An Old Hatred Returns By Europe’s Back Door

In the first of an occasional series, we examine how and why hostility to Jews has re-emerged in France. The research for this article has been generously supported by the Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis

In mid-August, as London’s neighbourhoods underwent violence, looting and fire, France’s Jews looked on with a familiar disquiet. Jews were in no sense the target of this summer’s rioting, but a decade ago, something similar went wrong on the streets of Paris that has not been put right since. The present era of European street violence began with widespread assaults on Jews around Paris in the autumn of 2000, the year of the so-called “second intifada” in Israel. The following year saw riots in Oldham and Rochdale — overshadowed in retrospect by the destruction of the World Trade Center just weeks later.

There were 744 acts of anti-Jewish violence and threats in France in 2000, the worst year since the war. While these were, beyond any shadow of a doubt, anti-Semitic acts, they were not perpetrated by the sort of anti-Semites against whom French people had steeled themselves to be vigilant. Violence was particularly intense in those north Paris neighbourhoods, such as Sarcelles and Garges-lès-Gonesses, where an established and ageing Jewish population, much of it descended from North African immigration of the early 1960s, lived at close quarters with newer Muslim immigrants, many of them young. The attacks were stemmed by an aggressive government response starting in 2002, but they have never died out. The years 2004 and 2009 were worse. They form the backdrop to a more general sense of being ill-at-ease, or no longer quite so at home, that many French Jews describe.

Paris has more Jews than any country in Western Europe. It also has more Arab Muslims. Clashing visions of how the French state ought to respond have led to a divergence of interests between the two groups. But while the Arab population is rising rapidly, the Jewish population is ageing and shrinking due to emigration, intermarriage and small family size. It has fallen to under half a million, according to the authoritative Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola. It is now hard to teach the Holocaust in schools, due to harassment and disruption from mostly immigrant students. A third  of Jewish students have abandoned the state school system for Jewish schools, while another third go to Catholic ones — more for reasons of security than pedagogy. Regularly scheduled, robustly attended demonstrations question the legitimacy of the state of Israel. 

But a problem that France presents at its most intense is not exclusively a French problem. The senior politician of the Dutch centre-Right, Frits Bolkestein, has worried aloud that Holland’s unassimilated Muslims may make the country a dangerous place for its 40,000 Orthodox (and therefore visible) Jews. In Germany, the Left party has held fraught internal meetings to discuss whether its members’ passionate anti-Israel sentiments were shading over into anti-Semitic ones. 

France’s behaviour towards its Jews in World War II has for decades served as the lodestone for its political ethics. For a quarter-century after the war, an official silence surrounded the collaboration of France’s wartime Vichy government with that of Nazi Germany. Since the early 1970s, when the American historian Robert Paxton and the documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophüls revealed that collaboration in detail, discussion of France’s misdeeds has been wide-open. But it has the power to fascinate and wound. Two major movies about the Holocaust were showing in French cinemas over the summer — the American film Sarah’s Key and the French-made La Rafle, which describes the night of July 15, 1942, when thousands of Jews, including children, were rounded up by French authorities. They followed a spat over whether to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, arguably France’s greatest 20th-century novelist but certainly one of its most notorious literary anti-Semites. 

France looked at the record of World War II and found it so unspeakable that it insisted on stamping out the merest glimmer of the doctrines that had made such things  possible. It was not the only country in continental Europe that did so. But there was an added drama to the French state’s relations with France’s Jews. For the first two decades of Israel’s existence, France was its most important ally. The two countries even cooperated to develop their nuclear weapons programmes. But after Israel fought the Six-Day War against a coalition of Arab powers in 1967, France’s president Charles de Gaulle withdrew his support, and in terms that made it seem his real gripe was not with Israel but with Jews, whom he called “an elite people, sure of itself and dominant”. Nonetheless, for decades after the 1970s, remembering the Holocaust in a dignified and appropriate way (le devoir de mémoire, as the French called it) was the core “spiritual exercise” of France — in its schools and on its public days of remembrance. Jews wound up,  willy-nilly, at the centre of France’s moral system.

