Anti-Semitism & Holocaust

France's Jewish Problem

Michel Gurfinkiel - July 4, 2002

In 1928, the young New York intellectual Sidney Hook embarked on a tour of Europe that included several months in Germany. More than a half-century later, he would write in his memoirs, Out of Step: "As incredible as it may sound to most people today, anti-Semitism was much less apparent at the time in Berlin than in New York City."

Indeed, in the Weimar Republic that had been established in 1919, both Jews as individuals and the Jewish community as a whole were flourishing; in the United States, by contrast, nativist prejudice in the late 1920s was on the rise and free immigration had been sharply curtailed.
It took no more than five years after Hook's visit, however, for Germany to become the most murderously anti-Semitic nation in history.

It is always perilous to draw strict parallels in history, and in any case both the Nazi regime and the genocide it engineered - the Holocaust - were exceptional in too many respects to bear recounting. Still, what remains striking in light of Hook's observation is the sheer rapidity with which Nazi anti-Semitism established itself in a seemingly peaceful and open society. Could such a reversal happen again in a Western nation, even if at a less lethal level? This question, which has haunted many Jews since 1945 and until recently seemed largely theoretical, took on new significance over the past year in France.

The latter half of the 20th century constituted a kind of golden age for French Jewry. A community whose numbers stood at around 300,000 at the end of World War II had by the 1990s increased enormously. Demographic growth provided the critical mass necessary for cultural revival.

As it has become easier to lead a Jewish life in France, many Jews have become more traditionalist in their habits and practice. Study groups in Talmud or Jewish thought have burgeoned, and some have evolved into real centers of learning. Distinct Orthodox neighborhoods have grown up in greater Paris as well as in Marseilles, Nice and Strasbourg; in a number of places, Liberal (Reform) and Conservative congregations have been founded as well. Even secularist Jews have organized themselves here and there in self-conscious efforts to preserve a Jewish way of life.

All in all, contemporary French Jewry has begun to look somewhat like American Jewry.

THAT IS in social terms. In political terms, the situation in the two countries is very different. France's is not a federal system, nor is government rooted so thoroughly in electoral politics as in the US; the country is less a "republic" ruled by its citizens than a "state" administered by a professional class of civil servants. Lobbying for special interests, while widespread in fact, is still considered not quite legitimate, and religion- or community-based activism is frowned upon.

This is not to say that the influence of French Jews in public life has been insignificant. With regard to Israel, although it has so far proved impossible to change the frankly pro-Arab stance first charted by Charles de Gaulle in the wake of the Six Day War, efforts to mitigate that stance over the decades have met with periodic success. Elsewhere, in matters pertaining to civil rights or religious observance, Holocaust memorials or the prosecution of Nazi criminals, Jewish interests have been readily accommodated.

But as the whole world knows by now, the golden age is over. Were there a worldwide Richter scale of anti-Semitism, what has happened in France would qualify as an earthquake.

On October 3, 2000, the synagogue of Villepinte, a suburban neighborhood in northeastern Paris, was all but destroyed by arson in practically the first such case in France since the late Middle Ages. (The single exception had occurred in 1940 when the Nazis blew up the Central Synagogue of Strasbourg.) Following Villepinte, four more synagogues were burned over the next 10 days, all in greater Paris, while in the whole of France, 19 further attempts at arson were recorded against synagogues or other Jewish buildings, homes or businesses.

The week of October 7 also witnessed four incidents of vandalism or desecration, three involving synagogues, and 18 more cases of anti-Jewish violence, from stone throwing to beating. Most occurred in neighborhoods with both Jewish and Muslim residents, and were connected in some way with the organized riots by Palestinians against Israel that had begun in Jerusalem in late September.

Anti-Jewish violence flared up again a year later after the September 11 terrorist attack on the US, which generated a wave of pride among French Muslims. A third peak occurred around Pessah and Easter of this year, as the Palestinian intifada against Israel turned into open warfare.

Then there was the increasingly open and uninhibited expression of anti-Semitic sentiment. Although no French political party of significant size called for anti-Jewish policies as such, the Green party and related groups on the Left denounced "Jewish religious fundamentalists" and pro-Israel activity. (On the other side of the political spectrum, the far-Right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had indulged for years in anti-Semitic innuendo, but in the current crisis mostly held his tongue.) At pro-Palestinian rallies, calls to kill the Jews were raised again and again; anti-Jewish invective-laced sermons were preached in church; and there were anti-Jewish cartoons in the mainstream press.

