The View from Paris: A Rejoinder to Ethan Katz and Maud Mandel
"Unlike Professor Trigano,” Ethan Katz and Maud Mandel write, “we have the luxury of writing from the other side of the Atlantic.” Indeed.
Professors Katz and Mandel not only write from the other side of the Atlantic, they view the anti-Semitic violence we Jews are living through here in France through American-made binoculars. There is, perhaps, nothing wrong with citing the work of other American academics on recent French history as if it were definitive (“as John Bowen and Joan Scott have convincingly shown,” and so on), or writing as if something like the multicultural policies of American university campuses (or even America) could address the difficult and distinctively European social issues France and French Jewry face right now, but the stridency of their tone is surprising. My essay, which attempted to condense 30 years of history, scholarship, and increasingly painful experience into an account of my “journey through French anti-Semitism,” makes “historical leaps,” “overlooks” this, and “ignores” that; my views are “distorted,” my claims are “unsubstantiated,” my factual claims are “simply untrue,” and my emphases are “undue.” I might have expected more from academic colleagues; after all I have edited two journals and written 11 books on the subject, most recently a collection of pieces titled Fifteen Years of Loneliness: French Jews 2000–2015. But the attempt to reduce my arguments, observation, and analysis to a mere state of mind, and to do so in such heated prose, is, in the end, revealing.
One thing that particularly exercises Katz and Mandel is my statement that it is problematic that after virtually every condemnation of a vicious attack by a Muslim or Muslims upon Jews there is a warning not to slip into Islamophobia or conflate Islam with terrorism. As I wrote, this is a public ritual that involves “exculpation of Islam from any responsibility” for the violence. It’s pretty clear that they think that I myself have slipped into Islamophobia here. I am “quick,” they say, “to criticize Islam as a whole,” and have fallen “into a vision of Islam as characterized from the Qur’an to the present by an unceasing, immutable hatred of Jews.” But of course hatred doesn’t have to be unceasing and immutable to be both a genuine historical phenomenon and dangerous. It is not me, but Katz and Mandel who are indulging in wishful historical thinking here.
Further, whether Mark Cohen was categorically right that “the pre-modern history of anti-Judaism was far more severe and persistent in Christian Europe than in the Islamic world” may be less clear than they think. Certainly it was different. They might usefully consult David Littman and Paul Fenton’s massive collection of texts L’Exil au Maghreb, la condition juive sous l’islam 1148–1912, for instance, or compare the 1066 massacre in Granada to the depredations of the First Crusade in 1096. With regard to more modern times, they might consult, among others, a book I edited covering the period from 1940 until 1970, The Exclusion of the Jews from Arab Lands. And, of course, modern forms of radical Islam, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, are, yes, precisely modern, but that does not mean that they are not Islamic movements or that their teachings do not have deep roots in the tradition.
If these modern forms of radical Islam were not so widely and firmly entrenched and if there were large Arab and Islamic institutions, rather than just a few courageous individuals, that loudly and unequivocally condemned the violence, then such lectures on why Muslim anti-Semitism in France was not historically inevitable might have more relevance. As it is, the apparent function of both the politician’s automatic discourse and the present professorial chiding is to keep one from thinking about the nature of empirical Islam as it actually exists in the mosques and on the streets—and what might be required of it to achieve real social integration in France.
Nor will it do, as Katz and Mandel almost suggest, to make of the current crisis a conflict between so-called Algerian Jews (including, they write, “Professor Trigano himself,” though the category has not existed for more than half a century and we have, in fact, been “technically”—one notes their adjective—French since 1870) and the Muslim community. In fact, I went into some detail on the origins of the current situation in French politics of the 1980s.
Katz and Mandel are, if anything, even more incensed by my political genealogy of the present situation in which French Jews find themselves. The core of my analysis was that President Mitterrand backed SOS Racisme in order to co-opt the “Marche des Beurs” (which threatened the Socialist Party’s power) and create the specter of a fascist threat in the form of Le Pen by forming an “anti-fascist” front. Given the still-fresh memory of the Shoah, it was politically and symbolically important that SOS Racisme grew out of the French Jewish Students’ Union. In imputing a large historical responsibility to Mitterrand and his administration, I am precisely not blaming immigrants and Muslims, as Katz and Mandel would seem to think. What I am saying is that both the Jewish community and Muslims were politically instrumentalized by Mitterrand to terrible historical effect.
Katz and Mandel’s description of SOS Racisme itself is extraordinarily, almost comically, uncritical: “Working together to create a just and peaceful France, these activists put aside their differences . . .” Their only real critique of my account of the political use and eventual effect of this movement in French politics is to argue over whether “Jews=Immigrants” was its most important slogan. Suffice it to say that it was significant, for the equation it asserted underlay the pervading silence that would, for a long time, greet anti-Jewish violence. It was a conflict between two groups somehow alien to French society rather than within it.
In their conclusion Katz and Mandel acknowledge that “anti-Jewish attitudes and violence are certainly on the rise in France.” And then they go on to another kind of ritual automatic discourse. Since “racism, as is well-known, must be measured by . . . structural limitations that prevent full participation in a given society,” and since Muslims face such limitations and Jews do not, one ought not speak “merely of rising anti-Semitism”—merely!—when “other French citizens are being systematically targeted for discrimination.” Their language here is unintentionally revealing: Anti-Judaism is described passively as being “on the rise,” while Muslims are described as being “systematically targeted.” But of course it is we Jews who feel with good reason that there is a target on our backs. With their little sociological syllogism whose major premise is an unexamined dogma, we are debarred from discussing jihadis killing Jews, or beatings on the street, or the fear we feel on walking into a synagogue or out of a kosher market, because it would “present a skewed picture of the nature of bigotry in contemporary France.”
As Katz and Mandel say, these are challenging times for France. Fortunately, at least some prominent politicians and policymakers here seem to have stepped back from the kind of wishful ideological thinking to which my American interlocutors are still beholden, but I fear that it is too late. For this is not merely a matter of the proper social and historical description of the situation—though that is where one must begin—but a real national and even Europe-wide political problem. In France, the separation between state and religion was preceded by the formal renunciation of collective status by both Jews and Christians (more precisely Catholic clergy) in order to join the post-revolutionary nation. This was forcibly imposed by the state, and one may think whatever one wants of the process, but it worked. I have considerably less hope than Professors Katz and Mandel for the efficacy of “left-wing multiculturalism.”
As I write this reply, two more news reports appear on my computer screen of violent attacks against Jews who were targeted—that is the correct word—on the streets of Paris. In one of them, a woman was attacked and beaten by three men who shouted “Hitler did not finish his work.” Such words and actions are no longer uncommon here. They may not be “structural limitations,” but they have restructured our lives. Katz and Mandel write that they “do not wish to trivialize Professor Trigano’s personal experiences,” but they trivialize and misconstrue much more than that.