This system was delicate and difficult to maintain. In retrospect, it cut against a longstanding French idea of citizenship based on radical egalitarianism and absolute loyalty to the French state. History and morality might justify being specially mindful of Franco-Jewish history, but the country’s constitutional principles made that history a source of mischief, a useful stick with which to beat the French public. In the 1980s and 1990s, political activists — then a leftist vanguard, now a multicultural establishment — found it useful when demanding special privileges for asylum-seekers, immigrants and racial minorities, to cast them as the modern-day incarnation of what Jews had been in the 1930s and ’40s. Among the most egregious offenders was SOS Racism, an anti-racist group set up by the Mitterrand-era Socialist Party. Any misgivings about high levels of immigration, or high levels of immigrant crime, were analogised to collaboration in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz in the 1940s. Anti-anti-Semitism became grounds for shutting popular opinion about many issues out of the national conversation altogether, much as anti-racism did in the US or the UK. 

The history of the Holocaust was put to the service not of memory but of ideology. A bulwark against anti-Semitism became a citadel of multiculturalism. The main beneficiaries of Holocaust memory were France’s 5 million or so Muslims, descendants of a mass immigration from North Africa and elsewhere after the 1960s, but there was an odd twist. Particularly after the blossoming of political Islam in the 1970s, their main geo-strategic grievance was with the Jewish state, and many Arabs in France showed considerably less ability than even de Gaulle to distinguish between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Mass immigration thus left Jews in France in an awkward position. 

In a democracy, the interests of a community of 5-6 million will usually trump those of a community of under half a million. The Socialist foreign-policy thinker Pascal Boniface wrote a notorious memo to his party’s political strategists on the eve of the 2002 elections in which he urged them to bear this imbalance in mind when they formulated their policy on Israel. Such realpolitik no longer attracts much notice. Muslims have been able to reshape the French state and society in ways that Jews had neither the demographic might nor the proselytising inclination to seek. Ramadan — in which millions of French workers are slowed down by fasting — has become an important part of the rhythm of the French work year. Muslim families have objected to the way the Holocaust is taught in French schools, claiming to see it as an apology for the state of Israel, and some have objected to its being taught altogether. 

The state has grown increasingly open to minority concerns. This is bound to help Jews in certain ways. In recent months interior minister Claude Guéant has begun to talk about the need to arrange scholarly entrance and prize exams — often scheduled for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath — in such a way that they do not prejudice Jews’ chances of getting into good schools. At the same time, being lumped into the same regime of rights as Muslims has its drawbacks. When French policymakers sought to address a dramatic increase in veil-wearing in secondary schools half a decade ago, they did so by casting it as a problem of “secularism”, not of Islam. That meant that Jewish students were forbidden to wear yarmulkes to school, a right that had never proved problematic. “Through parallels drawn with Islam,” says Rabbi Joël Mergui, who heads the Consistoire, the official organisation of French Jews, “we have lost certain acquired rights [acquis].”

In the 1970s, French Jews were a people whose story serves to promote immigration. Today, they are victims of that immigrations’s failure constrained to compete with other minorities for the favour of the broader society. Today a third of the youth population of many cities, including Paris, consists of the descendents of immigration. France has replaced a cohort that feels it has a debt towards Jews with a cohort that feels Jews have a debt towards them.

The drama plays out in arguments over the state of Israel. Two things make French arguments over Israel particularly passionate. First, French Jews’ attachment to Israel is strong. There are 800,000 French-speakers in the Jewish state, and Jerusalem is just over four hours’ flight away. So French Jews simply spend a lot of time there. They even speak of a “Boeing aliya” (borrowing the word for a migration to the Holy Land) that takes place every weekend. Certain causes célèbres, like that of the Franco-Jewish soldier Gilad Shalit, held hostage by Hamas in Gaza since 2006, tighten this bond.

