«I paid what there was to pay»
Interview with Michel Friedman
Tachles, Swiss Jewish Weekly, November 18, 2003
Only three months after his cocaine and prostitute affair, the former president of the European Jewish Congress and vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Michel Friedman, reports back. Without political functions, but with a new task. Yves Kugelmann spoke with him about the “Friedman Debate”, Europe’s Near East politics and the CDU (Union of Christian Democrats, the main rightwing political party of Germany) Affair.
TACHLES: Friedman the skipjack. Three months after you resigned from all political assignments following the cocaine (abuse) affair, you come back as the publisher in the Aufbau publishing house. A new task that sits well with you. Even better than the old one?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: It is a wonderful thing to make books. I am together with a strong team responsible for 60 titles, political books, within the Aufbau publishing group. If you translate this to TV programmes, that is more than one broadcast, that is one book, a week. As publisher I have the possibility to bring subjects to people and people to subjects. Books have a longer build-up period, but also a longer shelf life. Editing political books and thus, as the publisher, having the opportunity to exert influence, this is a wonderful challenge and work. Besides I am a column writer for politics in Max on the last page and will also write for Parsifal, the new product from the Ringier Group in Germany. Thus, the opinion-forming interjections by Michel Friedman may still be heard.
TACHLES: Interjections, reminders of social values, that in the debate around the cocaine affair were suddenly labelled moralistic. Are you a moralist, or is “the Jew” in the public eye simply equated with morality?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: On the contrary, I have always made sure that we did not get personal. My task was and is to query contents, appearance and reality in the political discussions. But I have always avoided to make anything of the private life of those concerned. Nevertheless, I made a mistake, and to hold my own, I have paid a price for that mistake that I consider justified. I have without any ifs and buts resigned form all my offices, to show that there is a different way to deal with a crisis. For to me, this is the prerequisite to regaining trust.
TACHLES: In your case, what was private spelled doom.
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: I really wondered that I was supposed to be the upholder of moral standards in the Federal Republic of Germany. I never consider it in this way and I believe I never acted accordingly.
TACHLES: Can you appreciate that during a certain period of the debate the Central Council of Jews in Germany turned its back on you?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: The Central Council did not turn is back on me, and I have all appreciation for everyone’s reaction.
TACHLES: As you always stress, you have made a mistake, a mistake that in show business is practically good form. Wasn’t your guilt not completely overstated?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Yes, that’s true, parts of society wanted more, others find it enough. Fact is that I accepted the consequences, and this clearly out of a sense of political responsibility.
TACHLES: And not because it was a glaring mistake, perhaps in view of your future career?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: This is inseparable. I wanted to divert damages to the Jewish community, and I repeat: I think it correct that once you showed misconduct you resign, unsolicited and rigorously, from all offices. This is the prerequisite to be able to accept new responsibilities freely and freed from the past. This is my stance, this is how I live with it. Today I can look anyone in the face and say: Listen, you cannot atone more than once in life. I think I have paid excessively, and now I am free and can look anyone in the face. And if someone asks for more, that is his problem mine is resolved.
TACHLES: To what extent was this a discussion about the Jew Michel Friedman?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: It is futile to discuss it in this manner. I am a responsible person, and in the same way as I can think critically about others I can think about myself, too. I dropped my guard, and this was made use of and was exploited. Now I can be terribly upset about it, yet it still remains the same: If I hadn’t acted the way I did, I would not been open to attacks. What of this was anti-Semitic or not is in the end not an issue now. Perhaps this will have to be reappraised in a few years. But we have to be able to handle our own activities in a responsible way. Whatever motive led to the fact that one wanted to get rid of me, one would not have succeeded without my conduct. That is the deciding factor, and nothing else. And therefore I offered all I had to offer and said: OK, take it, my sin. I am alive, I speak, and no-one will order me to be quiet. I paid all there is to pay toward society. From now on I am back.
TACHLES: That is exactly according to the Jewish principle of the teshuva, the expiation by reversal.
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Yes, and I find this wonderful. I think that a person has to be honest and truthful to hold his own in front of others.
TACHLES: PR consultants propose a one-year abstinence from the public. You are back after three months. Does that mean that Friedman without his public has no existence?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: I am a journalist and publicist, that has always been part of my professional identity. I am also a lawyer. As a lawyer I work discreetly and quietly, that is part of the job. But any journalist is by definition someone who communicates with the public, and I have yet to meet a journalist without a public.
TACHLES: You return the very week that CDU politician Martin Hohmann reminds us of the Möllemann case. Has Germany, have German politicians learnt absolutely nothing from the Möllemann case?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: In all these cases and not just in Germany we see that anti-Semitism remains a European malady, as it always has been. In all these occurrences, and also in last week’s poll, we recognise how Europe perceives Israel as a bigger threat to peace than certain dictatorships of this world. We see that we will have to deal with anti-Semitism also in the coming years, and to deal with it to me means that we are not prepared to accept it and to say that this was part of society. Where is it written that anti-Semitism has to be part of any society? The Hohmann case has also shown us that a large popular party has waited much too long to draw its consequences, and that without pressure, without political opposition, the socio-political discourse of the Jewish community, too, would have been grounded. There is no time for rest.
TACHLES: You have personally shaped the afore-mentioned socio-political discourse during the last 20 years. Who will introduce these values in the future?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Everyone can be replaced…
TACHLES: … the usual well-sounding hackneyed phase. You are replaceable, but perhaps nobody wants to take your place in this form. We know and see just in Europe and Israel that the work of the official Jewish associations is often not done by eminent authorities, by professional politicians.
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Everyone has his own signature. It is not right to think of oneself as irreplaceable. This really contradicts all democratic principles. But Michel Friedman has not lost his voice. On the contrary.
