Anti-Semitism in France is nothing new. And even the “new” anti-Semitism in France isn’t new, as our COMMENTARY editorial on the plight of Jews in France and the necessity of Zionism points out. What’s new, it appears, is that France is in danger of its Jews giving up on the sustainability of Jewish life there. The current trend of French Jews making aliyah is seeing the numbers double each year. In response, the French government has taken to saying nice things about how integral Jews are to France’s national identity. It’s a kind sentiment. But is it true?
In a speech yesterday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls offered the following stirring declaration:
How is it possible to accept that France, which is the land of emancipation of the Jews many centuries ago, but which also seventy years ago was one of the lands of the martyrdom of Jews, how can it be accepted that we hear on our streets “Death to the Jews”? How can we accept the acts that I have just recalled? How can one accept that French people be murdered simply because they are Jewish?
… We must say to the world: without the Jews of France, France would no longer be France. And that message is one that we all have to deliver strongly and loudly. We did not say it in the past. We did not show our indignation in the past.
First, it must be said that the prime minister deserves praise for his defense of the Jews. The rest of Europe should take note. We should temper our cynicism by recalling that words and ideas are the currency of a society reckoning honestly with its political demons. And if positive change is going to come to France, it won’t arrive overnight. Valls’s speech is in some ways a plea for patience, to buy time for the state to begin turning things around.
But it is unlikely that real change is, in the end, on the horizon in France. And Valls’s speech even hints at why. The talk of “emancipation” of the Jews of France in the time of the revolution is a bit of a misdirection. “Emancipation” in France was a graduation to secularism. The revolution was a psychotically violent one, and that violence was aimed, much of the time, at the clergy.
Loyalty oaths were instituted, Constitutional clergy were foisted upon faith communities that preferred their own, and the state engaged a struggle to render unto Caesar far more than what is Caesar’s. That was merely a reverse power structure from the ancien regime, in which the clergy were part of an aristocratic governing structure. For the ancien regime to be uprooted, so did the clerical class. And it was a bloody uprooting.
What does this have to do with the Jews of France? A lot, actually. The French Revolution inculcated a fear and suspicion of religious authority as a threat to secular Enlightenment power. It’s true that when the dust settled under Napoleon’s feet, there had been at least a façade of reconciliation for the purposes of putting the country back together. But it was only really a façade. And a Napoleonic power structure sowed the seeds of its own undoing. French society remains unnerved by strangers among them, as well as anyone they believe answers to a higher authority than the state. The French government can talk all it wants about appreciating its Jews, but unless and until those Jews feel comfortable and safe actually showing outward signs of their Judaism and religiosity, it won’t change minds. A Frenchman who happens to be a Jew at home cannot be the only Jew who feels at home in France.
Additionally, the French government appears poised to make precisely the same mistakes over and over again. If Valls is right about the importance of Enlightenment principles and personal liberty in his country, they wouldn’t be arresting the notorious anti-Semite and popularizer of Nazi social signaling Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, which authorities have now done.
Dieudonne is actually a perfect test case for how France chooses to fight its battles going forward. He is fully and truly repellant in virtually every way. And so his freedom must be defended forcefully. If the lesson of the “free speech uber alles” protests after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and then the censorship conducted by Western media (with the New York Times as the chief self-censor) is to censor Dieudonne–or worse, criminalize his demented stupidity–then France will doom history to repetition.
Censoring and criminalizing anti-Semitism, in addition to being incompatible with a free society, does two major things wrong. First, it suggests that the Jews get special treatment and that therefore the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists are right. This will certainly not make Jews–or anyone in France–any safer. Second, it allows these ideas to gain the credibility of the counterculture while simmering and metastasizing unchallenged out of view. If sunlight is truly the best disinfectant, then France is enabling this infection to spread.
Is France truly still France without its Jews? The last thing the government wants is to have to find out. But that’s where they’re headed, and they haven’t done anything yet to change direction.