The second is that French opposition to Israel is ferocious among certain groups of people who are closely listened to, especially immigrants and intellectuals. A host of organisations are dedicated to exposing the Jewish state’s alleged misdeeds. These range from the Communist-inspired Association France Palestine Solidarité, which has existed for decades and organises marches and campaigns, to the newer Europalestine, which spearheads various boycotts and guerrilla theatre operations. They will, for example, enter a Carrefour supermarket en masse and cart out Israeli products. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated UOIF, which often holds a majority on France’s official Muslim body, the CFCM, backs the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Hamas government of the Gaza strip. The Sheikh Yassin Collective, named after the Hamas leader slain in an Israeli anti-terrorist operation, is more hardline still. 

There are flashpoints in this preoccupation with Israel’s conduct, and they tend to result in tense times for Jews on the streets of Paris. Consider the anti-Israel flotilla of May 2010, which made news all over the world but had a special resonance in France. International anti-Israel activists sent a flotilla to break the Israeli blockade in Gazan waters. When Israeli troops boarded the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, they were met with armed resistance, and they killed nine. This led to a certain amount of rage among the global Left, but among French leftists it was extreme. There were 190 demonstrations against the incident across France the following day. A petition supporting an anti-Israeli flotilla scheduled for last spring drew the signatures of 300 influential people: Franco-Arab leaders, intellectuals, and deputies and senators not just from the Communist Party but also from the Socialist mainstream.

Even the attempts of oil-rich countries to slant discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian issue are more aggressive in France. Recently the Washington Post carried an article about Yale University’s abandonment of its prestigious programme for studying   anti-Semitism, possibly due to pressure from its Arab donors, and this sort of thing happens across Europe. But in France, the enormously gifted and appallingly anti-Semitic Franco-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné M’bala-M’bala has received financing from Iran to make a film about the slave trade. If it resembles Dieudonné’s earlier public pronouncements on the subject, it will stress the role of Jews in setting it up. 

How much those in the non-immigrant, non-intellectual mainstream of French life care about Middle Eastern matters is hard to gauge, but there are disquieting signs. One was the runaway popularity last winter of the pamphlet Indignez-Vous! penned by a 93-year-old veteran of the French resistance named Stéphane Hessel. “Get Mad!” would be a good translation of its title. In little more than a dozen platitudinous pages, Hessel, who is of Jewish background, assured its readers that they too could claim the mantle of the resistance. That was a message to which French readers were receptive, and the broadside sold more than a million copies. But what were French people supposed to resist, now that the Nazis were gone? “Today my main indignation concerns Palestine,” Hessel wrote. He claimed Israel “is massacring innocent people,” without being specific about who those people were. He went on to liken the Jewish people to the Nazis who once persecuted them: “That the Jews could themselves perpetrate war crimes is intolerable. Alas, history gives few examples of people who learn the lessons of their own history.” 

If the only people mobilised by such passions were the children of Palestinians in Europe, they might be seen as occupying a continuum with, for instance, the Boston Irish, who funded IRA terrorism throughout the second half of the 20th century — people with a genuine historical grievance, a stunted sense of when bygones become bygones, and a deplorable tendency to see violence as a first resort. But the demonisation of Israel is not that way. It has appeal outside the Palestinian community, and indeed outside the Muslim community. It is bizarrely single-minded and implausibly intense. This spring, as many frustrated Jewish monitors of anti-Semitism have noted, the Syrian government was killing more unarmed peace marchers, day after day after day, than were killed on the Mavi Marmara in a war zone. The German author and political commentator Henryk Broder has noted a similar bizarreness in his own country’s political passions. Broder sees Germany in little danger of the classic, fascistic anti-Semitism that brought it low before, but he is troubled when a Stadtrat, or city counsellor, in Duisburg — a man whose job is to make sure garbage is collected promptly — feels he must enunciate a Middle East policy on behalf of the municipality. 

