DANIEL BERNARD, the French ambassador to Britain, recently uttered an ugly anti-Semitic remark at a party hosted by newspaper publisher Conrad Black. He called Israel a "shitty little country" and then asked, "Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?"
The key here is that Bernard’s remark is not a reflection of one individual’s racist mindset; it is a manifestation of an entire nation’s social pathology.
Anti-Semitism is a disease from which France has long suffered. The hatred of Jews experienced a drastic rise in that country in the 19th century, particularly during the reign of Napoleon III in the 1850-1870 period, which was known as the "Second French Empire."
France was the first nation to emancipate the Jews. During the Second French Empire, a period in which France underwent rapid modernization, Jews enjoyed civil rights and liberty. They were permitted to enter the state structure and the highest levels of administration and politics. French Jews became one of the most assimilated and the best-integrated communities anywhere in the world.
Modernization became synonymous, in the eyes of the French, with Jewry, since many Jews headed the finance capitalism that modernized France. French Jews were associated with leading banking institutions and they were prominent exponents of economic growth and modernity.
French anti-Semitism, therefore, became an expression of the hatred of modernity. This hatred was primarily expressed by two camps. The first camp was the socialist Left, which confused its hatred of capitalism with hatred of Jews. The second camp was the Catholic Right, which hated Jews because they weren’t Christians. Catholic anti-Semitism was also the voice of an angry religious community that resented its loss of direction of, and status in, French society. Thus, many rightwing Catholic theorists insinuated that Jews could only be French -- and human -- if they converted to Catholicism.
Paradoxically, therefore, the freedom that enabled Jews to achieve success and "equality" in France led to their demonization. Yes, they enjoyed "official" acceptance and they excelled in upward social and economic mobility. It was for this very reason, however, that anti-Semitism skyrocketed in France.
The French Revolution of 1789 had fertilized the soil in which this phenomenon grew. The French Revolutionaries granted Jews full emancipation. Jews were given the rights that were accorded to other Frenchmen, including religious freedom. Yet this apparent kindness to Jews was a camouflage of darker motives. Historian Arthur Hertzberg has demonstrated that the granting of full equality to Jews was rooted in the hope that through emancipation the Jews would disappear as a separate and distinct group.
This explains why Napoleon Bonaparte allowed Jews religious freedom but simultaneously initiated a determined effort, like many French liberals, to culturally assimilate Jews into French life.
Thus, Jews achieved "official" equality in French society, and they were able, by the mid-1840s, to utilize French liberty to gain prominence and entry into French economic and political life. Yet they were vilified for doing so. Those Jews who did not assimilate, meanwhile, and who remained orthodox and poor, were also subjected to prejudice.
The French Jew, therefore, was always in a no-win situation: he was hated if he successfully assimilated, and he was hated if he did not.
It is clear that there was a basic contradiction in French liberty: while it gave equality and rights to Jews, it did so while fuelling anti-Semitism. The rights of the Jew were protected as long as the Jew rejected his Jewry.
It becomes understandable, therefore, why, in Vichy France during World War II, the French did much more than just cooperate with the Nazis. French security forces took it upon themselves to round up and hand over 61,000 Jews to the Nazis -- without even a request from the Nazis to do so. Those Jews ended up in Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka.
In the 1970s, France could not suppress its anti-Semitic appetite. With few Nazis around, the French reached out to Arabs for a rendezvous with anti-Semitism. France distinguished itself by promising the PLO that it would not arrest its terrorists who used French territory as a base for attacks on Israel. All France required was that the PLO did not inflict its violence on French soil.
In this historical context, we begin to understand that Daniel Bernard’s recent ugly outburst is not the reflection of a singular distorted mind; it is part of a larger pathological national illness. It is France’s illness -– and pathetic shame.