From this side of the ocean, attempting to analyze contemporary French antisemitism sometimes feels like a roller coaster ride.
The history of French Jewry, which has its origins in Roman times, is one of repeated ups and downs, exile and return, official discrimination and emancipation, searing antisemitism, accomplishment in many fields (especially, but not only, in politics, commerce, and culture), persecution and deportation, communal re-birth, and over the past 20 years or so, a compendium of violent acts committed against French Jews, against the backdrop of hatred from the far-left, the far-right, and, increasingly, from Islamists.
To demonstrate how much French antisemitism has shaped our view of Jew hatred over all of Europe, most conversations about the subject begin with offering examples of a never-ending string of violent acts against French Jews.
The list is lengthening, but most will recall these amongst the worst: the 2006 beating, torture, and killing of 26-year-old Ilan Halimi by assailants who held him for ransom; the killing of an adult and three children by an Islamist gunman in Toulouse in 2012; the 2015 killing of four and hostage taking at the Hypercacher market; the 2017 defenestration killing of 65-year-old Sarah Halimi by an antisemitic neighbor; the 2018 killing of 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her Paris apartment; and, just a few weeks ago, a 70-year-old Jew was beaten by intruders, demanding to know whether he was “a jeweler and a Jew” and where he was hiding “the gold.”
Indeed, it was from the French Jewish experience that we first heard warnings about wearing kipot or Magen David necklaces in public. Those admonitions have now spread worldwide.
That the story of French Jewry is one of contradictions makes the current explosion of incidents that much more difficult to absorb. Paris is one of the great centers of diaspora Jewry, with over 40 synagogues and a highly organized communal structure, including dozens of Jewish schools and community centers, numerous organizations (including my own), radio programs, and — some say — more kosher restaurants than New York City. Jews hold high positions in government and academia. In a country that places high value on intellectualism, France counts many Jews who figure prominently in national discussions and debates about politics, the economy, and values.
But there is a dark side that runs up against all the pluses. As we are now seeing right here in the United States, Jews in France are caught in a vise of vitriol and violence from the political extremes, and from a growing Islamist threat that finds its origins in many neighborhoods where Jews once, and still, live.
The new antisemitism has, some say, replaced that which existed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer was convicted on trumped-up charges of espionage; a deep vein of extreme nationalism; and a proliferation of antisemitic newspapers and books only set the stage for the murderous period of the Nazi invasion and occupation, and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government. Of the 76,000 French Jews — 25% of the community — sent to the death camps, less than 500 returned.
Antisemitism in high places has affected French Jewry as well. The story of the thousands of French Jewish soldiers who fought valiantly in World War I and the community’s steadfast patriotism is well known. Yet, in 1980, after a terrorist attack on Simchat Torah at the synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris — carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — killed four and injured 40, then Prime Minister Raymond Barre commented that “a despicable attack sought to target Jews who were in this synagogue and that struck innocent Frenchmen who were crossing Rue Copernic.”
That remark set off a global firestorm of criticism of Barre for suggesting that the intended victims — the Jews in the synagogue — unlike the passersby, were, indeed, not Frenchmen at all.
Some Vichy collaborators, who managed to get rehabilitated after World War II, had their protectors and defenders. Maurice Papon, who was the secretary general of police in Vichy-controlled Bordeaux, was initially charged in 1983 for the deportation of 1,690 Jews to the death camps. Papon, who after the war had entered politics and served in the French cabinet under Barre, was ultimately convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity and served just three years in prison.
Today, elected officials, cabinet members, and law enforcement have been quick to condemn acts of antisemitism, including current President Emmanuel Macron. Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago, in response to the sentencing of a French schoolteacher who waved an antisemitic sign during a demonstration against the government’s Covid policies, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin stated that “Antisemitism is a crime, not an opinion.”
But are statements enough to turn back the tide of Jew hatred in France?
In the meantime, French Jews continue to leave on aliyah; many buy apartments in Israel “just in case.” There are population shifts in the community, with many Jews leaving their old neighborhoods for what they consider to be far safer areas to live. The leadership of the French community has been outspoken about the current state of affairs, and its relationship with the country’s top political leadership has generally been good. Unfortunately, the day-to-day situation is such that the community needs to speak out frequently as antisemitic incidents add up and as questions of security loom large.
The entry into next year’s French presidential election of Eric Zemmour, a far-right journalist and pundit, who is Jewish, has added a new dimension into intra-community politics, sparking debate by supporters and detractors, adding another layer of stress to an atmosphere already fraught with angst about what the future holds.
For much of its history, France has been an immigration nation. That said, it wasn’t that long ago that it was known for expecting of its population allegiance to its iconic motto of “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” Even with a growing, diverse population over the decades, that was the glue that held the nation together. That fabric is now being tested and frayed. The attacks on the Jewish community are a canary-in-the coal mine situation, which indicate that the generations-old common denominators that brought all French people together are in trouble.
In times like this, analysts often look to the educational system for answers. It is more than worrisome that some schools in certain French neighborhoods refuse to teach Holocaust education, because to do so might ipso facto create sympathy for Israel as a homeland for Jews, reinforcing in the process the anti-Zionism already present and growing in those communities. Paroxysms of antisemitic acts, as for example, after the war in Gaza this past May, speak to how hatred of Israel, and by extension French Jewry, drives violence against Jews and their institutions.
Others look to the judiciary. Many in the French Jewish community feel that in cases like that of Sarah Halimi, whose killer shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he took her life and who was not held criminally responsible because he was high on cannabis, Jews are also victims of imperfect justice. The immediate outrage in the community over what is seen as a legal technicality speaks to the need for the French judicial system to review how it tries those who perpetrate violent hate crimes.
And, as elsewhere, social media in France is a daily conveyor belt of antisemitism. France is not the United States, with its distinct constitutional protections. The opportunity to crack down on websites that thrive on Jew hatred is more readily available to French public officials. There must be a doubling down on identifying and tracking down those who traffic in hate on the Internet.
The combination of traditional, nationalist/far right antisemitism and militant anti-Zionism from the far left and the Islamists have produced a disturbing cocktail of hate in France. Contemporary antisemitism there affects us all. It’s not an overstatement to say the soul of France is on trial. Is the will and the means present to reverse the tide?
Going on 22 years into the new century, we anxiously await that answer.
Read the op-ed in the Algemeiner.
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