That is, the passions motivating this new anti-Zionism were implausibly large. They were explicable only if one assumed they had a deeper root. The publication of social scientist and essayist Pierre-André Taguieff’s path-breaking book, La Nouvelle Judéophobie in 2002, helped French readers to understand that anti-Zionism was sometimes only a way of expressing anti-Semitism in an age of taboos. The report of former diplomat Jean-Christophe Rufin in 2004 identified a form of “radical anti-Zionism” as to blame in the climate of hostility felt by French Jews. 

This spring, the philosopher Alain Badiou and the historian Eric Hazan published an odd pamphlet attacking those worrying about a rise, or a recurrence, of anti-Semitism. Their book is in the Leftist tradition of the 1980s and 1990s that seeks to water down Holocaust memory by universalising it. It refers to the persecuted Jews of the 1930s as “the Arabs and Africans of that era”. But the authors’ unwillingness to see a rise in anti-Semitism is hemmed in by so many qualifications and notwithstandings that it is hard to see why they bother to express it. They admit, for instance, that Dieudonné’s rants constitute anti-Semitism of a classic kind. They allow that the Holocaust-deniers who have duped Noam Chomsky and others into defending them have similar motivations.

What Badiou and Hazan want to do is destroy the idea that certain criticisms of the state of Israel are unreasonable on their face. To claim that anti-Semitism is on the rise, they believe, is a mere opération de stigmatisation, meant to distract the reader from Israeli brutality. Thus, the attacks carried out by suburban youth in Paris on individual Jews did not constitute anti-Semitism, but just a “poorly politicised political hostility”. If one understands Badiou and Hazan correctly, this is a way of saying that the attacks were legitimate but that the youths didn’t find the right words to explain them. What they meant to attack was Israel or perhaps French urban policy. But this is, of course, nonsense. Those Jews attacked in the suburbs since 2002 were attacked because they were Jews — they were not interrogated beforehand as to their political opinions. 

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston, has said that French Jewish thinkers, “through their quibbling about Islam and Israel”, are destroying the intellectual tradition that they helped to build. Zaretsky’s verdict is harsh — the matters at hand are hardly quibbles — but it is true that the explosion of discussion over anti-Semitism has divided Jews. 

On one hand, French Jews tend to be, like the majority of Jews in the West, on the political Left, loyal to the Socialist Party. An optimistic way of looking at the arguments over Islam and Israel is to say, as one left-leaning Jewish journalist told me over lunch in Paris this summer, that whereas the context of Jewish life in France used to be the Second Intifada, the new context is the Arab Spring. While this sounds more like a talking point than an observation, the optimistic spirit has given rise to a new initiative. 

JCall is built around media celebrities, mostly intellectuals. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Alain Finkielkraut, David Grossman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Pierre Nora and Henry Rousso are among them. (Its manifesto begins: “Nous, personnalites” and its founding statement is called, obnoxiously, “An Appeal to Reason” — as if those who disagree lack it.) Like the American lobby J Street, on which it is based, JCall is meant to break the power of organised Jewish groups and create pressure on Israel to come to the negotiating table for a two-state solution. But there is a logical problem with this aspiration. France does not have powerful organised Jewish groups. It does not even have politicised ones. Some radical republicans object to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s appearances before the CRIF, an umbrella group of leaders of Jewish organisations, but there is no French equivalent of, say, the America-Israel Political Action Committee (Aipac).

In America, J Street’s call for more pluralism is understandable, whether one agrees or not with the group’s aims — because the United States, and not just its Jewish minority, is almost monolithically pro-Israel. But in France, JCall’s pressure on Israel to concede more at the bargaining table is an absurdity — there is no major force in French institutional life arguing for anything else.

