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Anti-Semitism: The French Crisis By: Michel Gurfinkiel
New York Sun | Monday, January 26, 2004


There is currently an upsurge of anti-Semitism all over Europe. In France, the European country with the largest Jewish community (600,000 to 1 million, or 1% to 1.5 % of a global population of 62 million), it is reaching alarming proportions. According to recent polls, anywhere from one-third to one-half of French Jews either feels threatened enough or unsure enough about the future to
consider leaving the country or to advise his children to leave the country.

This is not petty anti-Semitism, as we may have known it for about 50 years in North America and in most of Western Europe - a tale of marginal incidents being carried on by fringe extremists - but rather a development that affects the entire nation. This is not a case of mere anti-Zionism either. The contemporary French anti-Semites are explicitly targeting Jews and Judaism, not Zionists. And they make no distinctions between the Jewish people at large, whether the Jewish community in France, in Europe, or in Israel.

And finally, this is not a case of bigotry, where anti-Jewish prejudice is derived from a lack of information about Judaism and the Holocaust. On the contrary, Judaism has been playing an important and visible national role in France throughout the last decades of the 20th century, and Holocaust awareness or pieties about the Holocaust are deemed to be part and parcel of the
contemporary national culture of France. The 16th of July, the anniversary of the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews in 1942, is now a national day. Every school where Jewish pupils were arrested either by the German Gestapo or the Vichy France police has been turned into a national landmark. For all that, the new anti-Semitism has been gaining ground day by day.

President Chirac, who first flatly denied anything like that was taking place, now acknowledges it as a major political concern. On November 17, 2003, he solemnly warned that "attacks against French Jews are attacks against France" and issued orders for a monthly review, at the highest government level, of anti-Semitic incidents.

What Are the Facts?

Since 2000, anti-Semitic violence has been rampant in France. According to the Interior Ministry, anti-Jewish violence has dramatically increased, to a yearly average of about 120 incidents in the 2000-02 period from a yearly average of about 10 incidents throughout the 1990s. Some 80% of all racist incidents in mainland France (except for the island of Corsica), are anti-Semitic. Some
20 synagogues, schools, and other communal facilities were destroyed either by arson or vandalization in the 2000-02 period. Two further cases of complete vandalization (one synagogue, one high school) occurred in 2003.

Several Jewish shops have been attacked. Jewish people are routinely being molested or harassed in some areas, especially on their way to synagogue or school or at school. Several rabbis have been attacked and beaten in the street. Jewish youths have been attacked while exercising at public sports facilities. Jewish school buses have been stoned or even shot at. One case of abduction
and one of near lynching in the street have been reported. And there is some reason to believe that two murder cases in 2003 were motivated by anti-Jewish hatred.

Even if and when actual violence is subsiding, the climate of the country is deteriorating. Murderous anti-Jewish slogans such as "Death to Jews!" are routinely being shouted at large-scale street demonstrations. Various groups and even elected officials are campaigning for a global boycott of Israeli and "Israeli-related" (i.e., Jewish) goods, or for the suspension or the termination of academic cooperation with Israel or even with individual Israeli scientists, a move prohibited under French law.

Explicitly anti-Jewish books have been published by major publishing houses, including books intended for children and teenagers, a market that, in theory, is strictly regulated by law in France.

A radical Islamist preacher who publicly singled out some French intellectuals for being Jewish and therefore foes of Islam, Tariq Ramadan, was turned into a television superstar of sorts. So has an Afro-French humorist who indulges in provocative anti-Jewish jokes and statements, Dieudonne Mbala.

Moreover, according to various reports and at least two recently published books ("Les Territoires Perdus de la Republique," edited by Emmanuel Brenner, and "La Republique et L'Islam," by Michele Tribalat and Jeanne-Helene Kaltenbach), schools and universities are becoming major hotbeds of anti-Semitism.

In some cases, both parents and pupils insist on rewriting the textbooks in a more anti-Jewish or anti-Israel way, and dropping programs and debates about Judaism and the Holocaust, which are part of the government-mandated curriculum. In many places, Jewish students, teachers, and academics feel physically or verbally threatened or abused but get precious little support from principals or teachers and colleagues.

The Response

The response from the government and the other powers that be has been limited or ineffective for too long. It took more than a year, from October 2000 to November 2001, for the French press (some exceptions notwithstanding) to report extensively about the anti-Semitic crisis. Even now, some press and broadcast groups keep referring to "intergroup friction," as if Jews were engaging in racist violence as well or retaliating, which is not the case. The French political class has reacted in an even more awkward manner.

Political parties and nongovernmental organizations didn't call for demonstrations against anti-Semitic violence, as might have been expected, or as it has occurred in the past (in 1980, 1982, and 1988), nor associated, on April 7, 2002, with a mass rally against anti-Semitism and terrorism sponsored by the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (the Representative
Council of Jewish Organizations in France).

Under the socialist government of Lionel Jospin, until April 22, 2002, officials - especially at the Interior Ministry - were busy denying or downplaying the crisis. Things have improved since the 2002 elections, with the conservative government led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Still, the Interior Ministry remains very cautious in its estimates of anti-Semitic incidents and seems at times
reluctant to enforce the existing antiracist laws, including a new law passed by the conservative-dominated National Assembly at the request of the conservative Jewish representative for the 9th District of Paris, Pierre Lellouche.

