Anti-Semitism seems so ridiculous that no one could rationally or even emotionally be attracted to it. And yet it has been described as “the longest hatred” stretching back, as the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism has pointed out, to long before the Christian era. Moses and the Sea of Galilee come to mind. Romans drove them out of Israel but also saw Jesus as a political threat. Why is it so entrenched? And what can we do about it? As an American living in France, I have been surprised that the phenomenon of anti-Semitism is so strong in France, and it has led me to learn more about the circumstances both here and throughout Europe.
France has the third largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the US. That rank, however, is only nominal since both Israel and the US have Jewish populations of 6 million or more, whereas France in third place has only somewhere between 480,000 and 600,000. This is well below one per cent of the French population, but it is also the largest in Europe. The United Kingdom (fifth) and Germany (eighth) are also in the top ten, of course, but, again, all of the European countries have far smaller numbers today than in the past.
The Holocaust was a European horror perpetrated by the Nazis who operated from Germany to impose their disgusting view of the world and threatened the rest of the world with their horrific nightmare. One-third of the Jewish population (and two-thirds of the European Jewish population) were murdered by the Nazis, wiping out almost all of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Nazism had its sympathizers elsewhere, even in France. Thus, it has been dramatically important that Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged French complicity in the Holocaust when he was President- and that Emmanuel Macron has himself reaffirmed and repeatedly apologized for this sad and regrettable part of recent French history.
The Shock of Recent Events in the US
Neo-Nazism is a nightmare that keeps showing up as a bizarre undercurrent of bigotry in a variety of shocking circumstances. The Unite the Right rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 is just one example. The rally attracted multiple fringe groups of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen who carried placards and shouted racist slogans, chanting “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us”. While the impetus for the rally was racially motivated to resist the moving of a Confederate statue, it revealed how intertwined the racist and anti-Semitic attitudes were – and are – among these aberrant groups. And the tragic outcome of malicious wounding and lives lost of anti-fascist protesters, one of whom was killed in a deliberate vehicular attack into a crowd, was indeed, truly shocking.
As I wrote at the time, I had sympathized with the decision taken by the American Civil Liberties Union to defend the license for the Unite the Right rally that the city authorities had sought to rescind. I agreed with the ACLU that the right to protest should include the right of groups with whom one disagrees to protest. But this was in retrospect a mistake, given the potential for this particular protest to become confrontational – and given the inadequate preparedness of the city to maintain order. Both the city of Charlottesville and the state of Virginia have taken steps to be better prepared with appropriate law enforcement, and the perpetrators are being brought to justice – at least those who have not “disappeared” into hiding.
Since then, however, an increase in violent outbursts of anti-Semitism in the US has been reported by the Anti-Defamation League, including what the ADL described as “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history” when a gunman killed 12 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October 2018. How tragic that the gunman was reported to have been motivated by the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a group which was originally established to assist Jewish refugees but which had broadened its mission to assist refugees from Syria and Iraq and more recently from Central America. And how chilling it is to witness the inflammatory tweets from President Trump attacking these same Central American caravans of refugees in that same time period.
The Shock of Recent Events in France
The dilemma as it pertains to what is happening today in France (and throughout Europe), however, is that the political and cultural environment seems to be producing a more disturbing form of anti-Semitism than one experiences in the US. Fair enough, the anti-Semitic elements of the Unite the Right rally were mixed in with other far-right and racist groups, just as the Pittsburgh gunman’s history of anti-Semitic rhetoric was mixed in with his anti-immigrant views. But there is a lot more that seems to be underlying the rhetoric and physical violence against Jews in Europe. And France seems to be experiencing the most of it, even though it has been on the rise in the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.
One can certainly argue that anti-Semitism is far more rampant in Eastern Europe than in France or other parts of Western Europe, but that is not really the point. (Well, maybe it is an important point if one looks at efforts to adopt and implement EU-wide policies against hate rhetoric and religiously inspired physical attacks. But these are issues that will be addressed in a later commentary regarding the European Parliamentary elections.) What one can observe within France is a recognition that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in French society itself. Not only did the Vichy Regime cooperate with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them to the Nazi concentration camps, but it is widely recognized that the combination of the Catholic Church, the military and conservatives exhibited anti-Semitic views well before this, as exemplified by the infamous Alfred Dreyfus affair of the 1890s.
The most recent reports are disturbing. Although there had been a slight downward trend in religiously inspired hate crimes, the French government reported a 75 per cent increase from 2017 to 2018 in violent attacks against Jews. Then in early 2019 several inflammatory displays of anti-Semitism appeared across France – defaming a Jewish cemetery with swastikas painted across tombstones, vandalizing a marker in memory of where a synagogue had been destroyed by the Nazis, cutting down a tree that had been planted to honour a young Jewish boy who had been tortured and murdered in 2006, defaming artwork on postal boxes honouring Simone Veil. It is no wonder that a survey by the European Fundamental Rights Agency reported that 90 per cent of Jews see an increase in anti-Semitism and that 30 per cent have been harassed. One-third of Jews reportedly are afraid to go to Jewish locations or events. And it is no wonder that all of the major French political parties (except the National Rally on the extreme right) mobilized for a day of demonstrations against anti-Semitism in 60 cities across France on 19 February 2019.
Links to the Gilets Jaunes
One should note that the inherent and sometimes hidden anti-Semitism has mostly been associated with right-wing extremists in France (and throughout Europe). But more recently, it has been observed that the disintegration of centre-right and centre-left parties in Europe is contributing to the upsurge in anti-Semitism from both extremists on the right and extremists on the left. (See a Politico piece by William Echikson here.) The outburst of anti-Jewish taunts by a group in yellow vests associated with the Gilets Jaunes movement against the prominent Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut is among the more recent disturbing displays of anti-Semitism in France. And this appears to be just one highly visible example of the rampant anti-Semitic rhetoric heard among the Gilets Jaunes.
