Commentary Magazine


La Question Juive

To the Editor:

Michel Gurfinkiel’s article on French anti-Semitism is more balanced than most of what has been written on the subject [“France's Jewish Problem,” July-August]. But in claiming that the September 11 terrorist attacks “generated a wave of pride among French Muslims,” he makes an unjustified generalization. In a study done by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, 92 percent of French Muslims agreed with the statement that “a Muslim should not rejoice at these attacks because Islam condemns such acts,” and 90 percent agreed that “the perpetrators of these attacks should not call themselves Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace and moderation.”

Svante Lundgren
Turku, Finland

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To the Editor:

Michel Gurfinkiel fails to make an important distinction when he claims that “most of the violence against [Jews] stemmed from the French Muslim community.” The French Muslims responsible for the attacks are the unassimilated and segregated ones. The others, who have become loyal citizens, have nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

As for comparisons to Nazi Germany, Mr. Gurfinkiel is similarly ignorant. He claims that “it took no more than five years [from 1928] . . . for Germany to become the most murderously anti-Semitic nation in history.” Apart from the absurdity of believing that an entire people can change so quickly, Mr. Gurfinkiel ignores the fact that Hitler’s greatest frustration was his inability to convert the vast majority of Germans to his psychosis. As Sarah Gordon shows in Hitler, Germans, and the “Jewish Question”(1984), before 1933, a third of card-carrying Nazis gave “no evidence” of anti-Semitism. Moreover, even after five years of being flooded with anti-Semitic propaganda, Germans reacted with such revulsion to Kristallnacht in November 1938 that Goebbels had to curtail it and instruct the press to report what had happened only on the local news page without mentioning what had happened in other cities.

Franz Martin Oppenheimer
Falls Village, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

After lamenting how the Holocaust has been turned into a “universal” tragedy, Michel Gurfinkiel arrives at the amazing conclusion that contemporary French anti-Semitism is not a manifestation of classical hatred of Jews, in the racist or neo-Nazi sense. Rather, it is a “postmodern or postliberal development . . . on the frontline of what Samuel Huntington has termed the clash of civilizations.”

Really? If the anti-Semitic incidents he cites had been directed not against French Jews but against French Catholics, would the French government have remained as passive and restrained toward its Muslim population? I doubt it. Despite the dangers of confronting a large and growing Muslim population, the reaction would have been swift and vigorous. It is not a “clash of civilizations” that Mr. Gurfinkiel is experiencing in France, but merely the newest chapter in the same old story of Jew-hatred.

Yaffa Ganz
Jerusalem, Israel

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To the Editor:

The recent attacks on Jews in France may have come mainly from its large population of Muslim immigrants, as Michel Gurfinkiel documents, but a fertile soil for anti-Semitism has long existed there. Mr. Gurfinkiel’s mention of Voltaire, for example, reminds us that the 18th-century philosophes were an important source of hatred against the Jews. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique, Voltaire called Jews “the most abominable people in the world” and “a totally ignorant nation” whose “priests have always sacrificed human victims with their sacred hands.” During Hitler’s domination of Europe, a history teacher named Henri Labroue had no difficulty compiling a 250-page book of Voltaire’s anti-Jewish writings. A good part of this antipathy was later adopted by French socialists. No less a figure than Proudhon held that “one must send this race back to Asia or exterminate it.”

During World War II, I was stationed as a soldier in Paris for almost a year and was repeatedly amazed that French hatred of Germany did not result in sympathy with the Nazis’ prime victims. Anti-Semitism, I concluded, was firmly embedded in French culture.

William Peterson
Monterey, California

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Michel Gurfinkiel writes:

I am afraid I cannot agree with Svante Lundgren about Muslim public opinion in France. There is considerable evidence since September 11, in both print and electronic media, of the popularity enjoyed by Osama bin Laden among French Muslims, especially young people, who tend to see him either as a fundamentalist “freedom fighter” or as some kind of third-world Robin Hood. Admittedly, a different image may be inferred from the survey Mr. Lundgren cites. The question is, however, whether this survey—which was conducted in late September 2001 by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (IFOP) on behalf of Le Monde(a daily newspaper), Le Point(a weekly newsmagazine), and Europe 1 (a major broadcasting station), and released on October 5—is to be trusted. I think it is not.

