France and Antisemitism

Michael R. Shurkin

Is France antisemitic? Last January, the Israeli vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, Michael Melchior, famously denounced France as the most antisemitic country in the West. Well, is it? Certainly, the proliferation of attacks on the Jewish community since the beginning of the Second Intifada, including the burning of a Marseille synagogue and an attempted bombing of a Strasbourg cemetery last year, have pressed the French to take a hard look in the mirror. For the most part they have succeeded in reassuring themselves that the answer is no. The perpetrators have all been young Muslims from France's rough North African neighborhoods, whose acts are excused as evidence of "the failure of the Republican model of integration" rather than evidence of real antisemitism. As for the general population, most evidence suggests that - though antisemitic attitudes certainly exist - they remain uncommon and do not appear to be spreading. The usual suspects, right-wing extremists such as Le Pen and old-school Vichy sympathizers, attract a lot of attention but few votes. They are noisy but irrelevant. Racial anti-Semitism remains safely corked up behind solid post-1945 taboo.

However, a few voices are now emerging in the French debate that point to a newer form of anti-Jewish hatred, one that operates below the radar of those who usually keep watch against antisemitism because it comes from their own ranks, the left.

1.      The official story

Let's begin with the violence, because while its frequency has abated recently it has not diminished enough either for Jews to feel secure or for the French state to declare victory. Even before the peak of the violence in Spring, 2002, one well-publicized study documented 405 antisemitic incidents from September 2000 to January 2002, and a government commission tallied 146 antisemitic "actions" and 773 "threats" during a comparable period (In a meeting with representatives of American Jewish organizations in New York on September 22, 2003, Jacques Chirac boasted that between January and August 2003 the number of acts of antisemitic violence had declined to seventy-two compared with 172 the year before). Importantly, however, all of these studies claim that the attacks are an expression of failed integration, not a rising tide of antisemitism. In fact, they are not so much "antisemitic" as "antifeuj," a play on the French slang word for Jew (feuj) that indicates that the perpetrators are exclusively young men of Arab descent (beurs) who live in France's impoverished North African immigrant ghettos. The guilty beurs, a number of whom have been caught and have given confessions, clearly acted alone and were apparently acting out general frustrations intensified by events in the Middle East. In the words of the government commission they are "implicated…in delinquency and do not claim any particular ideology." Rather, they are "animated by a more or less vague sentiment of hostility toward Israel exacerbated by the media coverage of confrontations that facilitate their projection in a conflict that, in their eyes, reproduces schemas of exclusion and failure that they feel themselves to be the victims of in France." The lead singer of the politically active beur music group Zebda, Magyd Cherfi, put it rather plainly in Le Nouvel Observateur: "One talks of antisemitic incidents that are linked to the Intifada. I don't believe it. The beurs who attack Jews, they are structure-less children who have understood that antisemitism attracts the media. They were looking for the greatest transgression, and they found it. But one cannot convince me that the aggressions one's talking about are consciously political."

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Image: La synagogue de Bondy, in Seine-Saint-Denis, after 2002 arson(AFP)

November 2003

Niles Goldstein

France and Antisemitism
Michael Shurkin

Jay Michaelson

No Pulp
Dan Friedman

Raphael Cohen

Koby Israelite
Matthue Roth

Josh's Jewish Reminders
Josh Ring

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From previous issues:

Eye Candy
Michael Shurkin

Radical Evil
Michael Shurkin

I hear America Bling-blinging
Jay Michaelson
and what to do about it.