What am I watching?
I was staring at my phone in blank incomprehension watching the worldwide demonstrations of enthusiasm that followed the bloodiest pogrom since World War II—the “gas the Jews!” of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Sydney, the “fuck the Jews!” in London, the Nazi salutes in Paris, the Nazi flags in New York. I was scrolling through footage from some of the most prestigious universities in America sinking further every day into their own shit—the Washington University pro-Hamas students yelling “fuck Israel!” and “you guys are all fucking gays!”; Columbia students gathering to celebrate the massacre in Israel one day after a Jewish student was beaten with a stick outside the main library; the Cherry Hill East high school student who screamed his hatred to his Jewish fellow classmates in the hall; the antisemitic demonstrations at UCLA. There was the Stanford professor who forced his Jewish students to identify themselves before grouping them in a corner so that they could feel “what the Palestinians feel,” the UC Davis associate professor who warned the “Zionists journalists” that they should “fear us” (whoever that “us” is) because “we can find their addresses and their children’s schools,” and who ended her post with hatchets and blood-drip emojis. I was seeing “keep the world clean” signs decorated with a Star of David pushed into a garbage can, exhibited by pro-Palestinian supporters in Washington Square Park and Warsaw. And, of course, I saw video of passersby everywhere tearing down posters of Jewish kids kidnapped by Hamas in the hope of making the victims disappear, even while their murderers were being publicly celebrated in the streets. I was watching all of this from the viewpoint of a French Jew who for years has lived with the absolute conviction that if the shit really hit the fan in his own country, there would always be the U.S. It made no sense.
Then I came upon a video taken right after Oct. 7 that I had previously missed. It showed a professor at Cornell university named Russell Rickford, a Black Lives Matter supporter. Standing under the rain, among the signs, in front of the demonstrators, Rickford was screaming into his microphone: “It was exhilarating! It was exhilarating! It was energizing! I was exhilarated!” The “it” was the pogrom. Mentally, I immediately thanked Rickford for his unabashed honesty. I knew exactly where I was now.
The whole planet had become France, and Mohamed Merah had returned.
Merah was the 23-year-old killer of Algerian descent raised and born in the city of Toulouse, France, who on March 19, 2012, entered the local Ozar Hatorah school with a Parabellum 9-millimeter and a .45 ACP and shot at close range one of the rabbis in the school along with his two sons, Gabriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6. He then chased little Myriam, age 9, across the courtyard, grabbed her by her hair, put his weapon’s barrel against her head and pulled the trigger, before walking back quietly toward his scooter. Like the Hamas pogromists of Oct. 7 he had equipped himself with a GoPro camera so the slaughter could be filmed and widely seen. Since social media was still relatively new, he sent his videos to the offices of Al Jazeera, where—Qatar being Qatar—the journalists waited for the emir’s orders to know whether they should air the images or not. Under pressure from the French government, the videos were not aired.
Merah’s murders changed everything in France—for the worse. It also provided a sickening preview of how the massacre of Oct. 7 is likely to change the lives of Jews in other Western countries.
Since the end of the Oslo process in September 2000, and the stoning of French synagogues that ensued in October of that year, people of my generation—those from assimilated backgrounds, at least—have been experiencing a full-blown case of what could be called a latent uprootedness. If you worked in the media or academia, Sept. 11 left no doubt as to the moral bankruptcy of a cultural left eager to “understand” the event that the German musician Stockhausen had called “the greatest artwork ever produced.” In France, the elation people felt at watching the Twin Towers burn and fall prefigured what is going on today. At last, “something was being paid”—that is how Annie Ernaux, who shared the feeling after 9/11 just as she shares her support for Hamas now, put it in her book Les Années. But if you were Jewish, you knew better.
The antisemitic dimension of the left’s response to 9/11 was not hard to locate. It could be heard in the urban legend that someone “told the 4,000 Jews working at the Twin Towers to stay home that day,” as the African American activist Amiri Bakara (formerly LeRoi Jones) wrote in his “poem” “Someone blew up America.” In France, that legend was traveling on the wings of the old anti-American tradition, from the cites to Le Monde—which printed a front page “scoop” revealing that the Mossad knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance. From Le Monde it traveled to the far right, where Le Pen’s then-adviser for foreign policy, Aymeric Chauprade, an admirer of the pro-Iranian Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, defended the theory of an Israeli-American plot to conquer the world (Chauprade today supports both Renaud Camus’ “great replacement” theory and Putin’s Ukraine war).
In such an atmosphere, Jews felt more and more isolated. 2003 saw the first murder in France of a Jew for being Jewish when the young DJ Sebastien Selam had his eyes removed by his childhood friend Adel Amastaibou in the basement of the building where they both lived, between the Belleville neighborhood and the Place de la République. This was only a few blocks away from the demonstrations where pro-Saddam Green activists and socialists gathered together with right-wing partisans of the French President Jacques Chirac, during which passersby who appeared to be Jewish were chased down and attacked. A police report showed that right after committing his murder, Amastaibou ran out into the street, his hands covered with the blood of his friend and raised toward the sky, as he yelled “I killed my Jew!” Twenty years later, according to the tapes released by the IDF, one of the Hamas killers of Oct. 7 called his parents to brag that he had killed not one but 10 Jews, and that his hands were red with their blood.
