Commentary Magazine


France's Jewish Problem

In 1928, the young New York intellectual Sidney Hook embarked on a tour of Europe that included a stay of 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 20′s 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. By September 1930, economic depression and mass unemployment had propelled the tiny Nazi party into mainstream politics. By January 1933, Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of the Reich; by March 1933, he was firmly entrenched as dictator.

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 the light of Hook’s observation is the sheer rapidity with which Nazi anti-Semitism established itself within a seemingly peaceful and open society. Could such a reversal happen again in a Western nation, even if at a lower and 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.

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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 1990′s increased enormously in size, through both natural growth and immigration from former French colonies in North Africa as well as from elsewhere around the Mediterranean and from Central and Eastern Europe. Although neither religion nor race is recorded in the French census, and although (unlike in Germany) there is no official registration of one’s religious affiliation, it is reliably estimated that out of a total population of 60 million Frenchmen, roughly 1 percent, or between 600,000 and 700,000 people, are “fully involved” Jews, and perhaps an additional 200,000 manifest some awareness of Jewish origins or a concern with Jewish affairs.

Demographic growth has provided the critical mass necessary for cultural revival. More Jews means more synagogues, more and better schools, more social services. It means more consumers of kosher food (now a full-fledged industry), and more patrons of kosher restaurants. Jewish books in French, once virtually unknown, are a staple of the publishing business. There are Jewish radio stations and even Jewish TV networks.

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 is the case in the U.S.; 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. As a result, although individual Jews have certainly achieved prominence in political life or in the civil service, or both, Jewish groups do not and cannot operate as freely and openly in the pursuit of their political interests as they do in the United States.

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 of 1967, 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. In 1994, the Socialist premier François Mitterrand instituted a Memorial Day Against Racism and Anti-Semitism to commemorate the round-up of foreign Jews in Paris during the German occupation. A year later, his Conservative successor Jacques Chirac went a step further, publicly acknowledging the Vichy regime’s direct involvement in the Holocaust and offering financial compensation to the few survivors of French wartime persecution. In the 80′s and 90′s, Jewishness itself often functioned as a “plus” factor in the calculus of French political correctness—a trend that culminated in the burial of René Cassin, the Jewish legal adviser of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French in 1940 and later the architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in France’s national vault, the Panthéon, alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Emile Zola.

But as the whole world knows by now, the golden age is over. So sharply and so abruptly has the situation deteriorated that by the end of 2001, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, could characterize France as “the most anti-Semitic country in the West.” Were there a worldwide Richter scale of anti-Semitism, what has happened in France would qualify as an earthquake.

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II

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 ten days, all of them in greater Paris, while in the whole of France, nineteen 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 of them involving synagogues, and eighteen more cases of anti-Jewish violence, from stonethrowing to beating. Most occurred in mixed 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 subsided in France after October 2000 but hardly ceased. It flared up again a year later after the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States, which generated a wave of pride among French Muslims. A third peak occurred around Passover and Easter of this year as the Palestinian intifada against Israel turned into open warfare. In Lyons, an anti-Jewish gang used a car equipped with battering rams to smash the doors of a local synagogue and community center and then set the building aflame. In Marseilles, another synagogue was entirely destroyed by arson. In Toulouse, a man opened fire on a kosher butcher shop. At Villeurbanne, near Lyons, an Orthodox couple on their way to prayer were beaten in the street. At Bondy, near Paris, hooded thugs assaulted the local Jewish soccer team and forced it to flee the field. A school bus was stoned by another gang in a new Orthodox neighborhood in Paris, while in the Marais district, at the heart of the old Jewish “Pletzl,” a young man was abducted on his way home from synagogue on Friday night by three Arab immigrants and terrorized for two hours before being released.

Physical violence was accompanied by harassment and discrimination. These were particularly noticeable in the public schools, where Jewish pupils and teachers alike were subjected to ostracism and insults. In one by no means isolated incident, a twelve-year-old boy from a secular family was threatened and humiliated by his Arab schoolmates; in another, a Jewish high-school teacher was harassed by students and colleagues and denied help by the principal. All over France, annual “Holocaust-awareness” programs had to be canceled on account of student opposition.

