The dinner party in London

Posted: Jan 14, 2002 12:00 AM
The vibrations of a dinner in London almost a month ago ripple on. In Newsday, former New York mayor Ed Koch demands, no less, that all supporters of Israel "should boycott French wine, cheese, perfume and clothing, as well as refuse to visit France as tourists." For how long? "Until the French government recalls its ambassador to Britain, and either cashiers or demotes him." Yesterday, a prominent (and, coincidentally, also titled) British woman -- rich, philanthropic, Jewish, thunderously articulate -- in a private visit with my wife and me reported on the British "affaire Bernard."

Two questions are raised. (1) Did the remark of the French ambassador to London at the dinner party of Conrad Black (Lord Black) amount to de facto anti-Semitism? And (2), Did the journalist who published the remarks violate decorum? Add to the mix that the incident was reported by journalist Barbara Amiel, who in real life is Lady Black; that her husband was the host of the party; and that the column was published in the newspaper he owns.

To divulge all my personal conflicts in talking about the subject, let me record that my five closest friends in the entire world are my informant at lunch, Barbara Amiel, Conrad Black, Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan. Now to proceed with the story.

At the dinner party in December, French Ambassador Daniel Bernard, in a discussion of Mideast policies with neighbors at his table, remarked that after all, Israel was a "sh--ty little country," no larger in area than two French departments, causing him to wonder "why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?"

London awoke in shock, though one wonders whether the pain was greater because of this sign of apparent anti-Semitism, or because of the perceived violation of protocol in reporting it.

For days the French embassy said nothing, but finally rejected completely any suggestion that M. Bernard was anti-Semitic, whatever he actually said, denying that he had used vulgar language. A complication in understanding the episode stems from the unfortunate fact that Monsieur Bernard is a teetotaler, forfeiting him the shelter of alcoholic hyperbole.

But then tension increased hugely upon the report, also by journalist Amiel, that another British society leader, "doyenne of London's political salon scene" at a private lunch (what is a private lunch in London these days?) "made a remark that she couldn't stand Jews and everything happening to them was their own fault. When this was greeted with a shocked silence, she chided her guests on what she assumed was their hypocrisy. 'Oh come on,' she said, 'you all feel like that.'"

That lady was identified as the wife of Charles Powell, also a lord, sometime secretary to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and a businessman of affairs in the Mideast.

Everybody on that flank denied everything.

Our own British visitor, inquisitive about American reaction to the affair, cited Ambassador Bernard's defense that what was said had to be taken in context. If his point was as simple as that world wars should not be risked over small territorial disputes, the observation is not indisputably animated by anti-Semitism, inasmuch as the point could be made about Taiwan, or Singapore, or East Timor. Is there the explanation that the ambassador was simply letting off steam, even if unfueled by wine? Or, as Amiel believes, do we have here an expression of latent hostility by the French government to Jews and their entire enterprise in Israel?

Edward Koch a couple of years ago described almost parenthetically the America First Committee as "pro-Nazi." I protested. "You, dear Edward, make life truly impossible for those who try to keep things straight when you level such charges." On the subject of Israel and indeed anti-Semitism, the problem is always there, to think reasonably. But it is reasonable to suppose that the French ambassador was indeed letting off anti-Semitic sentiments, reasonable to argue that journalist Amiel should have yielded to the protocols of hostess Black, yet reasonable to conclude that the entire episode is a contribution to informed thought about what is going on in the minds of the governing classes in England and France.