a separate incident last week, another blogger alleged Bernheim had committed plagiarism in a 2002 book. L’Express magazine also revealed that the rabbi had not earned the prestigious rank of philosophy professor that was often attached to his name.

Although his official biography did not mention him passing the “aggregation”  France's highly selective examination needed to qualify as a professor  -- Bernheim never disputed the title when it appeared in newspaper articles and publicity for his books.

Bernheim was rabbi of the largest synagogue in Paris and was a leading Jewish intellectual when he challenged predecessor, Joseph Sitruk, in a hard-fought campaign to become chief rabbi in 2008, which revealed deep divisions in French Judaism.

“When you’re successful a lot of people consider you as some sort of hero ... so you don’t want to disappoint them, so you propagate the image they have of you,” Bernheim told the station, sounding calm as he admitted and explained each allegation in turn.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-04-10


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