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.

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.