Commentary Magazine


Topic: French Jewry

French Jewry’s Moment of Truth

On July 13, Bernard Abouaf, a French Jewish journalist, posted on his Facebook wall: “I just passed through one of the truest moments in my life.” A bit earlier, he had been an eyewitness to a pogrom attempt.

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On July 13, Bernard Abouaf, a French Jewish journalist, posted on his Facebook wall: “I just passed through one of the truest moments in my life.” A bit earlier, he had been an eyewitness to a pogrom attempt.

About one hundred Muslim thugs had gathered in front of the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in Central Paris, a few blocks away from Place de la Bastille (Bastille Circle), and threatened to storm it. Two to three hundred worshipers, who had gathered for a pro-Israel religious service, were locked inside. There were five police officers to protect them–and two dozen Jewish youths trained in martial arts who were members of the Jewish community sponsored Security Organization or of the more militant Jewish Defense League.

For Abouaf, whose family is of Tunisian Jewish descent, the whole scene looked like a reenactment of the storming and torching of the Great Synagogue in Tunis during the Six-Day War in 1967: a traumatic event that accelerated the flight of Tunisian Jews to France or to Israel.

“What I have seen today,” he remarked, “is Arab hatred against Jews. Pure hatred. Right in the middle of Paris. Don’t try to ‘explain’ or ‘understand’, it was hatred, period.” Irving Kristol famously said that a neoconservative was a liberal mugged by reality. Something similar was befalling Abouaf. This was the “truth” he was so eager to share.

The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue was not stormed. Its bunker-like shape (it was built in 1962) and its strong, straight, iron gates were probably helpful. Even more effective were the young Jewish defenders, who did not shy away from confronting the Muslim rioters. Older Jewish men and women, some in their late forties or early fifties, fought back as well. “The whole thing looked like street guerilla,” one witness said. At least two of the synagogue’s defenders–including a young Chabad chassid–were severely wounded and rushed to a nearby hospital.

The prime minister (and former interior minister) of France Manuel Valls called Serge Benhaim, the synagogue chairman, on his cell phone to assure him that more police forces, including CRS (anti-riot units) would soon be dispatched. It took some time before his orders were implemented; once deployed, even the heavily equipped CRS had to engage into hard fighting and some of them were wounded. Eventually, the worshipers were not just evacuated from the synagogue but escorted away to safer streets or a Metro station: “I will not forget the fear in their eyes as they went out,” wrote Abouaf. This time, it was not just the Tunis pogrom he had in mind, but “scenes of the Holocaust itself.”

Similar incidents occurred all over Greater Paris and France at about the same time. The morning before–that is to say, on the Sabbath–a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a synagogue at Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb. At Asnieres, another suburb, the police said a Muslim mob of 300 gathered in front of the synagogue and shouted anti-Israel slogans for about half an hour. Smaller group of Muslim mobsters attempted to get into the Belleville synagogue, in northeastern Paris, and into the Tournelles synagogue, in the Marais district.

No less horrid were the many pro-Palestinian rallies, in Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Bordeaux, and other cities, complete with Palestinian and ISIS flags and proudly displayed fake Fajr rockets. The demonstrators–almost all of them of North African or Subsaharan African origin–shouted explicitly anti-Semitic slogans, notably “Itbah al-Yahud!” (Slaughter the Jews, in Arabic.) Any time they would spot Jewish-owned shops or professional offices they would cover the doors or windows with stickers urging, “to boycott the racist State of Israel.” On Sunday, several thousands pro-Palestinian and pro-jihadist demonstrators marched for miles across the city, from the heavily Muslim Barbes neighborhood to places with large Jewish populations and many synagogues like the Bastille area. The mobsters that attacked the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue were some of them.

“We reached a new and very ominous stage in the deterioration of Jewish life in France,” remarked Joel Mergui, the chairman of Consistoire, the National Union of French Synagogues. Sammy Ghozlan, a former police commissioner and the head of BNVCA, an anti-Semitism monitoring organization, observed even more bluntly: “This is going to be a turning point for most French Jews. More people will move to Israel or other places. People who never considered such options are changing their mind. There is a widespread sense of betrayal or of an impending catastrophe.”

One level of betrayal is what Claude Barouch, one of the leaders of the French Union of Jewish Professionals (UPJF), called “a global media failure.” Indeed, according to Jean Szlamowicz, professor of English literature at the Paris Sorbonne University, many media, from Agence France-Presse (AFP)–the basic news source for French-language media all over the world–to national newspapers or radio or TV channels, either ignored or downplayed the current anti-Jewish violence or even more perversely allowed pro-Palestinian demonstrators to make their point in a seemingly reasonable way.

But then, AFP and many radio or TV media are state-owned; and even private radio and a government appointed body, the Audiovisual Media Higher Authority, supervises TV media. So much so that the main issue may be in fact the political class and the government. François Hollande, the French president, observed on July 14–Bastille Day–that “Middle Eastern conflicts should not be imported to France.” François d’Orcival, a noted columnist, rightly retorted that they have already been imported. And one may actually wonder whether the French government, either for cynical electoral reasons (the Muslim vote is growing) or just out of weakness and fear, is willing to do something about it.

There is a deadly logic in such matters. Governments that do not set the rules and do not enforce them whatever the cost are likely to disintegrate as governments. In Lille, the local préfet (government commissioner) authorized a mass pro-Palestinian and pro-jihadist demonstration on July 13. Muslim activists then planned for a second demonstration on July 14–which the préfet forbade. It took place anyhow.