As a deliberately leaderless movement against the “establishment”, the Gilets Jaunes are supposedly neither extreme left nor extreme right but decidedly against what many of them are describing as the centrist “establishment elites” around President Emmanuel Macron. It may well be that as the numbers dwindle for the weekly Saturday demonstrations around the country, that the ones who are hanging in there with their yellow vests are in fact being penetrated by more extreme anti-establishment ideologues from both the left and the right.
On another level, though, the Gilet Jaune activists are reportedly quite distinct from the ethnic and religious minorities in France, and most notably quite distinct from the Muslim minority. And here is where a link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism comes into the picture. France has a substantial Islamic population – estimated to be 11 per cent of the French population, which is higher than any other EU member state. The French experience with terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists has included instances of Muslims attacking Jews. So it is understandable that the pro-Palestinian activists within the Muslim communities might be held to account for their anti-Zionism if and when it operates as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism. It is, of course, very unfair to presume that all supporters of Palestine are anti-Semitic, but the complication seems to be that anti-Zionism is indeed increasingly being seen as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism – above and beyond those extremists who have attacked French Jews in their anti-Zionist zeal.
The Interplay between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism
The debate over the linkages between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism has stirred passions on both sides. It did trigger the controversy over the Labour Party platform’s support for the internationally agreed definition of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism and the contradictory position taken by its leader Jeremy Corbyn. Similarly, in the US, a Congressional resolution condemning anti-Zionism has been triggered by remarks from one of the two newly elected Muslim members of Congress criticizing, among other things, the pro-Israeli bias of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
On the other hand, in France, President Emmanuel Macron encountered a backlash when he proposed to criminalize anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism back in 2017. In this case, a strong critique by Dominique Vidal challenged this linkage (and specifically the criminalizing of anti-Zionism as a form of hate speech), and President Macron apparently reversed his position on criminalizing this linkage. But in 2019, in response to the high-profile anti-Semitic attacks that occurred in February, he has called for “new red lines” against intolerance, especially to combat online hate speech. He has even proposed “to banish all incitements to hatred and violence from the Internet” at the EU level and to establish a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies. (See President Macron’s recent letter on EU proposals here, and see Vidal’s latest criticism of the linkage here.)
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
So what is this internationally agreed definition? It comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which was initially formed under the leadership of Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson in 2000. Its membership (31 member countries including 24 from the EU plus 10 Observers and 7 international partner groups) adopted a revised working definition of anti-Semitism in 2016 (available here). “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews,” to quote from the definition, “which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Well, yes, this is a legitimate concern.
What may have provoked Jeremy Corbyn, however, and what may complicate the obvious principle is that the definition continues with a number of examples where manifestations opposing the state of Israel are actually targeting Israel “as a Jewish collectivity”. Examples would include “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations”. There are other similar examples, but the point here is an effort to recognize that opposition to Israel must not spill over into holding all Jews (or any Jews specifically, just because they are Jewish) accountable for what the state of Israel does – and certainly to recognize that one might oppose the current policies of the political leadership of Israel but should not then hold all Jews accountable for what Prime Minister Netanyahu happens to be doing.
Coping with Anti-Semitism on the Left as well as the Right
The debate continues to unfold. One senses that there is less tolerance for criticizing Israel and its advocacy groups (such as AIPAC) in the US than there is in Europe. One does see some signs of criticism – for example recent opinion pieces by Eugene Scott in the Washington Post (available here) or by both Sheryl Gay Stolberg (available here) and Michelle Goldberg (available here) in the New York Times. The latter even pointed out that the pro-Israeli position, which used to be a traditionally Democratic and progressive one, has been transmogrified into a position taken over by the evangelicals and right-wing extremists who are the backbone of Trump’s populism. And there may actually be a serious rift in the works on this issue between the moderates and leftists within the Democratic Party itself.
Although I am personally sympathetic to those who strongly disapprove of current Israeli policies, I can also appreciate the problem of extremists using the anti-Zionist rhetoric to mask and incite hatred and violence that is inherently anti-Semitic. Several examples have been cited in the French political context, but it is certainly evident in other settings, including the UN system. It is not surprising that the US has pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council for its targeting of Israeli human rights practices without similarly targeting other human rights abusers like Venezuela or Libya or Saudi Arabia. This was highlighted most recently in the criticism from pro-Palestinian Council members over the delayed publication by the High Commissioner for Human Rights of a list of companies doing business in the Occupied Territories. One has seen targeted anti-Zionism elsewhere too, including both the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
This tying of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism is a highly explosive concoction. Targeting Jewish populations wherever they are in the Diaspora and then pretending this is for their alleged allegiance to Israel above all else is an alarming development. As President Macron stated in his letter in support of European renewal – that is, in his party’s platform for the European Parliamentary elections in May – the historic success of a united Europe was “the reconciliation of a devastated continent in an unprecedented project of peace, prosperity and freedom.” (See the letter again here.) It is useful to be reminded of this history.
The populism in many European countries of extremist groups on left and right is of grave concern for the future of Europe. The resurgence of anti-Semitism goes to the core of Europe’s past devastation. In this respect, it is different from what is happening in the US. But the challenge is there in both places to broaden the appeal of inclusiveness. Yes, the threat of anti-Zionism does justify taking steps to combat extremism, including combating hate speech online and elsewhere, but the key is in the policies to bring people back together. The coming months will be filled with opportunities for inclusiveness as the structured “national debate” comes to an end here in France, as the European Parliamentary campaign gets underway, and, let’s not forget, as the British Parliament somehow maneuvers (or not) to avoid Brexit!