An extremely small number of people have been prosecuted or indicted for anti-Semitic offenses. Those who have, unfortunately, have not been sentenced as heavily as the law permits. More often than not, French courts have turned down complaints of anti-Semitism. There is even a case of a Jewish family that was sentenced to a 3,000-euro fine for simply having lodged such a complaint.

The Muslim Factor

The new anti-Semitism in France has much to do with the unprecedented immigration from the Islamic world, both legal and illegal, that is currently reshaping the country. Conservative estimates - in the absence of reliable race or religion-related statistics, which are not allowed under French law - put the current Muslim population of France at 6 million. Some sources point to 8 million.

The non-Muslim population is aging and declining. Its fertility rate is said to be close to 1.4 children for every woman, just like in most neighboring European countries (e.g., Germany: 1.3; Italy and Spain: 1.2).

The Muslim population, however, is young and rising: its average fertility rate is said to be of three or four children for every woman. When it comes to the youngest age bracket - residents under the age of 25 - the overall ratio of Muslims rises significantly (25% to 30%). Moreover, there is evidence that intermarriage is common between non-Muslims and Muslims, that most interfaith
families tend to associate with Islam rather than with Christianity, and that conversion to Islam in rising all over France, whereas the Christian faith and practice is plummeting. Islam may thus develop soon into a full-fledged French religion and culture, and even replace Christianity, at some point in the future, as the main religion of the land.

Quite naturally, this sudden demographic and religious change is bringing about a social and political change: French Muslims are poised to play a growing role in the coming elections (most are French citizens by now, especially the younger generation, since France bestows full citizenship on any child born on its soil) as well as in education, business, professions, the Civil Service, the police and the military forces.

The conservative minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, is in favor of affirmative action for Muslims. Perhaps as a first token of things to come, he put a Muslim prefet (governor), Aissa Dermouche, in charge of the departement (county) of Jura, in Eastern France.

Now, it is a sad fact that traditional Muslim culture, both at the popular and the scholarly level, is deeply contemptuous of Judaism and the Jews. And it is another sad fact that contemporary Muslim culture - either strictly religious or semi-secular - is permeated by a more extreme, more radical, anti-Semitic philosophy, according to which Jews are not just despicable but
intrinsically unreliable or evil and should be either marginalized or annihilated.

As far as Muslim immigrants in France are concerned, they come from countries where these negative views are nurtured by religious education, political discourse, the educational curriculum, and the press. Once in France, they keep in touch with their country's culture and biases in many ways, including Arab television networks. The same considerations apply, to a large extent, to the
French-born citizens of the Muslim faith, who are the sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters of the immigrants.

French Muslims thus live in a cultural enclave and are well equipped to dismiss those parts of the dominant French culture that do not fit their own culture. Admittedly, some parts of the immigrant community are less prejudiced.

As a rule, the more committed to Islam and Arab culture they are, the more anti-Semitic French Muslims tend to be. Conversely, the less committed they are, the more likely they are to reject anti-Semitism. This translates into ethnic lines.

French Muslims of Arab descent are usually religious Muslims and unreconstructed anti-Semites. French Muslims of Berber descent (especially the large Kabyle community, estimated at 1.5 million) are usually more secular and more prepared to reject radical anti-Semitism and engage into good relations with Jews. As for militant Berbers or Kabyles, they tend to be frankly friendly with Jews and to entertain positive views about Israel.

Old Anti-Semitism Reawakened

The growth of Islam and of Islamic anti-Semitism is only one side of the problem. The other side is that it is reawakening and reinforcing an autochthonous French anti-Semitic tradition. Anti-Semitism, both right wing and left wing (the 19th century socialist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, advocated "either sending back the Jews to Asia or exterminating them") played a rather important role in French culture and politics from the Revolution through the Third Republic, and was turned, with comparatively little effort, into a state policy under the pro-German Vichy regime, from 1940 to 1944.

Even after it was suppressed as thoroughly politically incorrect in the post-Holocaust era, it has retained tacit or not so tacit acceptance in many quarters, including the political establishment. The man who headed the French Resistance against the Germans and Vichy, and then founded the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, in 1967, shockingly described the Jewish people in a
public speech delivered in the wake of the Six Days War, as "an elite, self-conscious, and domination oriented nation" - an anti-Semitic cliche. One year later, he alluded to "noteworthy Israeli influences" in French public life.

The socialist president of France, from 1981 to 1995, Francois Mitterrand, was reported to have expressed similar views in private. He had been close to radical anti-Semitic circles as a young man and remained for all of his life a close (and devoted) friend of Pierre Bousquet, the head of the Vichy police during the war, and as such, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust in
France.

It comes, accordingly, as no surprise that the lesser ranks of French politics and public administration feel free to engage in radical anti-Semitic discourse or practice of one sort or the other. Vilification of Israel as an illegitimate "rogue state" or even as a "little s___ state" is not infrequent among senior civil servants, especially at France's foreign office, the Quai d'Orsay.

Anti-Semitism has also extended, time and again, to mainstream politics, either in a thinly veiled form as "anti-Zionism" (a term favored by the left) or as "anti-lobbyism"(a euphemism in use at one well-known far right organization, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front).

Quite obviously, the present anti-Semitic crisis in France should be addressed by the citizens of France first, either Jewish or not. Quite naturally, it should elicit appropriate concern from Jewish communities in the rest of the world. However, the fact that an important, democratic nation in Western Europe can be so quickly and so thoroughly undermined by anti-Semitism should also be
matter of concern - and a warning - for all Western nations, including America.



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