French Jews and Anti-Semitism

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

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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.

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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.