JCall’s first international meeting — held in June in the town hall of the 13th arrondissement, near Place d’Italie — did not convey that it had much of a raison d’être. The  participants described a world in which  fostering a more critical attitude towards Israel had a pressing need. One man was shouted down when he said he was a Belgian Jew who was boycotting Israel. The British sociologist Robert Fine laid out with dismay the progress boycott-Israel movements were making in Britain. Editor Meïr Waintrater expressed relief that Badiou and Hazan’s book had not become a bestseller, but there was much despair that Hessel’s book had made Palestine “la cause des causes“. Bashir al-Assad’s human rights record was compared — unfavourably — to that of Israel. None of this discussion argued for JCall’s relevance. When the sociologist and documentary filmmaker Jacques Tarnero stood up to explain why he had not signed the JCall petition, you could feel a ripple of envy pass through the room.

Learned, independent, abrasive, the sociologist Shmuel Trigano holds those who support JCall in contempt — alterjuifs, he calls them. The French call anti-globalisation activists altermondialistes because of their belief that “another world is possible” — for Trigano, the alterjuifs are trying to wish their way out of their really existing Judaism. They believe that embracing “ideologies of Western self-destruction” will lead the world to treat them more kindly, but it won’t, because the world tends to be implacable about such things. “This is not a Jewish problem. It is a problem of the whole of  society,” Trigano says, sitting in a café in Place de la République. He adds that even Israel has become a “fiefdom of post-modernism”. 

At his think-tank the Observatoire du Monde Juif, in his quarterly Controverses and in his many books, Trigano has theorised that Jews became a useful symbol to the political Left in the 1980s and 1990s — but useful only as victims, not as independent political actors. Against JCall’s “appel à la raison” he and the political scientist Raphaël Draï set up an opposition movement called “raison garder“, which translates roughly into a suggestion that one keep a level head. “We have 12,000 signatures,” he says. “More than J-Call. We have won — but it’s they who get invited on all the radio shows.”

Trigano fled his native Algeria — “with two suitcases in two days”, as he puts it — in 1961. France’s Jewish community is vastly larger than it was at the end of World War II, largely because of this influx of North African Jews. That has changed the composition — and culture — of Jewish France. Once overwhelming Ashkenazi (i.e., stemming from the Yiddish-speaking lands of eastern Europe), it is now majority Sephardic (i.e., stemming from the Spanish-descended Jews of the Mediterranean and the Arab world). The common stereotype, among Jews and non-Jews alike, is that the long-established Ashkenazim tend to be urbane intellectuals, while the Sephardim are blunt-spoken small businessmen. (This stereotype was at the heart of the hit 1996 comedy Would I Lie to You?, in which an upwardly mobile North African Jew tries to pass himself off as Ashkenazi.) Perhaps because a similar rise of Sephardic influence in Israel in the 1960s helped bring Menachem Begin’s Likud party to power, many people see a shift to the political Right among French Jews. 

There may be something to that, believes Claude Barouch, a charismatic and savvy Tunisian-born accountant who heads the Union of Jewish Professionals (UPJF). “We didn’t live through the catastrophe,” he says, referring to the Holocaust. “We were mostly spared.” The UPJF (which is by no means limited to Sephardim) is a fighting organisation of the French Jewish middle class. In June, Barouch and other leaders organised a demonstration near Place de la Nation to oppose the participation of a French boat in the second Gaza flotilla. It left a mixed picture. What was inspiring was the passion of people unwilling to be ousted from the political conversation in  France. What was uninspiring was the turnout, which was low, and the average age of the demonstrators, which was around 60. Barouch blamed the indifference, and even the hostility, of more establishmentarian Jewish organisations — and he singled out the CRIF. That is noteworthy, since many who distrust the Jewish community have an almost conspiratorial view of the CRIF as a sectarian organisation. Barouch notes mournfully that similar things are said about the Jewish community in general: “They take us for some kind of Masonic lodge,” he says. 

