Commentary Magazine


Topic: aliyah

French Anti-Semitism and the Specter of “Humanitarian Zionism”

Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made a very smart observation about terrorism in France that other Western officials would do well to consider. On May 24, a man, believed to be 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. After Nemmouche’s arrest about a week after the crime, authorities began using the term “lone wolf” to describe him–including Cazeneuve. But Cazeneuve now thinks that was a mistake and, as JTA reported, had this to say on the term:

The term suggests an assassin or terrorist who is working independently of partners or any larger framework.

But actions such as Nemmouche “begin a long way back,” he said. The processes of radicalization, Cazeneuve added, “have to transcend many stages,” including procuring weapons” and “arriving in conflict zones or terrorism.” He concluded by saying: “What I want to say is that accomplices are important here not only in the procurement of arms that terrorists use. This leads me to think, without any reservation, that the ‘lone wolf’ is anything but.”

Western officials like to use the term “lone wolf” both for self-serving reasons (to avoid blame) and to try to calm the public (there’s no conspiracy afoot, no persistent danger, etc.). But not having an immediate and knowing accomplice is not the same as acting completely alone, and Cazeneuve seems to realize this. In Western Europe, it is especially important to understand how and why crimes like this happen because European Jewry is under attack more consistently and brazenly than has been the case in decades. As the largest European Jewish community, France is something of a test as to whether European Jewry has a future. And right now it’s failing that test.

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Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made a very smart observation about terrorism in France that other Western officials would do well to consider. On May 24, a man, believed to be 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. After Nemmouche’s arrest about a week after the crime, authorities began using the term “lone wolf” to describe him–including Cazeneuve. But Cazeneuve now thinks that was a mistake and, as JTA reported, had this to say on the term:

The term suggests an assassin or terrorist who is working independently of partners or any larger framework.

But actions such as Nemmouche “begin a long way back,” he said. The processes of radicalization, Cazeneuve added, “have to transcend many stages,” including procuring weapons” and “arriving in conflict zones or terrorism.” He concluded by saying: “What I want to say is that accomplices are important here not only in the procurement of arms that terrorists use. This leads me to think, without any reservation, that the ‘lone wolf’ is anything but.”

Western officials like to use the term “lone wolf” both for self-serving reasons (to avoid blame) and to try to calm the public (there’s no conspiracy afoot, no persistent danger, etc.). But not having an immediate and knowing accomplice is not the same as acting completely alone, and Cazeneuve seems to realize this. In Western Europe, it is especially important to understand how and why crimes like this happen because European Jewry is under attack more consistently and brazenly than has been the case in decades. As the largest European Jewish community, France is something of a test as to whether European Jewry has a future. And right now it’s failing that test.

Cazeneuve was also speaking about a man named Mohammed Merah, the gunman involved in a brief crime spree in Toulouse that included murdering Jews. This week in France, Merah’s name was reportedly found spray-painted in a message praising him. In fact, the phrase “this week in France” is rarely followed by good news, and for Jews the phrase has taken on an even more ominous tone.

On June 11, Tablet reported on “the third disturbing incident from [the] French capital” so far that week, and then listed all the anti-Semitic incidents in Paris in 2014 for good measure. Each such story tends to bring a round of recollections on social media sites of readers’ latest stories of French anti-Semitism.

It’s easy to see how such incidents proliferate when each is treated as a “lone wolf” attack. The willful blindness practically ensures it will continue. It’s possible that a shift in attitude such as Cazeneuve’s will make a difference, though it would take a cultural shift for the correct approach to be prevalent enough to turn the tide. It’s easier to pretend the tide isn’t there.

What does that mean for French Jewry, and for European Jewry? As to the former, JTA also noted last month a survey showing that three-quarters of French Jews are considering leaving the country. More than half the respondents said “Jews have no future in France,” and nearly all (more than 95 percent) said anti-Semitism there is “worrisome” or “very worrisome.” As for what it means for European Jewry, this part of the story is pertinent:

Ninety-three percent said the French state had no efficient means for countering “Islamic exclusionist and pro-Palestinian propaganda,” whereas 93.4 percent said French mass media are partially responsible for France’s anti-Semitism problem. Roughly three-quarters said French Jewish institutions were helpless to stop anti-Semitism.

To take those three points in order: According to Brown University’s Maud Mandel (no relation–that I know of, anyway) “France houses the largest Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side outside of Israel.” That bodes ill, obviously, for Muslim-Jewish relations in Europe in the future (though there are certainly aspects of this that are specific to France). On the second point, European mass media is broadly hostile to the Jewish state, so it’s unlikely any strife caused by the press would be limited to France. (Ahem, BBC.) On the third, I’m not sure what the Jews of France expect, outside of their own private army. Jewish institutions in many cases could do much better than they are, but it’s doubtful they can singlehandedly change the hearts and minds of Europe’s Mehdi Nemmouches and Mohammed Merahs.

If there is any strength to be had in numbers, then France’s treatment of its Jews shows how easily that strength can be negated. The packed aliyah fairs in Paris and the rate of French aliyah itself raise the specter of what Jabotinsky once called “humanitarian Zionism.” If such a Zionism is necessary in 2014, Europe has failed its Jews once again.

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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:

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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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