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 (“Mort aux juifs!”) were raised again and again; anti-Jewish invective laced sermons preached in church; and there were anti-Jewish cartoons in the mainstream press. Libération, a left-of-center newspaper, carried several such cartoons, the most offensive of which, published the day after Christmas 2001, showed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon standing next to a cross with a hammer in his hand and nails in his mouth. The caption: “No Christmas for Arafat. But he is welcome on Easter.” Two days earlier, at midnight mass in Montpellier, a Catholic priest had handed out the text for a hymn in the Occitan language that read: “He was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. He was born in Bethlehem, poor and innocent. Sharon shot him down.”

All in all, 500 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded by CRIF, the umbrella organization of the Jewish community, from September 9, 2000 through early April 2002. Even if one were to go by the much lower figure given by the French ministry of the interior, the situation would have to be called incontrovertibly dire. It is true that, over this entire twenty-month period, no one was actually killed, or at least no incident turned deadly, whatever the intention. That distinguishes today’s anti-Jewish attacks from, say, the bombing at the Rue Copernic synagogue in 1980 or the killing at the Goldenberg restaurant in 1982. But those two spectacular incidents in Paris almost certainly originated outside the country and thus indicated little about the state of local opinion. Today’s anti-Jewish drumbeat obviously reflects indigenous sentiment.

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III

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. Hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen of all stripes had demonstrated in protest after the Rue Copernic bombing; after the Goldenberg killing, President Mitterrand in person attended a Jewish service; and when the ancient Jewish cemetery in the southern town of Carpentras was desecrated in 1988, both Mitterrand and Chirac, the latter as leader of the opposition, made sure they were present at the protest march. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s statements were stigmatized for years as major offenses against public morality and democracy.

But in 2000 and 2001, as anti-Jewish incidents occurred on a daily basis, the response was minimal to mute. Neither the Conservative President Chirac nor the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin visited the burned synagogues, and Chirac repeatedly insisted in public that “there is no anti-Semitism at all in France.” Not until the third wave of violence, in the spring of 2002 and on the eve of his own reelection campaign, did the president pay a brief visit of sympathy to the small synagogue at Le Havre. As for the media, with some exceptions they waited until the end of 2001 to take note of the issue in their headlines. The only protest rallies were those sponsored by Jewish organizations; the largest of them, held on April 7 of this year and attracting 120,000 people, was largely ignored by politicians.

This was hardly a case of neglect, benign or otherwise. 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 response took various forms. One was to have the police, who in France are under the direct control of the central government, react as cautiously and discreetly as possible. Not that there was an outright failure to protect Jewish persons or institutions. Parking is prohibited in front of most Jewish sites in France, and at least in the big cities armed police are on duty during school and business hours or when services are being held; in fact, the easiest way to spot a synagogue or a Jewish school in Paris nowadays is to look for a security deployment. Patrols are frequent in Jewish neighborhoods, and squadrons of the CRS, France’s tough anti-riot force, have been assigned to trouble spots.

But protection from crime is not suppression of crime. For the most part, perpetrators and suspects were not vigorously tracked down, very few assailants were arrested, and those hauled into court were let off with light sentences.

Another means of downplaying the problem was to release consistently low estimates of its extent or intensity. To this end, the ministry of the interior declined to register any act, however violent or abusive, that did not prevent someone from returning to work or school on the following day, thus disposing of most if not all of the cases of harassment and discrimination. Some acts were classified as “accidental” rather than as “violent,” or as “violent” rather than as “anti-Semitic.”

The judiciary did its part as well. Thus, in a ruling issued in March 2002 after almost eighteen months of investigation, a synagogue fire at Trappes in October 2000 was declared to be not a criminal act; the court dismissed as “mere boastfulness” a confession signed by six youngsters and chose to believe instead the belated testimony of a security guard who said he had inadvertently dropped a burning cigarette on the premises. In still another proceeding, concerning an attack on a synagogue and school in Créteil, near Paris, in which three young men were caught redhanded, the judges issued a reduced penalty on the grounds that motivations other than anti-Semitism may have come into play.

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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 70′s: “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. As it happens, Muslim civil-rights organizations have listed only twelve acts of “Islamophobic” violence for the year 2001 and the first four months of 2002, with no suggestion that any of them was attributable to Jewish extremists. But statistics were not allowed to interfere with logic, however specious.

