French Jews and Anti-Semitism

Will a new president's election bring it to an end?

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France is home to an estimated 500,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Europe, and the third largest in the world, after the United States and Israel. In recent years, French Jewry has been widely featured in the international media after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks began in 2000. However, this complex and vibrant community may be standing at a new crossroad after the 2007 election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who proudly claims his Jewish ancestry and voices clear support for Israel. 

Violent Words and Acts

The Jewish community of France is one of the oldest in the Diaspora. It stands as a model of integration, with Jews serving in the highest positions of government, public administration, education, science, and culture. Consequently, the wave of anti-Semitism that followed the second Intifada came as a shock to French Jews. Jews became the target of public opinion: Israel was portrayed as a "Nazi state" in the media and in academic and political circles. French Jews were accused of having "too much memory of the Holocaust." This blend of Israeli politics, Holocaust fatigue, and anti-Semitism crystallized in the shows of Dieudonné, a French-African comic performer who dressed up as a Hasidic Jew and did the Nazi salute while shouting “Heil Hitler!” He has since been convicted and fined for this and other anti-Semitic statements.

french jews and anti-semitismAnti-Semitic incidents were not limited to words. Violence against the Jewish community was carried out in assaults on children, the burning of synagogues, and attacks on school buses. Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Créteil synagogue; posters in the Arab neighborhoods of Marseilles called for a boycott of Jewish-owned stores; a teacher of the Maimonides school in Paris was mugged and her hair set on fire. On a regular basis, swastikas were painted on Jewish buildings and Jews were cursed on the street, in offices, and on playgrounds. These acts were committed primarily by French citizens of Arab immigrant background in the name of political events taking place in a region 2,000 miles away.

French Jews were surprised by the brutality of the anti-Semitism, and even more by the silence of public officials and the laissez-faire attitude of the police. Initially, politicians tried to excuse the perpetrators by claiming these were isolated acts; had nothing to do with anti-Semitism but rather with boredom, unemployment, and social marginality. The police stopped entering difficult suburbs controlled by gangs and would not follow up on complaints made by Jewish citizens. The Jewish community felt so abandoned and discouraged that many victims of anti-Semitic acts gave up on filing a suit or even sharing their stories publicly. The more French Jews tried to have their voice heard, the more they felt isolated and delegitimized.

When intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut voiced a pro-Jewish or pro-Israel opinion, they were discredited because of their ethnicity.. Only a handful of non-Jewish public figures defended the Jewish position, such as Pierre-André Taguieff, an expert on contemporary racism who showed the relationship between anti-Semitism and the Muslim community, and Eric Marty, a university professor who denounced anti-Semitism in the pages of daily newspaper Le Monde. But these two intellectuals were the exception.

The Muslim Minority

The situation worsened as French Jews, trying to defend themselves, were accused of being too "community-centered," of re-creating their own ghetto, and of separating themselves from mainstream French society.

But, while French Jews were vilified for being self-centered, little was said of six million Muslims living in France, who are also a highly insular community. Making up ten percent of the population, most French Muslims emigrated from the former colonies in Africa. There have been accusations that youth from this community have also prevented the teaching of the Holocaust in French public schools, as described in Emmanuel Brenner's The Lost Territories of the Republic: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Sexism in Schools (2002). This collection of testimonies by French teachers described insults, intimidation and violent threats that non-Jewish teachers faced in many classrooms as they tried to teach about the Dreyfus Affair or the Holocaust. It also detailed the hazing of Jewish students and classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories being repeated by Muslim students.

Many of the worst anti-Semitic incidents have happened in working-class suburbs where Muslims live near Jews of Middle-Eastern background. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 300,000 Jews from North Africa moved to France, creating a dramatic demographic change: not only did these new immigrants repopulate a community that had been decimated by the Holocaust; they also outnumbered the older Ashkenazi community. Middle-Eastern Jews now comprise 70 percent of the French Jewish community. However, the fact that both the Jewish and Muslim communities often come from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco has not improved their relationship on French soil.

Community and Government Reacts

In 2000, 744 anti-Semitic incidents were documented in France; the number grew to nearly 1000 in both 2002 and 2004. The reaction of French Jews has been varied. Jewish organizations have been more vocal in denouncing anti-Semitism and calling for stronger enforcement of existing laws. Immigration to Israel reached 2,500 in 2004, which was more than 10 percent of aliyah numbers for that year worldwide.

The political reaction to anti-Semitism in France evolved as well. While the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin ignored the crisis from 2000-2002, the conservative governments that followed made stronger statements denouncing attacks against Jews. They also ordered police to protect Jewish buildings and institutions and tried to curb general violence and vandalism in immigrant neighborhoods.

President Jacques Chirac was very committed to memorializing the Holocaust and acknowledged France's responsibility in the deportation of Jews. But he was much more tepid in condemning contemporary anti-Semitism and was quiet on issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in Gaza in the summer of 2006, Chirac remained deaf to calls for help in spite of the fact that Shalit is also a French citizen.

Nicolas Sarkozy

The French Jewish community entered a new era on May 6, 2007, when Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president. Sarkozy previously had been Minister of the Interior and took a strong stance against riots in Muslim-dominated suburbs. As a strong enforcer of French values of a secular republic, by which all institutions remain secular, while religion remains a private matter, he was also one of the designers of the "secular law" that forbids wearing religious attire such as headscarfs, kippot, and crucifixes in public schools. He tried to help politically organize Muslim community groups, but secular and moderate Muslims did not respond positively and boycotted the vote, and the current organization, the French Council of Muslim Worship, shows an unbalanced weight of fundamentalists. 

Throughout his campaign, Sarkozy proudly publicized his immigrant background, which appealed to many Jewish voters. Sarkozy's father is Hungarian, while his mother is the daughter of a Sephardic Jew from Salonika, Greece, who converted to Catholicism. Sarkozy's Jewish grandfather, Benedict (Aaron) Mallah, was influential in the president's upbringing. Though he was raised Catholic, Sarkozy did not shy away from his Jewish roots and the fact that his family hid in the outskirts of Paris during World War II, for fear of being arrested and deported to Auschwitz.

Sarkozy has publicly made pro-American and pro-Israel comments, a radical change from previous French political leaders. The Jewish community of France voted for him en masse, with the hope that he would protect them from a new wave of anti-Semitism, and re-establish law and order in unruly suburbs. Since his election, Sarkozy has already voiced concerned for the three Israeli soldiers captured in 2006 by Hamas and Hezbollah, and wants France to have a more active role in the Middle Eastern peace process. This might herald a new beginning for the Jewish community of France: if indeed, Sarkozy is able to curb anti-Semitic incidents, restore confidence for the Jewish community, and take a pro-active role in international diplomacy, then French Jews will again taste fully the French Republic's motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is an expert on post-Holocaust memory, most notably memorials and monuments, commemorative practices, restitution and compensation. Her expertise also includes the history of Anti-Semitism. She is the former director of the Committee against Anti-Semitism (CICAD) in Geneva, Switzerland.