Describing Jewish history in France would be a long narration as Jews have been present in the area since their settlement in Gaul during the first century. Since then, the community has been confronted with periods of severe suffering and repression as well as times of emancipation and serenity. It is not easy to summarize the long and tempestuous centuries along with the transient rays of sunshine.
History can help us clarify our understanding of contemporary events. In order to understand the evolution of French anti-Semitism during the last decade, a factual description will precede its analysis.
The evolution of Anti-Semitism in France
The French Jewish minority, along with the Muslim and the Buddhist ones, are the most prominent in the country. Polls1 have indicated that the Jews are approximately 1% of the total French population,that is between 500 000 and 600 000 citizens. Anti-Semitism has survived the Second World War and is particularly prevalent in the extreme right of the political spectrum. In the ideological sphere the populist Pierre Poujade's declarations, Jean-Marie Le Pen's provocations and Robert Faurisson's negationist writings attest to the deep seated anti-Semitism that still exists among right-winged politicians, while the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in 1990 illustrates the situation more vividly. This form of “traditional anti-Semitism” nourished by a variety of different sources, such as the historical Christian Anti-Judaism, as well as violent forms of nationalism, has not totally disappeared but is progressively vanishing. Contemporary French anti-Semitism takes on a different form and draws its inspiration from a new form of radicalism that originates from specific geographic locations, known in French as the “banlieues” and best translated as “the suburbs.” It must be noted that the majority of the Jewish population lives peacefully without being confronted by any form of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless since 1990, and more considerably since 2000, there has been a dramatic rise of anti-Semitic incidents illustrated by the graph bellow2.
Anti-Semitic violence has repeatedly and dramatically increased immediately following major Middle Eastern events, especially those relating to the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, 70% of the incidents in 2000 took place in October, just after the beginning of the second intifada and 60% of the incidents which occurred in 2002 were in April following the Battle of Jenin, a battle that took place during Operation Defensive Shield launched by Israel following an increase in suicide bombings. Lastly, most of the anti-Semitic incidents that took place in 2009 were concentrated in the month of January, which coincided with the Israeli offensive in Gaza3.
Those statistics are one among several facts showing an important link between the Middle-Eastern reality and French Jewish citizens. The incidents vary greatly in nature and range from insulting an orthodox family in the street or throwing rocks on synagogues to the aggression and cold-blooded murder of children in a Jewish school in Toulouse. Furthermore, the number of complaints does not equate the total number of incidents; in reality, the latter are significantly higher.
The sources of contemporary Anti-Semitism in France
This verbal and physical violence is derived from different influences, including a radical Islamist vision assimilating Jewish to miscreants, pork and a binary and simplistic perception of the conflict that reduces Israelis to bloodthirsty oppressors. In addition, a reappearance of some old anti-Semitic specters can be observed. They consist of conspiracy theories which describe a Jewish ploy to control and dominate the globe and are supported by thousands of websites and videos that publish, for instance, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion's hoax. Another example is the identification of a correlation between Jews and wealth: Ilan Halimi a working class young man was been kidnapped and murdered in 2006 because his kidnappers associated Jews to wealth. Paradoxically, a small minority of certain anti-racist activists, media and leftist militants have indirectly participated in the rise of anti-Semitism by equating Zionists to Nazis. All these anti-Semitic clichés have been reunited in Alain Soral's writings and videos and in his close friend controversial comedian and actor Dieudonné‘s shows and movies.
Unquestionably, Israel's politics can and have to be criticized. However, the equation of “Zionist equal Nazi” followed by “Jewish equal Zionist” can only have dramatic consequences. This is not a call for censorship but a warning on the responsibility of public actors; writers, journalists, intellectuals and religious officials who must weigh their words. A delegitimization of any critical discourse on Israel in the name of the struggle against anti-Semitism is clearly an aberration, sometimes supported by institutions like the CRIF (Council Representing Jewish Institutions in France), but freedom of speech requires meticulousness: anti-Zionism is often a useful veil to express anti-Semitic discourses.
The absolute and fundamental right to criticize any country's policy has to be stressed, but must not be used as a vehicle for racism and intolerance. The line between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred is occasionally thin and porous, however this does not mean it is non-existent. Walking on the perpetually moving high wire of reality can be extremely challenging. It requires a constant effort to maintain balance between existing tensions in order not to fall into a chasm.
1 Ifop, « Les Français et la croyance religieuse - Avril 2011 » and « International Religious Freedom Report: FranceJuly-December » 2010.
2 Ministère de l'intérieur, « Plan d’action contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme pour les années 2012-2014 ».
3 Ministère de l'intérieur, « Plan d’action contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme pour les années 2012-2014 ».