Israel’s summer offensive against Hamas in Gaza sparked the predictable pro-Palestinian demonstrations across Europe. Organized by groups ranging from pro-Arab associations to far-left fringe parties, they were for the most part peaceful, but the Continent’s centuries-old anti-Semitism resurfaced in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. In Paris they turned particularly ugly and vicious, with hateful slogans and violent attacks on Jewish synagogues, businesses, and individuals. Aware that France is a racial tinderbox as home to both Europe’s largest Muslim population, some six million, and its biggest Jewish community, around 500,000, President François Hollande had vowed beforehand that “no anti-Semitic or racist act or word will be tolerated.”
With his popularity at 18 percent—the lowest of any postwar French head of state—he was largely ignored. Often wearing headscarves and flying Palestinian flags, marchers overwhelmed riot police and ignored clouds of tear gas to joyfully burn Israeli flags, trash kosher shops, and toss Molotov cocktails at synagogues. In the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, known locally as Little Jerusalem due to its large Sephardic population, the rampages were accompanied by chants including “Israel assassin,” “Jews out of France,” and the ever-popular “Death to Jews.”
All in all, the riots were an accurate reflection of what French Jewish leaders are calling the worst climate of anti-Semitism they have seen in many years. With the country’s Muslims increasingly radicalized by jihadist preaching, New York’s Anti-Defamation League has found that France now has the highest percentage of people with anti-Semitic opinions in Western Europe: 37 percent, compared with 27 percent in Germany, 20 percent in Italy and 8 percent in Britain. And in the land that gave us the Dreyfus Affair, anti-Jewish slurs are becoming socially acceptable. That means Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right National Front, can get away with suggesting that a Jewish folk singer might be better off in an oven. And that a popular comedian can pepper his nightclub stand-up routine with jokes about today’s lamentable lack of gas chambers and the “exaggerated” fuss over the Holocaust. The attacks are not only verbal. The Council of Jewish Institutions in France says anti-Semitic threats and acts are getting worse by the day.
Although Jews form less than 1 percent of the population, compared with 10 percent for Muslims, they are the target of fully 40 percent of the country’s ongoing racial violence. The attacks are now running at an average annual rate seven times that of the 1990s; in the first three months of this year alone, 140 such incidents were reported to authorities—surely only the tip of the iceberg—a 40 percent increase over the same period last year. To be sure, France’s anti-Semitic violence rarely reaches the level of the March 2012 premeditated shooting of three Jewish schoolchildren and a young rabbi in Toulouse by a French Muslim of Algerian descent. Or last spring’s killing of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels by a Frenchman just back from fighting with Islamists in Syria.
More typical of recent attacks are the two young Jews who were badly beaten on their way to synagogue; the yarmulke-wearing teenager shot with a stun gun; the mother of two punched out by a gang of Muslim girls as she walked on the Champs Elysées; another young mother strolling with her baby carriage who was jostled by a niqab-clad woman shouting “dirty Jewess, you Jews have too many children.” Besides such physical assaults, there are the almost daily insults like “Jew, France is not for you,” and the Star of David spray-painted on houses. Some Orthodox men have taken to wearing baseball caps over their yarmulke to avoid harassment. As a Figaro editorial put it, “The way things are going, France will soon look like the most anti-Semitic country in the Western world…it’s becoming dangerous to be a Jew in France.”
For Natan Sharansky, the chess prodigy who spent nine years in a Soviet prison for his attempts to immigrate to Israel and who now heads the Jewish Agency, French anti-Semitism signifies something bigger and more sinister. “Something historic is happening,” he told the Jewish Daily Forward this summer. “It may be the beginning of the end of European Jewry….What is happening in France, the strongest of Europe’s Jewish communities, reflects processes taking place elsewhere in Europe.” But no one who knows France and French history should be surprised by today’s treatment of its Jews.
The fact is that the French are endemically, reflexively racist. It’s part of their history and culture. Napoleon, for one, reflected the country’s anti-Semitic attitude, considering Jews degenerate and “the most despicable of men.” His so-called Infamous Decree of 1808 attempted to assimilate them by force, limiting where they could live, encouraging intermarriage with gentiles, and creating obstacles to doing business. I still remember the day when my son came home from his Paris elementary school and informed me that, according to his teacher, the French were not a people or polity, but a race apart. This overemphasis on race might help explain why certain ideas about the Aryan race often fell on fertile soil during the German occupation. Anyone who has lived here has heard in casual conversation the xenophobic racial slurs and insinuations that roll trippingly off the French tongue as easily as bonjour.
When Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent, was abusively convicted of treason in 1894, it came at a period when French prejudice toward Jews had been incited publicly by books like Edouard Drumont’s vicious Jewish France and half-a-dozen hate-filled anti-Semitic newspapers illustrated with grotesque racial caricatures. Dreyfus spent five years in the atrocious conditions of the Devil’s Island penal colony before Emile Zola prodded the nation’s conscience with his J’Accuse open letter accusing the army of corruption in the case.
The Vichy government’s anti-Semitic policies actually went further than official Nazi regulations. While the latter defined Jewishness loosely as a religious practice, Vichy’s official Statut des juifs defined Jews as a race. Its avowed goal was nothing less than the total elimination of Jewish culture from France. Jews were forbidden to join the civil service, their access to higher education and many professions was limited by a quota system, and their property could be “Aryanized.”
This national shame was officially covered up for decades—the postwar government destroyed all documents related to the treatment of Jews—until official recognition of it began timidly in the 1990s. Thus the importance of Premier Manual Valls’s speech this summer, when he commemorated the anniversary of a mass roundup and deportation to Nazi death camps of 13,152 men, women and children in 1942. He acknowledged that “a new form of anti-Semitism” was spreading in France, “on the Internet, on social networks, in working class areas, among unemployed young people who have no awareness of history, who hide their ‘hatred of the Jews’ behind the facade of anti-Zionism and behind hatred of the Israeli state.”
True as far as it went. But he failed to mention the root cause of this virulent new anti-Semitism: France’s growing and aggressive Muslim population. Also avoided was the subject of France’s close relationship with Palestine, while often criticizing Israel—Charles de Gaulle scorned it as “dominating and sure of itself.” That pro-Arab posture was underscored ten years ago when PLO founder Yasser Arafat was flown to Paris in a French air force plane for treatment in a French military hospital after falling mysteriously ill. After his death, President Jacques Chirac publicly mourned beside his casket and ordered an official ceremony complete with military honor guard and national anthems.
Despite such obvious favoritism toward Palestine, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve co-signed an op-ed piece in the New York Times last July in an implausible attempt to reassure the worldwide Jewish community. They protested too much, with their heavy-handed declaration that “France is Not an Anti-Semitic Nation.” Their argument, that there were fewer insults and violent acts last year than in 2004, simply made the unintended point that anti-Semitism has long been a constant in the country.
Nice try, but not enough to reassure many French Jews, who are increasingly heeding the advice of the late Ariel Sharon in 2004: “Move to Israel, as soon as possible.” Polls show that as many as 75 percent of French Jews are now considering the move. Others, undaunted by the prospect of walking into a barrage of Hamas rockets, ready to forgo five-week vacations and a thirty-five-hour workweek, have already left. Last year they numbered 3,289, up 60 percent from the year before, with over 5,000 expected to follow this year. French Jewish émigrés to Israel are now second only to the exodus of Russians. For the first time since Israel was founded in 1948, they outnumber those from the United States.