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Plagiarism scandal finally fells France’s celebrity chief rabbi, who resigns

Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, leaving the Elysee Palace in Paris after meeting with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, March 21, 2012. (Frank Prevel/Getty)
Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, leaving the Elysee Palace in Paris after meeting with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, March 21, 2012. (Frank Prevel/Getty)

(JTA) — “When Gilles Bernheim speaks, France listens.”

That’s how Avraham Weill, the chief rabbi of Toulouse, describes what he believes was the main appeal of his charismatic mentor, who on Thursday resigned as chief rabbi of France after admitting to several instances of plagiarism and falsely using an academic title.

The media frenzy that led to Bernheim’s resignation after five years on the job was part and parcel of the 61-year-old’s strong media presence — a presence that may have attracted extra attention to the missteps that ultimately cost Berhneim his title but had allowed him to become a major voice for French Jewry.

Since late March, the French media have been running a fine-tooth comb through his background as evidence mounted that Bernheim had committed several instances of plagiarism and let others believe he held an academic degree that he never actually earned.

The discoveries, to which Bernheim admitted, surprised many, including Weill and Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF umbrella body of French Jewish communities. Prasquier said he was “troubled” by the revelations and urged Bernheim to “provide explanations.” Those statements came amid open and veiled calls by French Jews and non-Jews for Bernheim to step down. After that, his resignation came as no surprise.

“It’s hardly a shock,” said Amnon Cohen of Paris, the spokesman for the local branch of the rightist Jewish Defense League. “The media adored Bernheim for his left-wing ideas but then turned on him. I don’t like the slander campaign, but I understand why he had to go away: When you’re a rabbi, you have to be careful with what you do. It’s just the way it is.”

Like his colleague across the English Channel, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Bernheim was a regular presence in the French media, routinely commenting on contentious issues not immediately connected to the Jewish community, like the ban on mosque minarets in Switzerland and moves to legalize gay marriage in France — both of which he opposed.

And so reports on blogs of his plagiarisms were pursued and given prominent placing in the national media, including Le Monde and Figaro. After initially denying one accusation, Bernheim acknowledged plagiarizing in several of his writings in an interview Tuesday with the Paris-based Radio Shalom. He also admitted his failure to correct biographies that said he possessed an “agregation” — a title earned in a competitive exam that Bernheim never passed.

But while conceding he had made “serious mistakes,” Bernheim in the interview rejected the calls for his resignation, including the one made in an unsigned letter said to have been authored and circulated by members of the Consistoire — the organ responsible for religiuous Jewish services.

Bernheim changed his mind and took a “leave of absence” after his spokesman, Moche Lewin, quit on Wednesday and Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, advised Bernheim to “think about his future” – a statement many also took to be an invitation for Bernheim to resign. The chief rabbi eventually did on Thursday in a statement to the Consistoire.

The chief rabbi of Paris, Michel Guggenheim, will fill in for Bernheim along with the director of the rabbinical school, Olivier Kaufmann, until a new internal election is held within the Consistoire, according to a statement by an organization spokesman.

Weill told JTA that before the affair exploded, “Rabbi Bernheim made us feel that the rabbinate had a voice. He is a deep thinker and someone who knew how to speak, who represented us, and that’s important because it brought people closer to the community.”

When he was elected chief rabbi in 2008, at the relatively young age of 56, Le Parisien celebrated his triumph in an article that described him as “an intellectual, fervent defender of interreligious dialogue, the new face of French Jewry.” The article also mentioned the credential Bernheim did not possess, but the rabbi never corrected the paper.

Bernheim’s celebrity status has contributed to the enormous media interest in the plagiarism claims. One case involved a 50-page essay Bernheim wrote last year opposing gay marriage; the text contained eight sentences lifted from a book published earlier in the year. Pope Benedict quoted from Bernheim’s essay during a December address at the Vatican.

Bernard Guigui, a vice president of the Marseille branch of the Consistoire, told JTA he thought Bernheim’s resignation was “a good idea.”

“When you have such a huge responsibility and commit such an error,” Guigui said, “it’s better not to embarrass and hurt the Jewish community but step back and resign.”