The French government last week reported that anti-Semitic acts rose sharply last year, confirming a trend that has been noticeable at least since the early 1990s. You still hear the old Yiddish proverb, men ist azoy wie Gott in Frankreichor, in German, glücklich wie Gott in Frankreich (Happy as God in France), but not without being told, at the same time, that emigration (mainly to Israel or the U.S.) is up too.
It did not come as a surprise that in the midst of a street demonstration on the weekend, a well-known Jew, Alain Finkielkraut, was attacked verbally for being a Jew. He was whisked away by the marchers’ own security, quickly reinforced by nearby uniformed, but came out of it a bit shaken.
“I felt hate,” he told an interviewer later. He must have been disappointed, too, because he had expressed sympathy with the marchers, who were on their 14th week of telling one another — and the French public and government — that they are fed up.
Finkielkraut, a philosopher, prolific author, and member of the French Academy, has been critical of many social and political trends in France for quite a few years. He has warned that immigration without assimilation poses a threat to France as a secular and free republic. At the risk of simplifying a subtle and erudite mind, his view is that immigration policy in France has been off the rails since the end of the colonial empires, and is manifestation, obviously with far reaching and long-lasting consequences, of a broad failure, cultural and institutional, in free societies to manage the changes — many of them, of course, positive — they can take credit for.
Widely execrated within the intellectual class of his own time — he is about 70 — because he practices the philosopher’s trade honestly, Finkielkraut is also known to a larger educated public that appreciates his sensible approach to issues, his scotching of the corruption of thought — and political policy — brought on by fashions that take the place of facts and evidence as a basis for public policy-making.
There is a cruel irony in the way Finkielkraut was, at the level of ideas, far more attuned to the discontent that exploded in the face of France’s alleged elites last November. Though initially it took the form of a tax revolt, the gilets jaunes, or yellow vest, movement, represents a failure to understand their own country on the part of those elected to run it.
This failure is not confined to the political class, though it has been clear enough that France’s is more mediocre and selfish even than ours, if such a thing is possible. The French failure is represented strikingly in the way commentators of the left and the right both sought to see in the yellow vest movement evidence of their critique of their society and its political institutions.
When public affairs get confusing, there are some basic questions you can ask to start picking your way through the confusing signals; thus:
“Is it good for the Jews?” — a phrase our grandmothers used to apply to current events to get us thinking about fundamentals. Norman Podhoretz re-popularized it in the 1970s, the same period when Daniel Patrick Moynihan denounced the drift of the United Nations into institutional anti-Semitism.