A Journey Through French Anti-Semitism
If after the horrors of January 2015 there is any consolation for the Jews of France, it would seem to lie in the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “How can we accept that people are killed because they are Jewish?” he cried out at a special session of the French parliament a week after the massacres at the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices and at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket. “History has taught us that the awakening of anti-Semitism is the symptom of a crisis for democracy and of a crisis for the Republic. That is why we must respond with force.” We are at war, he said, “with terrorism, jihadism, and Islamist radicalism” (he has spoken more recently of “Islamofascism”), but not, he added, “Islam and Muslims.” And yet, as someone who has lived through and documented the last two decades and more of anti-Semitism in France, I note that there is a problem with the inevitable reflexive warnings after every vicious attack not to slip into Islamophobia by conflating Islam and terrorism. It is a kind of automatic discourse in which the existence of a threat to Muslims erases the recognition of the hatred to which Islamic texts and doctrines have given rise, as expressed by the terrorists themselves. For there is a long history of Islamic anti-Judaism, and it is the reason for the attacks against the Jews.
After the great mass rally of solidarity in Paris, there was a call for national unity against the “barbarians.” But if this is a threat which the whole nation faces, how can one explain the fact that it is the Jewish centers and institutions, almost exclusively, that are under the protection of soldiers and that every synagogue has a minyan of armed guards standing outside of it day and night?
Our recollection of the prime minister’s fine—if somewhat belated—words cannot erase our memory of what France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said on the very morning of the rally. He affirmed that it is the conflict in the Middle East—read: Israel—that is the cause of anti-Semitism in France. There was no mention of the traditional Muslim disparagement of non-Muslims clearly invoked by the terrorists and reflected in the silence of the “moderate” Muslims, who have, with rare exceptions, refused to combat anti-Semitism. Nor was there a mention of the many failures of the French state to deal with these problems. It is to hide all of this that the authorities, at critical moments, again and again point the finger at Israel. The automatic exculpation of Islam from any responsibility necessarily shifts all of the blame to Israel and its policy toward the Palestinians. If Islam is not guilty, Israel is.
Why are things this way in France, in Belgium, in Great Britain, and, indeed, in Western Europe in general? To understand the situation in France, first of all, we have to go back several decades, to the 1980s, which witnessed large-scale Muslim immigration into the country from North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. This influx of millions of people quickly became a political and social issue that acquired a whole new dimension when then-President François Mitterrand opted for a dangerous new political strategy. In order to break the republican right,Mitterrand invented an “anti-fascist front.” It focused on presenting the National Front, then an insignificant party, as a major “fascist” danger against which all citizens, of whatever party, would have to unify—under the banner of the Socialist Party, of course. It was really Mitterrand who, in effect, created Jean-Marie Le Pen and made his National Front party the pivot around which the French political system turns to this day.
In this new political game, Mitterrand used the Jews to prove the authenticity of the fascist threat. With the assistance of Mitterrand and the Socialist Party, an association called SOS-Racism grew out of the French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) and adopted as its most significant slogan: “Jews=Immigrants.” The fight against the neo-Nazism of Le Pen thus converged with the fight against anti-Semitism as well as against anti-Arab racism. This facilitated Mitterrand’s cooptation of the newly arrived immigrants, who had begun to become politically active during these years.
These developments had unforeseen but dire consequences. The Jewish community now found itself identified for the first time since World War II as a “community of immigration.” Before 1989, the immigrant population was regarded as a victim of racism and of the extreme right. At the same time, the heated controversy over the public wearing of the Islamic veil arose. In 1989, at the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Jews began to face popular criticism for their communautarisme (that is, their tribalism, their disloyalty to the ideals of French republicanism and the common good).
