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A Growing Fear in France

As political and financial crises deepen in Western Europe, French Jewry is facing a familiar test

Clémence Boulouque
May 23, 2013
Rabbi Belinow Mendel (second from left) speaks with policemen next to his synagogue in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, on Jan. 12, 2009, after a few people lit several gas cylinders in front of the synagogue.(Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)
Rabbi Belinow Mendel (second from left) speaks with policemen next to his synagogue in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, on Jan. 12, 2009, after a few people lit several gas cylinders in front of the synagogue.(Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)

In March, an alleged anti-Semitic attack by a group of young Arabs against an Israeli movie director at a film festival in the south of France led to a welter of conflicting accounts. The version that circulated first, mostly on Israeli and American media, sounded only too plausible in light of recent events involving hate crimes in France: Yariv Horowitz had been beaten up by a gang of young Arabs for being Israeli. As Tablet magazine reported last month, eyewitnesses, however, hastened to debunk the story, and the director himself soon offered a more careful reappraisal of the facts: Some isolated intoxicated individual punched him after asking him for a cigarette. Immediately following these denials, anti-Zionist websites sought to further discredit the director and, at the same time, emphasize the Jews’ promptness to spread lies and fictions of victimhood.

Ironically, such confusion and its inextricable layers of deception do convey an important truth: These events shed light on mounting anxiety among French Jews, on the tensions between ethnic communities within French society, and on their highly dramatized perception from abroad. “After what happened in Toulouse, people’s fears are legitimized. They are no longer fantasies,” noted Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur. One of the three women rabbis in France, the young mother of three has always warned against undue alarmism. Yet a year after the tragic events in Toulouse, the possibility of large-scale violence looms large in her mind—and the minds of other French Jews.


On March 19, 2012, in Toulouse, an Algerian-born French citizen named Muhammed Merah shot three children and one adult in the Jewish school Otzar HaTorah. A 23-year-old petty criminal, he had turned to radical Islam while serving his term in prison. The week before, Merah had shot a paratrooper and two uniformed soldiers in southern France. His pledge to kill soldiers was allegedly a reaction to France’s involvement in Afghanistan; Jews were natural targets because, he was quoted as saying in the French press, “The Jews killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”

For a few days, the country was in shock. His shooting rampage in the schoolyard was the worst school-related tragedy in French history since World War II. The murders came five weeks before the presidential elections, and the campaign was symbolically suspended for a few days to signal a period of official respect.

In no time, however, the official voices of France were drowned out by ramblings on social media. Hours after Merah’s death, the result of an assault by special forces, Facebook was brimming with fan pages honoring the dead perpetrator. While these pages were immediately shut down at the request of the government, the ghostly presence of Merah has been hovering over France ever since. Conducted in close cooperation with the interior ministry, the census carried out by the protection unit of the Jewish community (Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive) documented no fewer than 148 anti-Semitic incidents over a short two-month period from March to April of 2012—with a staggering one-fourth of those recorded as violent.

In September, a Molotov cocktail was hurled into a kosher store in the Paris suburbs of Sarcelles. In the French political landscape, the city of Sarcelles has become a symbol: Its social climate helps to gauge racial tension in less privileged neighborhoods. With a little under 20 percent of its population Jewish (1 percent of France is Jewish), Sarcelles is also known for its large immigrant population (mostly Arab and Subsaharian), its fatigued housing projects, and its high unemployment rate. The attack was clearly meant to shatter a fragile coexistence.

By the end of 2012, an increase of 58 percent in anti-Semitic attacks from the previous year had been documented: 614 attacks or violent actions targeted Jews in 2012. It is noteworthy that anti-Muslim acts are also on the rise in France—albeit to a lesser extent, up 28 percent from 2011 for a total of 201 in 2012. It is “especially alarming because it shows that anti-Semitic acts have steadily increased in the last decade, along with their seriousness and violence” noted Eric de Rothschild, president of the Protection Unit of the Jewish community, upon the release of the 2012 report. Pierre-André Taguieff, a philosopher, director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research, and the leading scholar on modern and contemporary anti-Jewish movements, also highlights this trend, with peaks in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, arguably correlated with the developments in the Israel-Palestine conflict. 2012 is an exception as the outburst of violence swept the country at a time of relative calm in Israel.

In the face of such events, the change in the public response to attacks on Jews in France—ranging from apathy to open support—is all the more notable. In 2006, a 21-year-old cellphone salesman named Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured for 32 days in a basement by the self-styled “gang of the barbarians,” which consisted of 27 individuals whose main figure, Yussuf Fofana, calls himself a Salafist. The abduction was motivated more by financial concerns than Jihad, however: The kidnappers demanded a 450,000-Euro ransom—“because the Jews are loaded and have a tight-knit community.” The perpetrators were caught, and (in a striking example of the anti-Jewish landscape of the new millennium) the lawyer of “the barbarians,” Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, is herself the fiancée of Carlos, one of the most infamous terrorists of the past decades. (She was also just recently picked by the Iranian Republic to help it sue Ben Affleck for Argo, his Academy-Award-winning film about the hostage crisis.) The verdict of the trial against the barbarians handed down in 2009 was greeted with horror for its mildness because, despite Fofana’s life-imprisonment sentence, it included acquittals and suspensions. The minister of the interior called for a retrial, and the attorney general appealed the decision, and in December 2010, time was added to most of the sentences. Yet the necessity for exemplariness had been initially lost on the jury, and a growing sense of isolation now prevails in the Jewish community: The physical safety and the protection granted them by the French Republic seemed a broken promise.

In 2006, according to the police, 33,000 people marched in memory of Ilan Halimi—mostly politicians and Jews. People could not help but compare this march with another one, which took place 15 years before, in the wake of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery on May 14, 1990, when about 200,000 demonstrators spilled out into the streets of Paris, marching down the avenues that link the Place de la Bastille and Place de la République.

In spite of gestures and some symbolic political events—most visibly at the annual dinner of the CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), which is heavily attended by presidents, ministers, and those dignitaries with hopes for a future in politics—the postwar republican pact appears to be broken. The 1972 Pleven law banning racist speech and the 1990 Gayssot laws—which make it an offense to question the existence of the category of crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust—have been increasingly criticized.

“The capacity for indignation seems to be on the wane,” laments Jonathan Hayoun, president of the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France, which, beyond its name and activities of the French Jewish students union, has turned over the years into a real public player in its capacity as fraternity, think tank, and watchdog. The new scene and battleground are the social media. Last October, #unbonjuif (#agoodJew) became viral. With its flurry of horrifying anti-Semitic “jokes” (such as “#agoodJew is cooked medium rare or well-done”), the hashtag became the third-most Tweeted in France for a few days.

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 Muhammed 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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Clémence Boulouque, a writer and former literary critic for Le Figaro and France culture in Paris, received her doctorate in history and Jewish studies from New York University. She is currently a postdoctoral Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Clémence Boulouque, a writer and former literary critic for Le Figaro and France culture in Paris, received her doctorate in history and Jewish studies from New York University. She is currently a postdoctoral Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.