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What France Means When It Talks About ‘Anti-Semitism’

Focusing on Muslim antipathy towards Jews lets the rest of the country off the hook.

Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

“They spit when I walked in the street,” Joanna Galilli, 28, a French Jew, told the New York Times late last month. She, like many Jews in recent years, had left a suburb of Paris to move to the 17th arrondissement, a district in the city’s western corner with a growing Jewish population. She lamented a “new anti-Semitism”—one that emanates not from the far right but from Muslims.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations, and tension between the two communities isn’t new. But it has gained urgency since March, when Mireille Knoll, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, was stabbed to death in her Paris apartment by her 28-year-old neighbor, Yacine Mihoub. A 21-year-old homeless man, who was with Mihoub at the crime scene, alleged that he had cried “Allahu Akbar!” as he stabbed Knoll. The grisly act drew up memories of the murder, just a year prior, of 67-year-old Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman who was beaten to death, also by her neighbor—and in the same area of Paris—who proceeded to throw her body off her third-story balcony while also yelling “Allahu Akbar!” It took the judicial authorities ten months, and significant public pressure, to acknowledge that Halimi’s murder was an anti-Semitic crime.

Knoll’s murder, in contrast, was swiftly labeled as such. Thousands marched across France days after her death to condemn anti-Semitism. A month later, some 300 high-profile public figures, intellectuals and elected officials—past and present, across the political spectrum—signed a controversial manifesto published in French daily Le Parisien denouncing a “new anti-Semitism” perpetuated by Muslims, and lambasted what they called the media’s silence on the issue. Persistent attacks, from vandalism to physical aggressions, have led Jewish families to pull their children out of public schools and change neighborhoods, a trend the authors of the manifesto likened to a “low-volume ethnic cleansing.” French elites, they contended, particularly on the left, use “anti-Zionism as an excuse,” portraying “Jews’ executioners as society’s victims,” all because “crude electoral math suggests the Muslim vote is ten times superior to the Jewish vote.”

French Jews, who are the country’s most-accepted minority—Roma and Muslims are the least—do not face “low-level ethnic cleansing,” and the media has hardly been silent about anti-Semitic violence. But anti-Jewish sentiment is high. Although 89 percent of French people see Jews as “French like the rest,” 35 percent say they “have a particular rapport with money,” 22 percent believe they have “too much power,” and 40 percent believe that “for French Jews, Israel counts more than France.” And while the Interior Ministry logged fewer anti-Jewish crimes in 2017 than in 2016, those that did occur were more violent in nature. Despite constituting roughly one percent of the population, Jews were the victims of more than a third of hate crimes in 2017.

France has been slow to reckon with its history of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac admitted the Vichy government’s “inescapable guilt” in collaborating with the Nazi regime’s atrocities, and only in 2009 did judicial authorities formally recognize France’s role in deporting thousands of Jews during World War II. Late last year, a debate raged over whether to republish the works of the late novelist and pamphleteer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose works are laden with anti-Semitism. And in January, a controversy erupted when Charles Maurras, a virulent anti-Semite who was an active proponent of Vichy-era nationalism, was included in an annual initiative to mark the anniversaries of significant figures and events. The recently renamed far-right National Rally party—formerly the National Front, whose founder and former president Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious anti-Semite, called the gas chambers a “detail of history”—won an unprecedented 34 percent of votes in the 2017 election.

It’s also true that since the early 2000s, French Muslims have often been behind anti-Semitic violence, from Mohamed Merah, who opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, killing a teacher and four students, to Amédy Coulibaly, who took hostages and killed four at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris in 2015, to name but two examples. That worrying trend coincides with an era of rising terrorism on French soil, in many cases perpetuated by nationals claiming to defend a radical interpretation of Islam. This climate, which has stoked general suspicion of Muslims, has bolstered the narrative that contemporary anti-Semitism is an exclusively Muslim phenomenon.

Yet the Muslim perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence tend to invoke the same old tropes about money and power that are widespread among the French population at large. “Anti-Semitism hasn’t changed, it’s alive and well,” Johanna Barasz, a spokesperson for the Dilcrah, a government organization that coordinates efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, told me. “It’s a bit surprising to, on the one hand, see uproar about a ‘new’ anti-Semitism, and on the other, consider it completely fine to republish Céline’s texts,” she went on, describing a “living room anti-Semitism” that not only remains vibrant but “ideologically feeds anti-Semitism among Muslims.”

Violence between French Muslims and Jews has also routinely corresponded to upticks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The notion of a “new anti-Semitism,” then, overlooks both anti-Semitism’s endurance in France—including among non-Muslims—and the way more than a half-century of Jewish-Muslim hostility in the Middle East has played into this trend.

“Especially since the Six-Day War [in 1967], we’ve seen an anti-Jewish vision based on the demonization of Israel and of Zionism,” Pierre-André Taguieff, a director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research, told me in an interview. He attributes that shift to then-President Charles de Gaulle’s denunciation of Israel’s entry into that war, which was fought against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

That reading hinges on the notion that there is an equivalency, or at least causality, between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. And while some of Israel’s detractors are undeniably galvanized by their hatred of Jews, that is hardly true across the board. Yet in recent years, France’s official positions have helped to conflate the two. The global Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement to get Israel to withdraw from occupied territories, for example, has been illegal in France since 2015 on the grounds that it provokes “discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group for their religion or belonging to an ethnicity, nation, race or religion.” In a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last summer, French President Emmanuel Macron called anti-Zionism a “reinvented” form of anti-Semitism. That has fueled the confused perception that Jews, by virtue of their religion, are unconditionally tied to Israel and its politics—and accordingly, that they are a legitimate target for anti-Israel sentiment.

For Taguieff, this in part reflects the increasingly religious undertones of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—what he calls an “Islamization of the Palestinian cause,” in which the Islamist Hamas party, which has controlled Gaza since 2006, has deemed “Palestine a Muslim territory,” and, accordingly, transformed opposition to the occupation into a religious rallying point for Muslims across the world. And as Hamas has indeed fused religious zeal into the Palestinian cause, Israel’s leaders, in the throes of an unprecedented rightward shift that has given new credence to religious figures, have adopted a similar strategy. A new law, which declares Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” and enshrines the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people”—rather than to all citizens—exemplifies this shift. Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalism often seems to trump his concern for anti-Semitism in Europe; in April, the Israeli prime minister congratulated Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who has pursued an anti-Semitic, defamatory campaign against philanthropist George Soros, on his re-election.

The task, then, is not to discount the pressing reality of anti-Semitism in France, but to identify its nuanced sources—from its footing in French society at large to the influence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s clear that something needs to be done,” Barasz said, “but blaming French Muslims for anti-Semitism just fuels the fire. If we leave the debate to the hysterics, to the radicals, we’ll miss our opportunity.”