July 19, 2004
Out of the Frying PanBy Christopher Orlet
Sixty years after the Holocaust transformed much of Central Europe into a massive graveyard, the scourge of anti—Semitism seems alive and well, particularly in France, home of Europe's largest Jewish population. Weekly headlines emanating from Paris, Marseille, and Lyon are eerily reminiscent of those describing Pre—War Nazi Germany, and have some French Jews wondering if the Final Solution indeed ended in 1945, or whether it was simply put on hold. Just this week a young Parisian mother and her 13—month old were allegedly attacked on a suburban train after she was mistakenly identified as Jewish. Regardless of whether this particular attack was real or imagined, to many French Jews such incidents are becoming commonplace.
This year alone, the French government has documented 181 anti—Semitic acts, though only 35 arrests have been made. In 2001, the Justice Ministry reported 320 anti—Semitic incidents, or nearly one a day. The continued violence has resulted in a new phenomenon sweeping France and Belgium, the voluntary ghettoization of European Jewry in neighborhoods where Jews make up the majority, says Peter Ford, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. This and continued anti—Semitic violence have prompted the Israeli government to launch a campaign to lure French Jews to Israel for their own safety.
Many of the reported attacks have been committed by North African immigrants who outnumber French Jews 5 million to 600,000. Some Fanatical Arabs see allies in the French people, including France's Leftist Intellectuals, whose antiwar demonstrations are dotted with signs reading, "No to War in Iraq, Yes to Justice for Palestine," signs with stars of David entwined with swastikas, and angry crowds shouting "Death to Jews!" Not surprising, the antiwar demonstrations soon became a favorite venue for anti—Semitic attacks, eventually forcing Arielle Dennis, co—president of the French Movement for Peace, to admonish his followers that "there is no place for anti—Semitism in the [peace] demonstrations."
Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, told French radio, "Each one of us must truly feel threatened by this phenomenon. This is not a problem of Jews but of France." And a problem of France's leadership. In a December 17, 2001, article in the Daily Telegraph it was reported that the French ambassador to England Daniel Bernard told a gathering at a London dinner party, "that the current troubles in the world were all because of 'that sh***y little country Israel. Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?" Rather than dismissing Bernard, the French government defended his right to free speech. Bernard's outburst caused former New York Mayor Ed Koch to call for a boycott of all things French, adding that, "French anti—Semitsm is well known. I have no doubt that had Bernard been alive during the infamous Dreyfus trials, he might well have defended the French government with something like, 'Why is that ****** little Jew protesting his innocence when the French government and the French army say he is guilty of treason?''
Many French Jews see the French government's response to the ongoing violence as anything but serious. Before this week's attack, there had been several other recent high profile anti—Semitic incidents in France, including the stabbing of a Jewish student in front of his school at Epinay, and a gang attack of a rabbi's son in Boulogne.
Instead of jail time, the mostly teen—age French Arab attackers were sent to live with families in the interior of France. On April 30, the Jewish cemetery of Herrlisheim in Haut—Rhin was desecrated when 127 gravestones were vandalized and defaced with neo—Nazi and Anti—Semitic graffiti. A stone reminding visitors of the Jewish prayer for the dead was defaced with the words, "Juden raus," the French Embassy reported. A favorite target of the anti—Semites has been Jewish schools and synagogues, and firebombings and arson are not uncommon. It is part of a numbingly familiar pattern that has been going on for several years. On December 30, 2001, vandals firebombed Otzar Hatorah, a Jewish school in the southeastern Paris suburb of Creteil. Two of the bombs exploded and causing severe damage to several classrooms. Days later, a Jewish grammar school in Marseilles was attacked by arsonists. All that remained was the graffiti that read "Death to Jews."
Some say the rise in anti—Semitic attacks by French Muslims mirrors the escalation of the Palestine—Israeli conflict. And the problem is equally serious in neighboring Belgium, with its large Moroccan and Jewish populations, where anti—Semitic attacks, such as the vandalizing of Jewish bookstores, kosher butchers, cemeteries, synagogues and schools, have become so commonplace they seldom make the local newspapers. "There really is a climate of hostility resulting in the Israeli—Palestinian conflict being transported into the most troubled districts of our capital," Jacques Simonet, mayor of Anderlecht, Belgium, told the BBC.