A coterie of intellectuals set the tone by attacking Islamic communautarisme as a menace to the Republic. The Jewish community, which had been deemed, with the help of SOS-Racism, an “immigrant community” was subjected to the same nationalist suspicions. This political balancing act facilitated the criticism of the Muslim population. This was a turning point and, as I see it now, the beginning of the descent into hell. It marked, in fact, the renewal of intolerant French nationalism cloaked in the attire of the Republic, of civic morality, in the name of something universal. Jews, who had been citizens of the Republic since 1791—or, in the case of Algeria, 1870—were suddenly suspect, as the result of questions raised not by issues within their own communities but by those of Muslim communities.
Little by little, the Jewish community lost its national legitimacy within France. After the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991, Mitterrand congratulated “the two communities” (without identifying them, as if it were evident that there were two communities in France, both alien to French society) for remaining calm. A rapid process of symbolic “denationalization” of the Jews had begun.
In their diverse efforts, the succeeding governments never dared to call for religious reforms within Islam that would prepare it to exist within the context of the Republic. Instead, the Republic chose the path of “pacification” through “inter-religious dialogue,” further marginalizing the Jews as strangers in their own country. While the government, at its best, has been able to conceive of a policy that could ensure security for the Jews (yesterday, through the police, today by means of the army), it has never formulated an appropriate political solution on a national scale.
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If the Jews were now considered to be an “immigrant community,” they by no means enjoyed the favor that had been bestowed upon them before 1989. In the year prior to September 2001, 450 anti-Semitic attacks took place in France, but the French government and media kept absolutely silent about them. The minister of foreign affairs at the time, Hubert Védrine, even declared that he “understood” why the “suburbs’ youngsters” were acting out, in light of what was happening in Israel. Were we not, in effect, Jews who were “close to Israel,” an Israel then accused of killing women and children in the Second Intifada? Everywhere there was a wall of silence—so strange in a society we believed was pluralistic and free. Daniel Vaillant, who had been minister of the interior during the Intifada, later admitted that the Jospin government had, in an act of true censorship, imposed this silence in 2001 to “not throw oil on the fire.” In other words, the government knowingly disregarded the rights of French Jews, as citizens, to receive protection from their country, in order to ensure “public peace.” We felt abandoned. Speaking personally, my memories of the end of French Algeria in 1962 came tumbling back to me: the frenzied escape to avoid the death promised by our Arab neighbors, the cramped ships and planes carrying an exodus of one million people—myself included—the two-day wait at a military airport to go wherever, as long as we could get out. The State had abandoned us; death loomed.
At the time of the Iraq War in 2003, President Jacques Chirac pursued an anti-American and pro-Arab policy. There were huge demonstrations in the streets against the United States and Israel. Because he attributed decisive influence over the Pentagon to Jewish Americans, Chirac feared, “American Judaism” would pressure Washington to turn against France if the extent of anti-Semitism in France became public. On one of his visits to Washington he brought with him a delegation of Jewish leaders tasked with declaring that there was no anti-Semitism in France in order to “calm” American Jews. The Chirac years were the darkest for French Jews in this period and put a negative stamp on the future fight against anti-Semitism. In Chirac’s times, the invocation of anti-Semitism in France became proof of “anti-French” activity.
Taking its cues from the government, French society refused to recognize anti-Semitism for what it was. People found words to deform reality. The violence, it was claimed, was not anti-Semitic but rather a product of “inter-community tensions.” This perverse concept dilutes the responsibility of the aggressors and shares it with the victims; since one is permitted to denounce the bellicosity of the victims, they are no longer recognized as victims. Indeed, the “aggression” of the Jewish community (or else the “the Jewish Lobby,” the Israeli “colonialists,” or “communautaristes”) has become a commonplace in the media.
