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Anti-Semitism in France and the Ghost of Emile Combes

At the turn of the 20th century and in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, French Prime Minister Emile Combes tried to ludicrously deny the injustice of the purge of religion from the republic by disingenuously calling upon the separation of church and state. “All we ask of religion–because we are entitled to do so–is that it keep within its temples, that it limit its instruction to the faithful, and that it refrain from unwarrantable interference in the civil and political domain,” Combes said at a public gathering. Yet Combes’s own language could not have been clearer, as he referred to the anticlerical secularists not as bigots and nihilists, but as “freethinkers.” The term was more appropriate than even Combes had probably intended, for those who didn’t think as Combes did were no longer so free to do so.

The danger of French anti-Semitism may have been crystallized by the Dreyfus Affair but it was in the DNA of the post-Revolution republic and the “deal” it offered the Jews of France: there are those who are French and those who are Jews; choose once and choose wisely for yourselves. But that history makes it no less a tragedy that French Jews in the year 2013 wonder if that’s still the only deal on the table, as the UK’s Jewish Chronicle reports:

Last week, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, warned that “the position of Jews in Europe today is very difficult. There are threats at this moment to brit mila and shechita, and Jews in Europe have begun to ask, is there a place for us here?”

That warning follows a sharp rise in the number of antisemitic incidents in France after the murder of four Jews in Toulouse in March 2012. In the subsequent 10 days, 90 separate incidents were reported, over five times the average rate….

Sandra Dahan Elbase, 29, left Paris for the UK in 2011 and now lives in Cambridge with her French husband. She said: “In Paris I would never wear a Magen David walking around, I was even afraid to read a book in Hebrew on the Metro. There was a climate of fear.

“My family are also thinking about leaving because of the antisemitism,” she said.

The Chronicle story is about the influx of French Jews to the United Kingdom because of this “climate of fear.” Synagogues in London have had to set up entirely new and separate French minyans because of the sheer number of new congregants from France. Those numbers are as high as they are because France has so many Jews to begin with–half a million, the largest Jewish community in Europe. But that number keeps dropping because of the thousands of French Jews who move to Israel alone each year–to say nothing of those who move elsewhere, like the UK. At a recent Knesset hearing on immigration, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Arielle di Porto offered this less-than-convincing protestation:

“The Jews of France did not hysterically call the Jewish Agency after Toulouse,” di Porto said at a session of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. “Aliya from France is not an aliya of rescue, but one of choice. People come here because they want to live in Israel.”

That the term “aliyah of rescue” is even uttered with regard to the Jews of France is both revealing and absolutely chilling. Granted, this remark was made in the wake of last year’s horrific massacre at a Jewish school in Toulouse, but the statistics say that while the attack’s ferocity and death toll may have been abnormal, that a violent anti-Semitic attack took place was no aberration. The Chronicle reports that although the UK experiences similar numbers of anti-Semitic incidents–hence the strong words from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–the incidents differ greatly in character:

In 2012 there were 102 violent attacks in France and 69 in the UK. One in four attacks in France involved a weapon.

It was originally stated that in over three-quarters of the antisemitic incidents the perpetrators were reported as being of North African origin, however the SPCJ has now removed this statement from their report.

That line about the attackers being largely from North Africa is a good reminder that the changing demographics of France has only trapped the country’s Jews between its Muslim population and its secular leftist population, both of which remain hostile to the Jewish community in France. (In this, unfortunately, France is no anomaly.) And so di Porto is only technically correct: the Jews of France don’t have to move to Israel, but they seem to feel they must go somewhere. That helps explain why an aliyah fair in Paris last year attracted 5,000 people. Spend any time in Israel these days, as I just did, and you can’t help but notice how common it is for people there to assume you speak some French.

Karl Marx was wrong: history doesn’t always repeat first as tragedy and then as farce. For the Jews of France, there is a sinking feeling history has come as tragedy yet again.



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