Of even deeper concern, and not only to Jews, was the refusal or unwillingness of the powers-that-be in France - the ruling parties of Right and Left, the mainstream political class, the mainstream media, most social institutions, even the Church - to treat the new situation with anything like the seriousness it deserved.

This was hardly a case of neglect. Rather, there was a conscious effort on the part of the authorities to downplay the extent of the crisis and/or to present it as a symptom of some broader problem like intercommunal strife or "racism."

The judiciary played its part as well. Thus, in a ruling issued in March 2002 after almost 18 months of investigation, a synagogue fire at Trappes in October 2000 was declared to be not a criminal act. In still another proceeding, concerning an attack on a synagogue and school in Creteil, near Paris, in which three men were caught redhanded, the judges issued a reduced penalty on the grounds that motivations other than anti-Semitism may have come into play.

ANOTHER tactic favored by the authorities was to pretend that what was plaguing France was a problem in "community relations." Abetting this false rendition of reality was the French taste for intellectual symmetry, which has always exceeded the French taste for fact. Evil and the urge to evil, being integral components of human nature, must be equally distributed (it is held) among individuals, communities, nations and races. In the bitter paraphrase of Philippe Desproges, a French humorist of the Seventies: "Of course, the Nazis didn't like the Jews. But to be fair, one has to admit that the Jews didn't like the Nazis, either."

Today's version of this sort of "analysis" took a no less twisted form. Insofar as French Jews were victims, they had to be seen as villains, too; and since most of the violence against them stemmed from the French Muslim community, it followed that the culprit must be some kind of reciprocal tension between the two communities.

Other tricks also came into play, of which my favorite was the "transference theory." Yes, this line of reasoning went, anti-Semitism might seem to be rampant among French Muslims, but it was not so much a hatred directed at Jews per se as it was a naive expression of resentment against France as a whole, only "transferred," in the Freudian sense, to the Jews as a convenient stand-in.

All in all, it took an official protest to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin by Roger Cukierman, head of CRIF, last December, followed by an editorial in L'Express and a front-page story in Le Figaro, France's leading conservative daily, before the issue of anti-Semitism began to be debated publicly.

IF DEMOGRAPHICS was the driving force behind the Jewish golden age in the second half of the 20th century, demographics will be seen to have played a major part as well in the rise of French Muslims in the first half of the 21st. The fact is that France is undergoing a partial Islamicization. The Muslim population, already 10 times the size of the Jewish community, is growing rapidly, and the thorough transformation it is wreaking in France's ethnic and religious fabric obviously has much to do both with the increase in anti-Semitism and with the official denial of it.

To be sure, a fair number of French Muslims have integrated into mainstream society. Some of these "republican Muslims" insist on being regarded as French citizens plain and simple, while others embrace a hyphenated (French-Muslim, or French-Arab, or French-Berber) identity. Most also reject anti-Semitism and take pride in the age-old kinship between Islam and Judaism.

But a much larger part of the Muslim community is not integrating at all. Rather, it is turning into a "separatist" underclass that owes exclusive allegiance to Islam and the Islamic nations - a circumstance highlighted last fall when a largely French-Muslim crowd booed the "Marseillaise" at a France-Algeria soccer match.

These Muslims also tend to be rabid, unreconstructed anti-Semites, after the fashion of the countries from which they have come. For them, anti-Semitism is a daily staple, to which the Middle East conflict and the saga of Osama bin Laden have added more zest.

Between the relatively few "republican" Muslims and the much larger underclass, there is a third, more ambiguous group who are socially and politically quite well integrated but still tend to embrace an all-Muslim ideology; who may frown on anti-Semitism, especially when directed at synagogue-going Jews, but nevertheless indulge in extremist rhetoric when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.

It is perilous enough that French Jews are confronted with a group so quickly expanding and so largely hostile. But the collateral effects are even worse. Rational debate about the Israeli-Arab conflict or the terrorist threat cannot easily be conducted in a country where some 10% of the population and a larger percentage of young people identify with the most radical elements in the Arab/Islamic world. Moreover, extremist Muslims tend to ally themselves with other extremist groups Left and Right, and thus to bring size, breadth and market potential to a whole subculture of delusion and fanaticism. Today's runaway best-seller in France is Thierry Meyssan's The Awful Scam, whose thesis is that what we saw on television last September 11 was a hoax, carefully staged by American rightists and the Israeli Mossad.

