Anti-Semitism in France
January, 20 2002
The wave of anti-Semitism sweeping through France has triggered mounting concerns about the safety and welfare of Western Europe's largest Jewish community. Though a surge in violent attacks against Jewish schools and synagogues in recent months has elicited the usual condemnations of anti-Semitism from French politicians, it seems that France's government has yet to recognize the seriousness of the problem or take appropriate measures to counter it. While no one, fortunately, has been killed in any of the anti-Jewish assaults, it is time for France to take bolder action to stem this ominous and growing phenomenon.
Home to the third-largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, France has some 600,000 Jews who span the religious and political spectrum and are outspoken in their support for Israel. Paris is known for its vibrant Jewish cultural life, and is said to boast more kosher restaurants than any other city outside of Israel. But despite the active and visible role played by many Jews in France's intellectual and public life, the age-old specter of anti-Semitism has found fertile ground upon which to rear its ugly head.
According to Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, there were 320 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2001, or nearly one every day. In the first week of this year, there were three violent anti-Semitic attacks alone in France, including an assault on a synagogue in the Paris suburb of Goussainville, where a gang of thugs hurled rocks and firebombs, smashing the synagogue's windows and damaging the building. On December 30, vandals attacked Otzar Hatorah, a Jewish school in the southeastern Paris suburb of Creteil, with firebombs, two of which exploded and caused extensive damage to several classrooms. This incident came just two months after a Jewish elementary school in the southern city of Marseilles was attacked by arsonists, who burned down part of the school and then left graffiti reading "Death to the Jews."
No less worrisome was the flap that erupted in late December, after it was revealed that the French ambassador to England, Daniel Bernard, made openly anti-Semitic remarks at a dinner party in London. In a column published in the December 17 Daily Telegraph, Barbara Amiel noted that the ambassador of a major European country - later identified as France - "politely told a gathering at my home that the current troubles in the world were all because of 'that shitty little country Israel.' " Ambassador Bernard, according to Amiel, went on to wonder, "Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?"
That a senior French diplomat would be willing to make such undiplomatic comments is shocking in itself. But what is even more distressing is the reaction of the French government to the entire affair. Rather than immediately dismissing Bernard from his post, as was most assuredly warranted by his despicable remarks, the French chose to defend him, refusing to terminate his employment. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that Melchior rightly labeled France "the worst Western country concerning anti-Semitism" in a recent interview with the French daily Le Monde.
It is time for French society, as well as the French government, to take a far bolder and more vigorous stance against anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination. It was just six decades ago that France's collaborationist Vichy regime, headed by Marshal Petain, enthusiastically took part in rounding up French Jews and turning them over to the Nazis. Some 110,000 French Jews were murdered by the Germans, a number that would have been far lower had it not been for the shameful manner in which the French authorities and police cooperated with Hitler's Final Solution. While that ignominious stain on France's record will never be removed nor forgotten, it nevertheless behooves the French government to act quickly and with determination to stamp out any future manifestations of anti-Semitism.
At a meeting on January 6 with representatives of various religious groups, French President Jacques Chirac reportedly "expressed his sharp denunciation of every act of anti-Semitism and... said that these phenomena contradict the principles of the Republic," according to his spokesman. Such statements are certainly welcome, but they must also be backed up with deeds, such as providing greater security for Jewish institutions and launching a crackdown on extremist groups.
Not surprisingly, the ominous threat of rising anti-Semitism has sparked greater interest in aliya among France's Jews. The government and the Jewish Agency are to be commended for their recent decision to grant increased benefits to Jews making aliya from France, a step that will hopefully serve to boost the number of French immigrants. In 2001, some 1,200 French Jews emigrated to Israel, a 20 percent drop from the previous year. The government and the Jewish Agency must therefore redouble their efforts in this regard, and do more to convince French Jewry that Israel awaits them with open arms. For as comfortable as life might be along the Riviera or in the arrondissements of Paris, it is time for the Jews of France - like their brethren in Argentina, Russia, and elsewhere - to come home.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post