The Myth of French Anti-semitism

Après les attentats contre Charlie Hebdo et le supermarché casher de la porte de Vincennes à Paris, le débat sur l’antisémitisme a été relancé en France ? Steven Philip Kramer, professeur à la National Defense University, qui enseigne aussi la politique française à la Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies de Washington, estime que s’il existe un antisémitisme en France il ne faut en conclure que la France est antisémite. Cet article reflate les opinions personnelles de l’auteur et ne représente en rien l’opinion de la National Defense University ou du Département américain de la défense.

The hideous murder of four Jews last week at a Kosher supermarket in the Parisian area following the Charlie Hebdo killings has revived charges about the persistence of French anti-semitism. It is alleged that these attacks were an integral part of an age-old history of Jew hatred that began with the Dreyfus Affair, peaked with Vichy’s persecution of the Jews and continues to manifest itself in French government criticism of Israeli policies and support for the Palestinians. A milder variant of the thesis faults the Republic for being incapable or unwilling to defend its Jewish citizens. If that is indeed the case, it might follow that French Jews should leave for Israel, where they will be chez eux and safe, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested.

The idea that recent murders were yet another manifestation of perennial French anti-semitism is false. There is no connection whatever between the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy and these attacks. There is indeed a great deal of anti-semitism in France, but it has nothing to do with historical French anti-semitism.

What was classical 19th and 20th century French anti-Semitism ? Like that of most of Europe, it was based on a substructure of religious anti-semitism (the Jews as Christ-killers), the Jewish role in finance which had gained momentum with the success of the Rothschilds and other Jewish bankers, the precipitous rise of Jews in the professions and lastly Jewish identification with the Third Republic. (Much of the same was true of France’s small Protestant minority, attacked by the same kind of people : aristocrats, clericalists and new proto-fascist mass organizations.) The Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) catalyzed this process ; from the point of view of most of the right, it was the Jew Dreyfus and the “Jewish Syndicate” versus the Army and Church, the very embodiment of Old France.

But this old French right with its traditional anti-semitism no longer exists. The French Church is not anti-semitic, the political role of the aristocracy has waned, and the National Front, heir to the extremist right wing mass movements of the 1890s and Vichy, eschews anti-semitism. Most likely it still has a core of true believer anti-semites (including Jean Marie Le Pen), but the ambitious Marine le Pen, who seriously wants to be President, has suppressed them. Anti-semitism is not respectable, and it is hardly compatible with being opposed to Arab and Moslem immigratrion, which is the Front’s bread and butter issue today. The slogan of “France for the French” once aimed at the Jews, is now is directed at Moslems ; the19th century anti-semitic playbook has been turned against them.

Therein lies the tragic irony : the very people who are the targets of National Front hatred also constitute the reservoir of anti-semitism in France. Anti-semitism no longer emanates from the old elites and the traditional right but from a population that itself is largely the victim of exclusion. For many Frenchmen, they are people without a face and without a name. They are often called Moslems, but Islam is a religion, and many of them are secular. To call them Moslem you would have to call most Frenchmen Catholic, even if they are dyed in the wool secularists. To call them immigrants make no sense either ; many are second or third generation and French citizens, including, alas, the killers of the Charlie Hebdo journalists. There are, in short, large ghettos of people who came from North Africa and who are living in dilapidated banlieues (suburbs), isolated from the rest of France. They attend schools without many native Frenchmen, they live a segregated life and face serious job discrimination, exacerbated by the enduring recession. In the past, the French Republic, like the United States, did a good job at assimilation ; it is less successful now. Is it surprising that these ghettos are troubled areas ? That discontent festers there ? That young people suffering from anomie are excellent targets for jihadi missionaries ?

Another irony : many poor Sephardic Jews who left North Africa after independence live nearby. Those who follow traditional Judaism are conspicuous with their yamukas and dress ; they shop at specifically Jewish shops and often send their children to Jewish schools. They are easy targets for radical Moslems, and those aroused by real or imagined actions by the Israeli (and French) government against Palestinians. The poor Sephardic Jews and their institutions are the victims of anti-semitism – not the middle and upper class assimilated Jews in the tonier Parisian arrondissements. It is not easy for the police to be everywhere at once to protect Jews and ironically, a massive police presence would only underline their vulnerability.

France is not anti-semitic, far from it ; but there is indeed anti-semitism in France. In the long run, it will only disappear if the immigrants from Moslem countries become part of French society. But that will only happen if the banlieues are transformed and jihadism (alarmingly well organized and externally supported) is extirpated. Prime Minister Valls eloquently proclaimed that France would not be France without its Jews and he meant it. The contribution of French Jews to the development of modern France has been impressive. Perhaps some day the same thing will be said of France’s immigrants from Moslem lands, and there are signs that this is already happening.