Last night, Roger Cukierman, the president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France—better known by its acronym, the CRIF—spoke to a small audience at the French consulate in New York about French anti-Semitism.
First, he argued, the populist far right, and particularly the National Front—which today is headed by Marine Le Pen, daughter of founder Jean-Marie Le Pen—remains inherently anti-Semitic, and is regaining traction with the electorate thanks to the weak European economy. Second, there is persistent tension with France’s growing Muslim community, and a casual anti-Semitism in pop culture typified by the quenelle salute.
But the most worrying tendency Cukierman identified was the increasing use of anti-Zionism to express classic anti-Semitic feelings. Traditional anti-Semitism is “not elegant,” as he put it, but anti-Zionism has acquired an air of intellectual chic. Nobody in France boycotts other countries accused of occupying territory, he pointed out, and it is almost uniquely Israel and Israeli products that see boycotts in France. “Anti-Zionism is a new way of dressing up anti-Semitism,” Cukierman insisted.
Yet Cukierman finds himself in a bind, he told me when we spoke after his prepared remarks. “The less I talk about Israel, the more power I have in domestic issues,” he explained. Despite his convictions about what underlies today’s anti-Zionism—never mind the fact that two of his four children live in Israel—he insisted that his best strategy is to focus on the domestic, and leave Israel aside. This is despite the fact that the president, Francois Hollande, seems particularly concerned with the story of French Jews—he was the first French president to fully apologize for France’s role in the deportation of French Jews during World War II—and the fact that the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is married to a Jewish woman.
But, Cukierman noted, boycotts and demonstrations against Israel are still common in France, and he rattled off stark statistics about French Jewish life with ease: 40 percent of race-related violence is against Jews; 2,000 French Jews left in 2012, and 3,000 in 2013; 17,000 people marched in a demonstration in Paris that turned into an anti-Semitic rally.
Today’s anti-Zionism does not bear a swastika, and it is the hallmark of the concerned citizen of the world, because it often manifests itself in a binary: Either you are against Israel and the Jewish occupation, or you are for the displacement and mistreatment of Palestinians in the interest of the Jewish state. But if Cukierman really does believe that anti-Zionism is the face of contemporary anti-Semitism, that should be a strong enough reason to align unilaterally with Israel—n’est-ce pas?.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.