The eruption of violence, it was similarly claimed, did not emanate from French society, but was rather an “imported conflict” from the Middle East. This dishonest phrase surreptitiously impugns the nationality of French Jews by grouping them together with recent immigrant communities, many of whose members are often dual citizens of North African countries. Neither could the violence be called anti-Semitic, it was further claimed, because only the Nazi, extreme right could be so termed. How could the Arabs, themselves “Semites” and “victims of colonization,” be anti-Semites? How could Islam, the “religion of peace,” inspire hostility? It was simply “anti-Zionist,” a “legitimate” opinion, given what the Israelis do to the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism was thus upgraded to a manifestation of “inter-communal tensions,” leaving the Jews as responsible as anyone else for what they suffered.
In the face of all this, the official institutions of French Jewry kept silent for an entire year. Finding themselves left to their own devices, each Jew, or at least the most conscientious amongst them, underwent a process of growing isolation from French society. Many of us began avoiding non-Jewish friends—no more dinner parties in the city in order to avoid the anger of friends who no longer wanted to hear us out. In every milieu, social as well as professional, Jews were reproached, summoned to apologize for or distance themselves from Israel, from Ariel Sharon. Those with dignity and honor refused this deal—one that would have offered them access to society and recognition; they preferred to leave behind the public sphere, with its enmity toward Israel and Jew-bashing.
Some nonetheless tried to clarify, debunk, explain, and, above all, alert political and journalistic public opinion. Despite the profound malaise, we believed then that the problem might have boiled down to a lack of information, or rather, disinformation—a malentendu. In 2001, I founded a journal called l’Observatoire du monde juif whose primary task was to publish a list of attacks that the official organs of the Jewish community knew about but did not make public. From 2001 through 2005, we published 12 bulletins and edited numerous small books without institutional support of any kind. These were sent to the entire political class, to members of both chambers of parliament, to leading intellectuals, and to journalists. When it became clear that the crisis of anti-Jewish violence was not episodic but permanent, I ceased publication of l’Observatoire du monde juif. We could no longer continue the fight, at every corner, against this or that article, newspaper, or opinion.
I then created the journal Controverses to provide an intellectual haven for writers to say what was impossible to say elsewhere. In 2011, after publishing 18 issues, I gave this up, too. It was not simply the lack of financial means or the aliyahof many of the editors that led me to this decision. I had the feeling that everything had already been said. I drew from this a terrible conclusion: When words no longer carry weight, one can expect violence.
Over the years, we saw a legion of intellectuals, who had always been far removed from Jewish life and Jewish thought, rise to denounce Israel and the Jewish community in the name of Jewish morality, or, rather, “another Judaism,” or else “the memory of the Holocaust.” This invocation often depicted Israel as a Nazi state, radically misinterpreting both the one and the other. Not even the spectacle of Muslim Brotherhood–led protests in all French cities in 2014—complete with cries of “Death to the Jews”—has brought these people to their senses. Behind the pretext of Palestine, the religious motivations of the anti-Jewish violence remain misunderstood. It would cost French elites too much doctrinal and psychological effort to accept this fact, after such a long period of denial, for it overturns their erroneous prism of interpretation. The thesis that France faces an “imported conflict” still reigns today—and it remains as false now as it was 14 years ago at the time of the Second Intifada. We are in the same place. There has been no improvement.
The political impasse for the Jews in France today is still almost total. President Hollande and, especially, Prime Minister Valls both now speak far more frankly and openly of anti-Semitism and its sources and even of vigorous new policies in security and education, but it is hard to believe that the left will not continue to flatter the Muslim electorate with multicultural promises. The right, whose pro-Arab tilt goes all the way back to Charles de Gaulle, is unlikely to provide a significant alternative in this regard. Meanwhile, the extreme right maintains an ominous silence about its relations to Jews, letting others do their work. Finally, the foreign policy establishment remains fundamentally and historically hostile to Israel. Will the political courage and new frankness exemplified by the prime minister be sufficient to alter the historical course on which the Jews of France seem to be headed? It is too early to say. For myself, I cannot help but feel that the decades, events, and attitudes whose story I have briefly told here are all stages on a long journey for which Jerusalem is the ultimate goal.