Other tricks came into play as well, of which my own 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 Jospin by Roger Cukierman, the 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. On February 19, Le Monde ran a telling cartoon: a policeman standing in front of six destroyed synagogues asks his captain, “How many do we need in order to start mentioning anti-Semitism?” The question could well have been directed to the paper itself: how many synagogues had to be destroyed in order for this cartoon to be published?

Nor did even this spell the end of the myth that Jews were equally to blame for the troubles. As soon as April’s mass rally was announced, rumors spread that “Jewish extremists” were preparing for a street war. On April 5, Le Monde devoted several pages to the forthcoming demonstration, postulating that the Jewish community was “divided” and warning that “right-wing extremists” were planning to disrupt a parallel rally by leftists and the French branch of Peace Now.

In the event, the rally represented a rare moment of brotherly feeling, both among Jews themselves and between Jews and non-Jews, with great joint displays of the French tricolor and the Israeli blue-and-white. Inevitably, however, just as the crowds were slowly disbanding at about 8 o’clock in the evening, someone stabbed the chief of the riot police, giving the media a 24-hour feast of speculation about Jewish extremists. By the time it emerged that the officer’s wounds were in fact quite superficial and that a gang of non-Jews may have been responsible, the damage had been done: Jewish violence, Jewish extremism, and “tension” between Jews and other unnamed ethnic groups had been established as unquestioned facts.

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IV

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 itself is undergoing a partial Islamicization. The Muslim population, already ten 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.

The modern Muslim community in France stems ultimately from the country’s various overseas colonies, the protectorates or mandates of Algeria, Tunisia, the Sahara and West Africa, Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon. Inevitably, the more Islamic lands the French added to their empire, the more Muslims settled in France proper. A turning point was World War I, when 300,000 Muslims from the Maghreb were drafted to fight or otherwise aid the war effort, one third of whom stayed in the country after the war. In 1920 the French parliament passed a special law to fund a Great Mosque in Paris (notwithstanding the 1905 law separating church and state). By the late 50′s and early 60′s, when the empire dissolved, a Muslim population of a half-million was in place.

Then, in little more than ten years, it more than tripled. In the 1960′s the influx came mainly from Algeria as some Muslims who had fought in the French army were “repatriated” along with their families; they were joined by civilian Muslim Algerians who had not formally renounced their former French citizenship and by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers not only from North Africa but also from black African countries like Senegal and Mali. By 1974, the Muslim population approached the two-million mark.

Many French leaders were already quite concerned. One of them was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Conservative who, in April 1974, succeeded Georges Pompidou to the presidency and who promptly issued restrictive measures. These, however, turned into a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. Although further immigration was suspended, foreigners who had already entered France were granted the same rights as French citizens in terms of housing, welfare, and education—and were allowed to bring in their relatives. Thanks to this last concession, and to the fact that Muslim immigrants were not only uninterested in birth control but tended to practice polygamy, the community grew still larger. The more numerous it became, the harder it was to change immigration policy yet again, to enforce national-cultural norms, or even to discuss the matter candidly. To this day, the government and the intellectuals are reluctant to monitor the demographics of French Islam, with the curious result that estimates tend to undergo quantum leaps every five or ten years.

In 1995, an authoritative report in Le Monde gave a figure of three to four million Muslims in France. In the wake of the 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections, the accepted figure has been raised to about six million, or fully 10 percent of the population. Such a dramatic increase—50 percent in under ten years—would suggest either that the earlier figures were much too conservative or that illegal immigration has reached unprecedented levels. Some demographers, moreover, think that the true number may be closer to seven or even eight million.

Given a birthrate among Muslim women that, though lower than what it was two decades ago, is still much higher than among non-Muslim French women, what we are witnessing is a steady replacement of the older Christian and Jewish communities by a newer Islamic element. The shift is all the more noticeable in generational terms: Muslims may make up 10 percent of the French population as a whole, but in many places their children account for 30 to 40 percent of the teenage population. In contemporary French parlance, “young people” is often a euphemism for Muslims and/or immigrants.

