A Growing Fear in France
As political and financial crises deepen in Western Europe, French Jewry is facing a familiar test
The UEJF took legal action against the site. In January, French courts ruled that Twitter must identify its racist users in order to allow French authorities to prosecute them for violating hate speech laws. This would challenge Twitter’s reluctance to moderate its content. Thus far, Twitter has not yet cooperated. “Suing Twitter is highly symbolic,” says Hayoun.
Social media are merely an indicator of the rise of trivialized anti-Semitism. Another indicator of its “demarginalization” in the words of Pierre-André Taguieff, is the success of comedian Dieudonné, who has attracted thousands to his shows brimming with anti-Semitic “jokes” and has been awarded the prize of “political incorrectness” by Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson—presented to him on stage by a sound technician, dressed in stripped pajamas. Dieudonné crosses the limits of libel in order to fashion himself as a defender of freedom of speech—and the victim of the powerful Zionist plot against it. This trend has penetrated the minds of the youth: Speakers of the CoExist program in partnership with SOS Racisme exhibit banal deep-seated anti-Semitism. Ten years ago a study titled “The lost territories of the Republic” tried to raise awareness about the challenges of teaching racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism in the classroom: Things have only gotten worse, claims its editor, historian George Bensoussan. Now teaching the Holocaust proves almost impossible in certain neighborhoods.
In order to describe this phenomenon, Taguieff resists the term anti-Semitism, coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, with its historical overtones that grounds it in the late 19th century and in racial Nazi propaganda. “Judeophobia is more generic—what we witness now is a post-antisemite judeophobia structured by radical anti-Zionism.” This term renders more accurately this new mental landscape fueled by social resentment, “which started taking roots back in the 1990s.” The excuse of victimhood lies at the core of Judeophobia and anti-Zionism propaganda: Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim scholar and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a case in point when he depicted Mohamed Merah as a victim of the injustices of French society, which shuts all upward-mobility opportunities for second-generation immigrants. “Playing on these affects and emphasizing powerlessness lead to an identification with the Palestinians and thus to a demonization of the Jew,” claims Taguieff.
The loss of prestige of SOS Racisme in the banlieues further illustrates this phenomenon: The trailblazer organization in campaigns against racial and religious hatred and prejudices in the 1980s has lost momentum as if fighting against both racism and anti-Semitism had ceased to be relevant. A monumental 2,000-page dictionary of racism (Dictionaire critique et historique du racisme), just released and edited under Taguieff’s direction, sheds further light on this disconnect. As a result, the prevailing perception among many French today is that members of the Left are unwilling to deal strongly with anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic rhetoric out of ostensible sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians or, worse, that they are merely using the Palestinian situation as an excuse to mask their own Judeophobia.
To be sure, the delayed coverage of last month’s case does not mean that such events are no longer newsworthy: It rather suggests that claims of anti-Semitic attacks by youths of Arab descent must be dealt with cautiously. In an infamous case in July 2004, a woman claimed to have been savagely beaten on a suburban commuter train by six young men of African and Arab origins who cut her hair and painted a swastika on her stomach. Both Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and President Jacques Chirac vociferously denounced the crime and promised that the perpetrators would feel the full weight of justice.
Yet it turned out that the attack had been staged by a mentally disturbed young woman who was not Jewish. Many voices joined the Mouvement contre le Racisme et pour l’Amitié entre les Peuples (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples) in drawing acrid conclusions about systematic tendencies to stigmatize the youth of underprivileged urban neighborhoods, the so-called “Jeunes des banlieues.” In response, the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France expressed its concern that such an event would blind people to the reality of rampant anti-Semitism. Another comparable episode had taken place the year before involving Gabriel Farhi, a middle-aged reform rabbi, who had claimed he had been attacked by a man shouting “Allah hu akbar.” The evidence brought forth by the investigation leaned toward a case of self-mutilation (that Farhi denied), and the case was closed. Such cases of deception only weaken the Jewish community since anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic rhetoric always involves accusations of the Jewish domination of the media.
And there is another, more unexpected, trend afoot. Traditionally aligned with the Left, some Jews in France—and more generally in European countries—have begun to align with more conservative parties. Ten years ago, a Jewish radio network would never have dreamed of conversing with the leader of the National Front, a traditionally ultra-right party. Yet the RCJ, the radio of the Jewish community, considered extending just such an invitation to Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose knack for scandalous one-liners and unpalatable jokes about crematoriums and gas chambers as a “detail in history” made him a controversial and loathed figure in the 1980s and 1990s. According to recent polls, his daughter’s shrewd political strategy of appealing to Jews and women to soften her party’s image would put her in the second round of the presidential elections, if they were held today.
Most Jewish observers, especially the younger ones, resist this appeal: “The extreme Right has not changed,” Jonathan Hayoun, president of the Union des Étudiants Juifs de France, a prominent Jewish student union, told me. “Under the pretense of a protecting image, it promotes a social vision that discriminates and segregates. In fact, it just taps into people’s fears and pits one part of the population against the other, thus endangering the republican pact and the possibility of coexistence. We learned the lessons of history and will not be fooled.” But the fact that it is happening at all is disconcerting.
Disillusioned but unwilling to join the ranks of the extremes, a majority of French Jews still refuse to forsake their faith in their motherland altogether or, at least, to openly admit it. In 2004 then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon caused an outrage when he invited French Jews to be the next mass immigration to Israel and not to sit it out, hoping that things would improve in France. Politicians and leaders of Jewish institutions alike voiced their disapproval for such an intrusion into French politics. This would probably still be the case today were a foreign politician or commentator to make similar statements—such hints at a doomed future are, at least in public, greeted with irritation. “Aliya figures have not soared,” concludes Hayoun.
Yet the republican pact appears to be broken, and with approval rates sinking to new lows President Hollande has so far failed to give answers to a nation plagued by debt, taxes, and all-time high unemployment. A recent poll, in April, shows that over two in three French are braced for violent social unrest (“explosion sociale”) in the coming months: In the current climate, the communal anxiety of French Jews is being fueled by their awareness that they are ideal scapegoats. As CRIF President Richard Prasquier concludes, this deleterious climate “damages the image of France as a safe haven for its minorities”—an image that French Jews still refuse to see as their world of yesterday.
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