Another collateral result of the rise of French Islam is what might be called "Bonifacism." Until late last summer, Pascal Boniface was chiefly known as a socialist militant and the founder of the Institut des Relations Internationales et Strat giques, or IRIS, a small think-tank devoted to world affairs. Then in August 2001 he published, in Le Monde, a "Letter to an Israeli Friend" that was neither friendly nor intended for Israelis; rather, it was a shot across the bow of French Jewry. Here is the relevant passage: "In France, the Jewish community would be ill-advised, in the medium term, to extend too much indulgence to the Israeli government.... The Arab and/or Muslim community may be less well organized, but it will soon act as a counterweight and will quickly weigh even more."

As if this veiled threat were not enough, another text by Boniface soon surfaced that had been intended for circulation exclusively within the Socialist-party elite. Predicting that the outcome of this spring's presidential and parliamentary elections would depend on the Arab/Muslim vote, he urged what amounted to a complete break between the Left and the Jewish community.

As a doctrine, Bonifacism means that, since Jews need no longer be seen as a significant factor in France, anti-Semitism need no longer be a concern of the political establishment. Conversely, since the Arab/Muslim community is becoming an ever more significant factor, its particular sins can be overlooked in the search for electoral advantage.

Bonifacism is particularly relevant to the Left. For about 20 years, the Socialists and their allies - first the Communists, then the Greens and various Trotskyist groups - have managed to survive, as a minority, only by playing the far Right against the Conservatives. Now, with the emergence of the Muslim factor, there may be (some think) a chance to bring about a more favorable Left-Right balance - favorable, that is, to the Left.

Not that the Right is itself asleep on this issue. Some Conservative leaders, especially those of a Gaullist mold, see an alliance with French Muslims as a logical extension of the pro-Arab foreign policy they have championed since 1967. Hence, perhaps, their vocal annoyance when officials of Israel or the US dare to express concern over what has been going on in France.

French politics and French society may not be anti-Semitic if considered as a whole, but anti-Jewish symptoms are unmistakably growing in number and intensity, and serious countermeasures are called for.

That, basically, is how French Jews have been reacting since October 2000.

They do not say, or for the most part think, that France is the reincarnation of the Third Reich. But they wonder about their future. Those not contemplating emigration are engaged in soul-searching. No fewer than six major books, by Jewish and non-Jewish authors, have appeared over the past six months on French "Judeophobia," and each of them is selling briskly. At synagogues and community centers, in the Jewish media, the future of France and of French Jewry is a constant topic of discussion.

Still, one wonders whether the issue has yet been properly defined.

Pro-Jewish voices tend to regard the present crisis as evidence that France has reverted to its illiberal and anti-Semitic past; their favorite metaphor is Vichy, which is a gross exaggeration. Anti-Jewish voices likewise take Vichy as their criterion, and on that basis tend to deny that anti-Semitism is occurring at all - an equally untenable assumption.

In fact, the signs point to a different reality: anti-Jewish attitudes are developing in France not because of "Vichyism," that is, an absence or diminution of liberalism, but largely because of the triumph of a particular kind of liberalism. If people who demonstrated against anti-Semitism 20 years ago are not demonstrating now, it is not because they have betrayed their former convictions, or undergone a sudden conversion to Le Penism, but because the place once occupied by the Jews in their very advanced consciousness is now occupied by Muslims and/or Palestinians.

Which suggests a deeper problem. For much of the past half-century, most people in Western democracies have understood that the Nazi genocide was an assault on the Jews as a singular people, and also on the specifically Judeo-Christian body of ethics and beliefs that undergird Western civilization.

But side by side with this view there has grown up another understanding, and it is the one that happens to be regnant in France. According to this latter view, Jews were only "accidentally" the victims of Nazism, which is itself only a name for a more global phenomenon - the phenomenon of "racism," or "xenophobia," or the "denial of human rights."

The motivation behind this shift in thinking was well-meaning enough, at least in part. It was believed, for instance, that non-Jews could sympathize more easily with the plight of the Jews if they could see themselves as potential targets of racist or totalitarian oppression. But what happened instead was that the specifically Jewish dimension of the Holocaust was gradually forgotten, or reconstructed, making it only a matter of time before Jews themselves could be turned into exemplars of Nazism when political expediency so demanded. It happened first to Israel, and now it is happening by association to Jewish citizens of Western European countries.

(Redacted with permission from Commentary magazine, in which the full article appears this month.) The writer is editor-in-chief of the French weekly Valeurs Actuelles.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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