PARIS — When Delphine Horvilleur, France’s best-known female Jewish spiritual leader, began appearing regularly in the media, her friends and relatives feared it would expose her to threats or attacks by anti-Semites.
Several years later it appears they were only partially wrong. Horvilleur’s media profile does invite hate speech and abuse online — but mostly from other Jews.
Following a reference to Jerusalem during a television interview last month, Horvilleur became the punching bag of the local branch of the Jewish Defense League and a vocal minority among ultra-conservative Jews. Stopping short of threatening to harm her physically, several dozen people wrote hateful statements against Horvielleur on far-right websites and in social media following her Dec. 25 interview with the broadcaster Inter.
In the interview, she said that while Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, it should not be used a political pawn — and that the city may become a Palestinian capital as well.
That disagreement with those who think Jerusalem is unequivocally and indivisibly a Jewish capital led the French Jewish Defense League to accuse her of “stabbing Israel in the back.”
“The scum Delphine Horvilleur proudly displays her Kapo credentials. Unfortunately, Jews didn’t have a choice during the Holocaust,” the league said on its official Twitter account on Dec. 27. “But this liberal, left-wing excrement is a disgrace to our community. DelphineHorvilleur — shameful Jewess!”
A far-right activist called Yosh Nakache sent Horvilleur a threatening text message warning that unnamed people would “come and explain to you loud and clear to stop speaking for the real Jewish people instead of your made up liberal one,” adding that “the more you speak out, the more escalated the reaction will be.”
Reviled by some of her detractors for being a woman rabbi — one post called on her to “return to the kitchen” — and by others for being a left-leaning Jew, this has been the most intense episode of incitement against Horvilleur, already a longtime favorite target for a handful of French Jewish provocateurs. An author of several books on theology, Horvilleur is editor of a Jewish magazine and a married mother of three who lives in the heart of this capital city.
The incitement against Horvilleur isn’t an uncommon reaction in a community where many feel on edge. A wave of anti-Semitic and Islamist attacks has caused thousands of French Jews to leave and is exposing those who remain to the worst security threats experienced by their community since the Holocaust.
Jews with extreme views on the right as well as the left regularly come under vociferous attacks by coreligionists for their perceived betrayal. But the attack on Horvilleur was different because, despite being a Reform rabbi in a community that is predominantly Orthodox and increasingly conservative, she is a mainstream leader of French Jewry, with strong pro-Israel credentials.
Horvilleur was invited last year to officiate alongside the Orthodox chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, at the funeral of Simone Weil, a Holocaust survivor who became health minister and one of France’s most influential politicians. Though it was not Rabbi Korsia’s choice — his office attempted to downplay Horvilleur’s role at the funeral — the ceremony was nonetheless an interdenominational first in France.
“Jerusalem is being instrumentalized on all sides today,” Horvilleur said in the broadcast interview when asked about President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 declaration that the United States recognizes the city as Israel’s capital. “Trump declared something which is an administrative reality. For Israelis, Jerusalem is today the incontestable capital of their country, but this lacks a certain broader vision.”
For some, she added, “it became almost a theological assertion, as though Donald Trump suddenly became a pope or a great rabbi. In others it triggers the desire to contest Israel’s legitimacy to exist under any circumstances.”
Asked whether Jerusalem could also become the capital of a Palestinian state, Horvilleur gave what she acknowledged in an interview to JTA was a “cautious” answer.
“It could, yes, there would need to be reflection on a solution that takes into account the attachment of everyone to the city — which doesn’t change the fact that today, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” she told the Inter interviewer.
Following the incitement against Horvilleur, the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities published a statement stating that it condemns the “hateful remarks” against Horvilleur, adding that those who made them should be “prosecuted and convicted.”
The Liberal Union of Jews in France denounced the incitement in a statement that noted the hate speech came “from within the community” and that the Jewish tradition is “unequivocal” in its disapproval of such rhetoric.
But the Consistoire, the organization that represents most of France’s Orthodox synagogues, has not spoken out on the issue.
“It seems that this fringe minority suddenly is succeeding in getting away with its actions as the still majority stays mum,” Horvilleur said.
That may be a result of lessons learned from the last time the Consistoire waded into an acrimonious internal debate between ultra-conservatives and an outspoken female spiritual leader to many French Jews. In June, a rabbi from Marseille harshly criticized Liliane Vana, a philologist and expert on Jewish law, for her role in organizing a seminar at a Jewish community center that featured women reading the Torah, an action viewed as sacrilegious by some Orthodox Jews.
As the Consistoire gingerly attempted to walk back the harsh verbal attack, the event escalated into a scandal. It prompted two small demonstrations by young Orthodox men and a slew of insults and threats by other French Jews, in Marseille and beyond, all critical of Vana.
That “rather banal statements trigger such an outpouring of hate is a sign of how intolerant our Jewish community has become to respectful disagreement, which is the essence of Jewish democratic values and thought,” Horvilleur told JTA. “French Jewry is ill, and only it can cure itself.”