First, the survey is inconclusive on technical grounds. It was based on two samples, the first of 940 people deemed representative of the French population at large, and the second of a mere 548 people standing for the Muslim community. Both figures are below the minimum requirement for public-opinion samples in France, which ideally should be closer to 2,000 individuals. In its introduction to the survey, IFOP itself acknowledged that “there are no statistics that would help in building up reliable samples of the French Muslim population.”

But even technically impeccable poll results should not be taken at face value. When it comes to highly controversial issues, many people hide their true feelings, preferring to conform to whatever the mainstream, “politically correct” attitude of the moment seems to call for. A classic example in France concerns the disparity between the far Right’s standing in public-opinion polls, which usually levels off at 10 percent (moral stigma being still very much attached to right-wing extremism), and the proportion of votes the far Right wins in elections, which for years has run closer to 15 or even 20 percent and has peaked at 25 or even 30 percent in some regions. This phenomenon has been so widely documented that French pollsters tend to employ a “public-correctness coefficient” of as much as 100 percent in tallying the incidence of pro-Le Pen sentiment.

In this one regard, French Muslims are very much of a kind with National Front sympathizers. They know that their views are largely unwelcome, and take care to disclaim them when questioned by pollsters. They can do so, moreover, with fewer inhibitions than non-Muslims, since the vast majority of them, being immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, remain embedded in an Arab/Islamic culture that to a large extent both condones and practices “dissimulation” (taqia) in public affairs. This is especially the case in surveys conducted on the basis of face-to-face interviews, as was the IFOP poll.

So it is little wonder that only 12 percent of the 500 or so Muslim respondents spoke positively of Osama bin Laden in late September 2001, less than three weeks after the terrorist attacks on America, whereas President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin received positive ratings of 67 percent and 66 percent respectively. What seems far more significant, though, is that George W. Bush, the President of the country targeted and crippled on September 11, received an approval rating of only 21 percent from these same Muslims, being thus characterized by them as someone almost as hideous as bin Laden.

Finally, it is noteworthy that, as Mr. Lundgren himself reminds us, IFOP did not ask its Muslim informants whether or not they rejoiced at the September 11 attacks, but rather whether they agreed that “a Muslim should not rejoice because Islam condemns such acts” (emphasis added). Nor were they asked whether the perpetrators should or should not be called Muslims, but rather whether they agreed with the proposition that the attackers should not be called Muslims “because Islam is a religion of peace and moderation.” In both cases, the questions were worded in such a way as to elicit a “proper” answer.

Franz Martin Oppenheimer insists that “the French Muslims responsible for the [anti-Jewish] attacks are the unassimilated and segregated ones.” This is exactly what I wrote in my article, with the important proviso that, to the best of my knowledge, large numbers of French Muslims are unassimilated, and tend to segregate themselves from the mainstream.

Mr. Oppenheimer disagrees with my statement that by 1933 Germany had become “the most murderously anti-Semitic nation in history.” I would certainly not argue that all Germans had switched overnight from tolerance to genocidal hatred, and I do not dispute Mr. Oppenheimer’s comments about Kristallnacht. My point was simply that even a relatively liberal nation like Germany could indeed, under certain conditions, turn within a matter of a few short years into a country capable of perpetrating the Holocaust. To my mind, this fact remains worth pondering.

Yaffa Ganz, for her part, suspects me of having minimized the present degree of French anti-Semitism. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I did and do maintain is that the particular form of anti-Semitism we are now witnessing in France and in some other Western countries derives much of its strength from Muslim extremism—itself a growing factor in French and West European society, with its own etiology and its own repercussions. We are, in short, in a new situation.

This is hardly to gainsay the truth of William Peterson’s observations about the historical depth of anti-Jewish prejudice and hostility in France. Mr. Peterson is right to recall Voltaire and Proudhon, as well as their heirs among 20th-century progressives and socialists. Anti-Semitism was indeed rampant in many unlikely milieux during World War II, including the Resistance.

On the other hand, neither French culture as a whole nor the French people as a nation has been so intoxicated by anti-Semitism as to turn it into a collective hallmark. Montesquieu and Rousseau were philo-Semites. So, in the 19th and 20th centuries, were most moderate left-wingers and most moderate conservatives. Many individual Frenchman also came to the aid of Jews during the German occupation. My own father was arrested by the French police in 1941 and then sent to Auschwitz by the Germans; but my mother and my two elder brothers, along with other Jewish families, were able to hide for three years in a small village in western France, with the active help of the local peasants.

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