As for the guilty parties, French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin put the blame on amorphous "international tensions, particularly 'tensions throughout the Middle East,' that have "a direct effect in our communities, in our national community." Israel, of course, is most often accused of creating 'international tensions,' so when a young Jewish boy is stabbed in front of his school by a gang of French Anti—Zionists, Israel is blamed, not the French people or the French government.
Another cause of 'international tension' has been the Iraq War, opposed by some 78 percent of Frenchmen. Not surprising, France's antiwar movement has became entwined with the movement for a Palestinian homeland. "Most of the political class in France has sided with the Palestinians in the current Middle East crisis," Michel Gurfinkiel wrote recently in The Weekly Standard. The French intellectual class too has long supported the Palestinian cause, and all of this backing has given many common Jew—haters a feeling of legitimacy for their anti—Semitic acts.
Needless to say, all of this support has been a boon for radical French Muslims. "What is happening now is protracted domestic terrorism on a large scale," Gurfinkiel writes. "[The Muslim fundamentalists'] influence is growing. The radicals virtually rule the public—housing complexes where most low—income Muslims live. They manage most of the mosques. And they maintain symbiotic relations with an underclass of delinquent or semi—delinquent immigrant teenagers."
But life for French Jews was no better before the Iraq War. From October 1 to October 18, 2000, in the space of just two and a half weeks, six synagogues were burned down and another 24 synagogues and Jewish schools were targets of attempted arson. Even Paris' Great Synagogue was hit by sniper fire during the Yom Kippur service. In 2002, The World Jewish Congress reported that "while most acts have been the work of Muslims, it is the European elites who have created an ambience in which anti—Semitism is no longer considered unacceptable in 'polite society'." Even the French universities have become the new "hotbeds" of anti—Semitism, the WJC said.
Most French Jews seem resigned to receiving little more than lip service from the French government, which is more than they have gotten in the past. France has had a checkered past dealing with its Jewish citizens, from the famous Dreyfus case of 1894, to the Vichy government's collusion with the Nazis during World War II when French gendarmes working on their own initiative delivered 61,000 Jews at Drancy to the Nazis. Those Jews were then shipped to Nazi slaughterhouses. Writing in Le Monde, Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld recently described how 'the Zionist enterprise, more or less supported by the German empire before 1914, was opposed before and after the First World War by French foreign policy and by the greater part of French Israelites. There was only a window of 20 years (1946—1967) that witnessed a crisis between France and the Arab world and support for the new Jewish state.'
In April, 2002, the Jewish community in France demanded greater protection for itself and its property after yet another series of attacks, including the burning of a Marseille synagogue. 'Without government action against the spate of attacks, Jews will be subject to the kind of anti—Semitism seen in 1930s Germany,' the Union of Jewish Communities in France said. Bowing to both internal and international pressure, the French government finally initiated a series of laws, including the Lellouche Act, meant to curb continuing anti—Jewish attacks, and set up an interministerial committee against racism and anti—Semitism, and launched prevention campaigns in schools.
Still, for many Jews, the government's intervention is too little, too late. "There is no future for Jews in France," Daniel Haik, administrator of the Sarcelles synagogue's recently told the Christian Science Monitor. "We suffered one ethnic cleansing when we were forced to leave Tunisia and we are on the verge of another." And in an essay last December for Le Monde, several Jewish intellectuals complained that like their medieval ancestors today's French Jews have a feeling of being foreigners among their fellow citizens. But not all French Jewry is ready to leave their homes and businesses without a fight. Last February, the Inter Press Service reported that demonstrators from the Union of Jewish Students attacked a Lyon theater where the alleged anti—Semitic comedian Dieudonne was performing. Demonstrators threw acid and tear gas into the packed theatre. Several audience members were injured while fleeing the theater. That same month anonymous letters were arrived at the Paris Olympia Theatre threatening to terrorize the playhouse if the producers did not cancel a scheduled Diedonne performance. The show was cancelled.
Amid this new paradigm of anti—Zionism and age—old French anti—Semitism, few blame the more than 2,000 Jews that emigrated to Israel last year, or the 3,000 expected to emigrate this year. Arieh Azoulay, chairman of the Jewish Agency's immigration and absorption committee has made France a priority, and hopes to convince up to 15,000 Jews to leave France within two years. In the mean time, the ghosts of Nazism and Martin Luther may get their heartfelt wishes granted at last as Europe gradually becomes emptied of its Jews.
Christopher Orlet is an occasional contributor to Salon.