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After Toulouse, More Attacks on Jews

When four Jews were killed in an apparent terrorist attack in Toulouse, France, in March, interest in the story quickly evaporated when the shooter turned out to be a Muslim extremist rather than a neo-Nazi, as it was first believed. But though the international press hasn’t done much follow up about the connection between the current wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment sweeping over Europe and violence against Jews, it appears the problem continues to grow. As the Times of Israel reports today, attacks on French Jews are becoming more frequent.

The beating of three Jewish men in Villeurbanne, outside of Lyon, by ten assailants believed to be of North African extraction is just the latest incident alarming French Jews.

Joël Mergui, president of the Central Consistory, an umbrella organization working to coordinate local Jewish communities, said the country’s Jews were under constant attack. “Not a week passes without anti-Semitic assaults in France. I refuse to believe Jews will be forced to choose between security and their Jewish identity.”

The chief rabbi of the Grand Synagogue in Lyon, Richard Wertenschlag, called the atmosphere “unbearable.”

“These incidents are becoming more and more frequent, so much so, alas, as to make one take them for granted,” he said.

While French authorities talked about a crackdown on Muslim extremists after Toulouse, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) told Le Figaro that incidents such as the one in Villeurbanne are becoming commonplace, noting that in the month after the incident, more than 140 attacks on Jews were perpetrated. But the problem is not just the scale of these assaults but also the unwillingness of many to confront the source of the problem.

Though attacks against Jews in Western Europe seem to be the province of Muslim immigrants, it is a mistake to view this violence as solely the result of the importation of Middle Eastern attitudes.

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When four Jews were killed in an apparent terrorist attack in Toulouse, France, in March, interest in the story quickly evaporated when the shooter turned out to be a Muslim extremist rather than a neo-Nazi, as it was first believed. But though the international press hasn’t done much follow up about the connection between the current wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment sweeping over Europe and violence against Jews, it appears the problem continues to grow. As the Times of Israel reports today, attacks on French Jews are becoming more frequent.

The beating of three Jewish men in Villeurbanne, outside of Lyon, by ten assailants believed to be of North African extraction is just the latest incident alarming French Jews.

Joël Mergui, president of the Central Consistory, an umbrella organization working to coordinate local Jewish communities, said the country’s Jews were under constant attack. “Not a week passes without anti-Semitic assaults in France. I refuse to believe Jews will be forced to choose between security and their Jewish identity.”

The chief rabbi of the Grand Synagogue in Lyon, Richard Wertenschlag, called the atmosphere “unbearable.”

“These incidents are becoming more and more frequent, so much so, alas, as to make one take them for granted,” he said.

While French authorities talked about a crackdown on Muslim extremists after Toulouse, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) told Le Figaro that incidents such as the one in Villeurbanne are becoming commonplace, noting that in the month after the incident, more than 140 attacks on Jews were perpetrated. But the problem is not just the scale of these assaults but also the unwillingness of many to confront the source of the problem.

Though attacks against Jews in Western Europe seem to be the province of Muslim immigrants, it is a mistake to view this violence as solely the result of the importation of Middle Eastern attitudes.

The flow of raw hate speech against Jews from Cairo and Tehran and other Arab and Muslim capitals is not to be underestimated, but the willingness of European intellectuals to lend their support to the demonization of the Jewish state has given these sentiments a patina of undeserved legitimacy.

The notion that there is a clean distinction between street violence and the effort to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist and defend itself cannot be sustained. European intellectuals may think they operate on a different level from street thugs. But the logical next step from the hounding of Jews on the editorial pages and in academia is clear. So long as Israel is singled out for unfair treatment and economic and academic boycotts of the Jewish state are treated as “human rights” causes, we should not be surprised that violence against Jews is on the upsurge.

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American Jewry’s Waning Exceptionalism

An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

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An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

If you try to figure out what makes French Jews different, the answer seems to be similar to those generally given for the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. Similar to their proportion in the Jewish state, roughly half of France’s Jews come most immediately from majority Arab regions like North Africa. As in Israel, these Jews seem both more willing to consider the breadth of their political options and to be concerned about Muslim and Arab intentions towards Jews than their Ashkenazi counterparts. So as their political enfranchisement has risen, so have Jewish politics become more balanced.

Far from outliers of course, Israel and France represent the largest and third largest Jewish populations in the world.

American Jews might also be different in that, accustomed as they have become to robust bipartisan support for the Jewish state, they largely don’t feel the issue of Israel is fundamentally at stake in this country. Whatever discomfort they may feel with the policies of a particular administration, here, as opposed to abroad, they may feel certain – rightly or wrongly -  there are certain lines that simply won’t be crossed.

There are other ways American Jews stand out. Few Jewish communities abroad have non-Orthodox religious establishments of any numerical significance. Most have also – like Israel – long-adopted voluntary and stringent security measures that still would look out of place in most American Jewish establishments.

Perhaps the one thing that most accounts for American Jewish exceptionalism is the preponderance of Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, who are probably a larger percentage of the population and continue to hold a largely unchallenged sway over internal and external Jewish politics here to a greater extent than just about anywhere else.

Some changes, though, are afoot. Already in 2001 (the last year that a significant Jewish population study was undertaken), Orthodox Jews made up a steadily increasing 15 percent of the population aged 18-24, with a clear rise also for those who see themselves as “just Jewish” and declining proportions for Reform and Conservative Jews. An American Jewry that is both more Orthodox and more unaffiliated would be more in line with global Jewish norms.

As it has elsewhere, demographics may continue to wage its own irresistible changes. In many ways though many American Jews probably already find themselves outside the global Jewish consensus looking in. If American Jewry ultimately becomes more elastic in its political preferences, it will likely find not only its relations with Jews abroad easier, but the political system at home may become even more responsive to its concerns.

 

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