TACHLES: A threat. Will you soon take on another office?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Time will tell.
TACHLES: As president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) you have started last year to bring Jewish politics to Europe and announced a hug programme which in parts has already begun in Turkey. Actually nobody is continuing this.
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: The EJC has elected a successor. I am no longer president because I made a mistake. And I am not one of those who are less critical towards themselves than towards others. One might deplore it or not, that is how things are at the moment. There is a successor, and I honestly wish him all the best. With this of course I want to say that all the best means that he will bring the political approach that I started to full bloom and adds his own signature. But everyone has his personal signature, and that must be respected. I take this very seriously indeed.
TACHLES: What in your opinion should the EU engagement in the Near East be?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: The EU is non-existent in foreign politics. If one compares the Near-East foreign policies of Germany and England or France and Sweden, one finds that it is a bouquet of many very different colours. We have to make sure the EU does not become the extended arm of a one-sided Near-East policy against Israel. The actual fact that the mentioned poll had been ordered by the EU alone shows that the relations are strained. Israel is the only Near-East country that stands up to Western and European criteria and is oriented along corresponding values. It is a democracy in which freedom of press, science and education prevails. A country with democratic elections, in which a functioning judiciary system monitors politics. In this way it should be the task of the EU to support this country and not to weaken it. This irrespective of whether one sees another, faster solution to the problem of the Palestinians than the present government of Israel is politically formulating. The EU will not be able to exert an important influence in the Near East and in the peace process as long as the Israeli do not feel that the Europeans define Israel as an ally in their core interests in the Near East. I find that Israel rightfully understands this criterion to be of top priority. This results in Europe’s role at this time being peripheral, and it will probably remain so.
TACHLES: What do you think of the “Geneva Convention”, of the extra-parliamentarian dialogue group of persons from Israel and Palestine?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: I believe that there will be the perspective of a solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But we may not discuss this subject one-dimensionally. Even if the moderates among the Palestinians will prevail, Syria, Iran, Libya to mention just a few countries will play a decisive role in whether they will be allowed to enter a peace treaty or not. Syria is against a peace because the Lebanon question will then be on the table. The Lebanon is still occupied by Syria. Iran cannot afford the stabilisation of the Israel-Palestine conflict because it would then loose the foe image Israel as a representative of the US. Libya, a country with a terrorist tradition going back decades, can also not wish for peace. With other words: To believe it to be a bilateral matter whether there will be a real peace treaty between Palestinians and Israelites attests to typically European naivety. I would wish that the Europeans would exert pressure on the dictatorships and not only on democratic Israel.
TACHLES: And how do you judge the logistic and financial support of the treaty by Switzerland?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: You will understand that within the framework of European insignificance I define Switzerland as exceptionally insignificant country in the Near East.
TACHLES: But you share the view of the Sharon government that no negotiations shall be supported to take place behind their backs?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Switzerland is a free country and can place its stamp on any subject at any point in the world. Whether she overreaches herself doing it is another issue. Megalomania has never led to any results.
TACHLES: Talking of megalomania: What were your thoughts when the Anti-Defamation League proclaimed Berlusconi Statesman of the Year?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Independent of how you perceive Berlusconi, one thing is undisputed: Also in his role as president of the EU he showed a remarkable pro-Israel engagement. As one of my last official acts I conducted a discussion with him, and at that time he had stated clearly that as EU president he would not underwrite the anti-Israel position of the EU. He clearly and unequivocally supports the rights of Italian citizens of the Jewish faith. Form this point of view I can understand that he is awarded. On the other hand, and that is at least as important, one should not forget that Berlusconi is leading a governing coalition among whose members are at least right-nationals. A sign that I judge as rather problematic in Europe. But every institution has to decide for itself with whom it adorns itself.
TACHLES: An atypical Friedman answer. Is there compromise concerning anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish remarks, is there compromise concerning undemocratic behaviour?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Berlusconi did not make any anti-Semitic remarks.
TACHLES: At least he depicted, not to say qualified, history in a wilful manner. As a rule you are more perspicuous in this respect.
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: I stated it clearly: I think his attitude towards Israel remarkable. The other aspects of his political orientation, especially in this coalition, I consider as extremely problematic.
TACHLES: However, we see that rightwing governments at this time present an especially positive attitude towards Israel. On the other hand there are a lot of “Buts” in respect to minority politics, fight against racism, anti-Semitism. Do we not in this respect turn a blind eye and open ourselves to this dilemma?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: A dilemma it might be. The primary question to me is what ideas are you following. I find that any coalition with right-nationals or parties even more to the right is a sin that cannot be compensated.
TACHLES: Stirring the brown soup then. Is that why you took such a definite stance against Möllemann?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: We had to deal with a challenge that would have totally altered the coordinates of the political system in Germany, if the FDP (Free Democratic Party) and not just Mr Möllemann had succeeded with this election campaign clearly constructed upon anti-Semitic and anti-Israel resentments. That had to be prevented. Period. Still, and that has to be stated equally clearly, the wish that a person lives is always much more important than anything else. I was saddened because a person died. But that doesn’t change anything in what we had to discuss politically at the time.
TACHLES: No concessions to the right then, not to Berlusconi either?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: In Austria we clearly stated to the Schüssler government: No coalition with Haider. And what goes for Austria goes for other European countries too. Therefore I repeat: We have to differentiate. This government may make important contributions to Israel and the Near East, but its political legitimation, in conjunction with parties of the extreme right, is inexcusable.
TACHLES: Is this again the politician talking, perhaps the future EJC president?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Those are your words. I have new tasks, I will certainly not ask for (more) new ones.
TACHLES: And when will you begin your own TV programme again?
MICHEL FRIEDMAN: Not before next summer.
© 2001/2002 tachles Jüdisches Wochenmagazin.
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