In 2006, there was the abduction, brutal torture, and eventual killing of Ilan Halimi. By then, according to a report commissioned and soon shelved by the government, spontaneous anti-Jewish aggressions in the streets and in schools had forced a growing number of Jewish families to leave the cities they lived in and regroup—a sort of inner exodus. Jewish families removed their kids from public schools and enrolled them in Jewish schools in order to ensure their safety, even though French Jews remained largely secular.
Amastaibou was diagnosed to be schizophrenic and paranoid, and therefore not legally responsible for his actions. Halimi’s killers were judged way too dumb to be capable of a structured, politically motivated antisemitic murder. As for the random aggressions, well, they were random, and who could conclude anything from random things? Neither the media nor the public seemed to grasp what seemed, for France’s Jews, instinctively obvious.
When the historian George Bensoussan tried to raise the alarm in his edited collection of essays, The Lost Territory of the Republic (Les Territoires Perdus de la République), he and the authors that had participated in writing it were almost unanimously judged to be “reactionary” or “neo-conservatives.” That Bensoussan was Jewish did not help. (It is in those years that the word “neo-con” became a code word in France for any intellectual of Jewish origin.) As for assimilated Jews like me who had never experienced anything like this before in our lives, everybody told us that we were going insane. We thought that we were going insane, and in a way we were. Our perceptions of reality had clearly diverged from those of the people who had been our friends and colleagues, to the point where it was only barely possible to communicate with them, by suppressing feelings of rage.
Mohammed Merah changed all that. What I remember best about those days is the shame that France felt that it was now the one country in Europe since WWII where Jewish kids could be killed in broad daylight simply because they were Jews. The worse part was the feeling of recognition that this realization entailed. Our nightmarish fantasy, which we had buried away somewhere, as part of the process of becoming adults and leading normal French lives, had come true before our eyes. It was a shock, but in a sick way, it wasn’t a surprise. It was a scene that we all recognized. Only this time, it was real.
How naïve we were. In retrospect, only the second feeling—the recognition—still makes some kind of sense. Here is why.
Like today’s global pogrom, Merah’s 2012 murders in France gave narrative form to what had expressed itself until then as a babbling impulse. It provided the random aggressions and free-floating hatreds with a narrative and gave them meaning. In a word, it was an epiphany—an epiphany of murderers. Here it is! Here is what we’ve been trying to do all along, without even knowing it!
Jailed in Toulon for burglary, a petty delinquent named Mehdi Nemmouche watched, transfixed, the night police captured Merah on TV. “Merah’s the greatest guy France ever produced,” he is reported to have said the next day. “I feel great this morning, I could shoot a little Jew girl today.”
Nothing was the same in the country after that. 2013 saw an insane viral epidemic of the “quenelle,” the antisemitic Nazi salute in reverse popularized by the Black, Tehran-backed comedian Dieudonné. The gesture became so popular that people actually invited TV show audiences to do it live in front of the cameras. January 2014 saw the “day of wrath” demonstration during which far-right, anti-abortion activists, Salafis, and royalists united to do the quenelle and chant “Jew, France is not yours.” Five months later in Brussels, Mehdi Nemmouche, back from Syria where he had joined ISIS after being released from jail, killed three people in the Brussels Jewish Museum. Meanwhile, random antisemitic incidents were hitting the roof. France counted more than 800 antisemitic incidents in 2014—more than two a day. Then began with the Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher market killings on Jan. 7, which marked the start of a terror wave that would culminate with the Bataclan massacre.
In other words, lots of people in France felt “energized” and “exhilarated” by Merah’s murders, just like the Cornell professor Rickford did after the Hamas pogrom. This month, in France alone, the number of antisemitic incidents has reached an astonishing 650, 30% higher than the total for all of 2022. Jews in France now remove mezuzas from their doors and hide their Jewishness to whatever extent they can. They’ve learned that killing Jews provokes an enthusiasm that tends to become strangely contagious.
This is now the 21st century. The cameras at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, showed only the towers falling. Merah filmed his murders. And if we are to believe the IDF’s accounts, Hamas’ killers filmed the rapes, the tortures, and the murders, then tried to send the pictures to their families using the victims’ cellphones.
Make no mistake: This timeline does not diminish the ground-breaking aspect of what happened on Oct. 7. To the contrary. Pogroms are old news, of course. What makes this whole sequence new is that these killers publicized their actions live, in real time.
And it worked. During one of the first pro-Palestinian rallies in Times Square, shortly after Oct. 7, a demonstrator proudly exhibited on his iPhone screen the ravaged, naked body of one of the Israeli victims—a woman of course. (That women paid and continue to pay the heaviest price for the events of Oct. 7 is a fact that should be examined more closely; in France, some days ago, a Jewish feminist student was surprised to discover a tweet from one of her activist friends justifying the rapes.)
In 2015 in France, ISIS’s most gory videos were also the most efficient ones at motivating jihadi recruitment. In the same breath, would-be terrorists would deny that atrocities were happening in Rakka (it was all Western propaganda) and feel enthralled by those same snuff films because they were proof that “it was really happening.” As it turns out, the public performance of sadistic acts is the most efficient way to break down every moral barrier across the world. By duplicating and diffusing the terror and the horror, and by making this duplication part of their “military” strategy, Hamas aims at controlling the narrative of what’s going on as it happens, winning admirers and gaining new supporters and recruits, who commune together in a worldwide social media loop of Jew-lynching, backed by proof that it is really happening.
I know exactly what this looks like for Jews in France, and for the rest of the country. The specific nature of the horrors it will produce when enacted on a global scale remain to be seen.
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Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.