To be sure, a fair number of French Muslims have integrated into mainstream society, just like immigrant groups before them. 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. Ali Magoudi, a psychoanalyst, has written extensively about the Holocaust; Malek Boutih, a left-of-center leader of the group SOS Racisme, extended open support to the Jewish community throughout the current cycle of violence; Zair Kedadouche and Hamid Lafrad, elected Conservative officials, were no less outspoken in this respect.

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 to the Islamic nations—a circumstance that was 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 Gallicized or “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. Soheir Bencheikh, the self-styled Grand Mufti of Marseilles, has for instance simultaneously condemned anti-Jewish violence and defended French Muslim “solidarity with a Palestinian people . . . murdered day after day by bloodthirsty and revanchist Israeli leaders.”

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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 percent 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. Similarly, both hard-core anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, marginal phenomena until very recently, have gained traction thanks to the candid espousal of such themes by Muslims. In the words of the political scientist Frederic Encel, “What is an average French teacher to do when 70 percent of the class object to a course in religious tolerance giving Judaism its proper due, or simply refuse to attend a discussion about the Holocaust on the grounds that it is a Zionist lie?” The answer: “More often than not, he or she drops the matter altogether.”

Most pro-Arab or pro-Muslim books published in France over the last years tend to display distinct anti-Semitic features. That is certainly true, for instance, of Danielle Sallenave’s Travelogues in Occupied Palestine, a best-seller from 1998. The author of twenty books and a writer of some distinction, Sallenave spent all of several days “investigating” the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Authority before delivering herself of a tract suffused with an almost biological hatred for everything Israeli or Jewish. (Both the country and the people are described by her as “alien,” “unreal,” fake, a sort of cancerous anti-matter that has wiped away the “real” Palestinian country and that must be wiped away in turn.) The nine pages she devotes to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, with its “absurd, rigid, fanatical, maniacal loyalty to ritual, so obviously devoid of any real, deep, spiritual life,” and—“particularly frightening”—its women “under the sanction of an intensely procreative sexuality,” offer one of the most sustained assaults on Orthodox Judaism ever written in the French language.

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 Stratégiques, 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 warning 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 twenty 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 United States dare to express concern over what has been going on in France.

Beyond Bonifacism, a final element that complicates the political calculus in a different way is the widespread alarm about public safety. The Muslim underclass is arguably the most violent and dangerous component in contemporary French society, in terms both of crime and of terrorism. As long as the Jospin government was in charge, there was almost no political will to confront it. Synagogue-burning may be one thing; but cars and other property have also been torched or vandalized by gangs of “youths” all over the country, and terror-like acts have similarly been ascribed to Muslim groups. After Chirac’s reelection in May 2002, the new Conservative minister of the interior promised to restore law and order, even if doing so entailed a “war of reconquest” in some neighborhoods. Jews and Jewish property, though not the main intended beneficiaries of this policy, may be beneficiaries of it nevertheless—a small but, in the circumstances, hardly negligible comfort.

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V

On the ten-point Richter scale I proposed earlier, France today would probably earn a five—which on the real Richter scale registers an earthquake on the threshold between minor and major. 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. Applications for immigration to Israel are on the rise, as also for North America (Canada as well as the U.S.). There may also be some movement from France to other European Union countries, especially Britain and Germany, although among those thinking of leaving the prevailing view is that all of Europe is dangerous territory.

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 last 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 twenty 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 in turn 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.

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My own first glimpse of things to come occurred on a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam as long ago as 1977. Anne Frank is an icon of the second approach to the Holocaust: a Jew, but at the same time so convincingly German-Dutch, so “universal,” that any child in the world can identify with her. When I was there, the tour ended at a wall bearing premonitory messages about “new Holocausts in the making.” One of these messages warned darkly of the consequences of the electoral victory in Israel, a few weeks earlier, of “Menachem Begin’s far-Right Likud party.”

The present anti-Semitic crisis in France should not be construed as a repetition of the past but rather as a thoroughly modern or, one might say, postmodern or postliberal development. France is not “racist” in the neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan sense of that word. But it is on the front line of what Samuel Huntington has termed the clash of civilizations, and both politically and culturally it is especially ill-equipped to deal with it.

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About the Author

Michel Gurfinkiel is the president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris. His article, “Is Turkey Lost?,” appeared in the March COMMENTARY.




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