Whether or not Jews, and defenders of Israel more generally, are getting more conservative, it is in Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party that their most vocal defenders and allies are increasingly found. At Barouch’s demonstration, Claude Goasguen, a pro-American Parisian in the National Assembly , spoke. So did his colleague Eric Raoult, who condemned the anti-Israel boats as a “terrorist flotilla”. Other pro-Israel UMP members include Patrick Devedjian, a leader of the intellectual wing of the party’s Right for decades. Foreign minister Alain Juppé heartened French Jews in July when he warned — in anticipation of a possible unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians at the United Nations this autumn — that any solution to the Middle East crisis must include a “nation-state of Israel for the Jewish people”.

Trigano gives Sarkozy credit for having turned the tide against anti-Semitic street violence as minister of the interior. But if Sarkozy has reassured the community and, as president, won their loyalty, it is due just as much to his foreign policy. The long dominance of Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac was marked by a politique arabe, which is to say a foreign policy in harmony with the wishes of the Arab world, or at least of its dictators, and often at odds with those of Israel. Chirac tried to shore up the Jewish vote at home by compensating with high-profile symbolic acts, some would say stunts, such as apologising in 1995 for the role of the French state in the 1942 roundups. Sarkozy, by contrast, has pursued a foreign policy that is in line with the values of the United States and Israel, which he considers to be the values of France. 

A curious development in French politics in the past year has been the relaunching of France’s National Front (FN) under Marine Le Pen. Although democratic, the party has long been a bulwark of the hardline Right, with unmistakable overtones of Poujadism, a French fascist movement of the 1950s. Ms Le Pen’s father and predecessor, Jean-Marie LePen, was long notorious for slipping anti-Semitic provocations into his speeches. Like the late Jörg Haider in Austria, he had kind words for those Arab dictators — such as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq — who set themselves against Israel. 

Ms Le Pen aims to turn the party into a more modern kind of anti-globalist, anti-multiculturalist force. In so doing, she has sought ostentatiously to purge it of its anti-Semites, categorically condemning such prejudices and even expelling a member earlier this year for making a Nazi salute. Barrouch admits that the FN has been trying to win members of his organisation over. He estimates that a quarter of his members might be inclined to vote for Ms Le Pen, if only because they assume she will take care of problems linked to immigration. He himself distrusts her, saying she has maintained “exactly the same friends” that her father had. 

It is important to remember that a quarter of the Jewish vote, while it sounds large, is identical to the percentage Ms Le Pen is polling in the general population. But Sarkozy’s UMP is conscious of a new rival. Last winter, Ms Le Pen was invited on the Jewish radio station Radio J, which cancelled at the last minute, most likely under pressure not from their listeners but from Sarkozy’s aides.

Battles over Israel, and over inner-city ethnic relations, are bound to intensify in the run-up to France’s presidential elections next spring. Pierre-André Taguieff has suggested, with some justification, that Europe’s old “Jewish question” has reemerged in a new form. When Karl Marx and other intellectuals addressed this question in the 1840s, a form of political organisation new to most countries — the nation-state — presented new problems for deciding what kind of rights governments owed to ethnic minorities and what kind of loyalty ethnic minorities owed the state. The question of how a nation could fit within a nation had no easy resolution. The “emancipation” offered to Jews was ambiguous and often involuntary. Their predicament was ultimately resolved only with the creation of the state of Israel. 

Now the state of Israel is at the heart of a new Jewish question, one that — like the old one — arises from innovations in the world of political philosophy. Today, leaders of the European Union and apostles of the “global community” hold the nation-state in contempt — and exhort the peoples of the world to view themselves as post-national citizens of the world, owing allegiance to the human race and not to any particular tribe, creed, or polity. There is no evidence to indicate that this is a workable project, but that has done nothing to moderate the calumny visited on those who resist it. Israel, as the nation-state par excellence, is cast as an enemy of “humanity”, and the same attitudes confront its supporters, who include most of the West’s Jews. Thus the demon of anti-Semitism has managed to reenter European life through the back door, in the name not so much of racism as of anti-racism. 

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