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Jewish Journal

Is France Anti-Semitic?

by Joel Kotkin

August 8, 2002 | 8:00 pm

It has become something of a cliché among Jews here in America, and in Israel as well, that Europe is now experiencing a virulent new wave of anti-Semitism. The Europeans are certainly well-practiced at the art of Jew-hating and the overly anti-Israel tilt of the Continent's political elites and media -- as well as some in Great Britain -- lead credence to the idea of a growing anti-Semitic tide.

Nowhere is the concern about the new anti-Semitism more acute than in France, home to Europe's largest Jewish population and, for generations, one of the primary linchpins of Jewish culture worldwide. Yet before we begin to cancel our trips to France and dump its fine wines into sewers on Fairfax Avenue, we might do well to look more carefully at the realities there, and what they might well mean for the future of Jewry here.

Seeking an answer to the question of resurgent anti-Semitism in France, my girlfriend Mandy, herself the daughter of a French Holocaust survivor, went to visit a man who should know -- Serge Klarsfeld. As we traveled up the wrought-iron elevator to his offices a few minutes walk from the Champs d'Elysee, we both expected to hear Klarsfeld, the identifier of Klaus Barbie and numerous French Nazi collaborators, telling us of a horrific déjà vu.

Yet for all his concern, Klarsfeld, a self-possessed fireball of energy, did not see anything like the wave of anti-Semitism that gripped Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The anti-Israel tone of the French government and media troubled him, as did the rise of attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

But the early 2000s are not the 1930s, he insists. Even the surprising showing of Jean Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front who shocked the world by making it into the presidential runoff this spring against center-right leader Jacques Chirac, did not strike Klarsfeld as an epochal event.

Immigrants, mostly Arabs, were the primary target of Le Pen's campaign, Klarsfeld suggests, not the country's highly assimilated Jewish population. "Le Pen is anti-Semitic but his campaign was not anti-Jewish," Klarsfeld suggests. "And the people who voted for him were less anti-Semitic than he was. People voted for him for other reasons. They wanted to protest crime and other things."

Indeed, despite the near hysteria that surrounded Le Pen's strong showing, Klarsfeld believes the kind of historical anti-Semitism represented by Le Pen is dying out, not only in France but throughout Europe. "Le Penism," he believes, "will not survive Le Pen."

But if the traditional sources of anti-Semitism are weakening, Klarsfeld is more concerned about a new form, one which draws from different political and social streams. It stems from opposition not to Jews as religious heretics -- the source of the Inquisition -- or as master manipulators of capitalism, as asserted by the Nazis and many of 20th century anti-Semites, but as defenders of the embattled Jewish state.

Among non-Muslim Frenchmen, this form of anti-Semitism rarely adopts the rhetoric of overt Jew-hatred, but instead turns a blind eye to its expression within the Arab world or among Arabs who live in France. Its aim is not to put to death Europe's Jews, but clearly would tolerate the end of the inconvenient state the Jews have established in the Middle East. Much of this is based on just old-fashioned European realpolitik, the desire to pander to oil interests and, whenever possible, push a thumb in the eye of America.

"The problem," Klarsfeld says, "is that there are 1.5 billion Muslims, 1.5 billion Christians and 16 million Jews. The problem is one of numbers."

A similar demographic logic works increasingly at home, too. In France itself there are now upwards of 6 million to 8 million Muslims and only 600,000 Jews. In parts of France, such as Paris or Marseilles, Muslims make up as many as one-third to one-half the people in their teens and 20s. Today the Muslims lack strong organization -- indeed their leaders speak of hoping to follow the Jewish model of communalism -- but they have growing numbers that can not be ignored. They are emerging as a key "swing" vote in French elections and politicians inevitably will pander to them.

As in Germany, Holland, Spain and other European countries, there are elements in Muslim France, including those born there and holding French citizenship, who are sympathetic and even participants in the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, anti-American terror networks. The best known of these is Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been accused of a direct role in the Sept. 11 plot. "There was certainly some pro-Bin Laden sentiment," asserts Charlotte Rotman, who covers immigration for the left-wing newspaper Liberation, "and many felt the U.S. had it coming."

Although most Muslims assuredly do not participate or even support such horrific acts, sympathy for the Palestinians, hatred for Israel and America are not unusual at all. Virtually none have condemned terrorism, before or after Sept. 11. Rotman suggests that former Premier Lionel Jospin lost many Arab votes when he called Hezbollah a "terrorist organization." Defection of Arabs, and left-wing voters, is what doomed Jospin in the first round, handing the then-ruling socialists a humiliating defeat.

This clearly creates a difficult context for pro-Israel advocacy. Although the French public tends to be anti-Arab in its sentiments, elite Frenchmen across a broad spectrum -- including the current center-right government -- see integrating the Arabs as a priority; the Jews, largely economically successful and culturally integrated, are not seen as worrying overmuch about. "We want to prove to them [the French Arabs] that democracy is the way," explained one top bureaucrat. "We need to give the Arabs here a job and chance."

Another major change has been the shift of anti-Israel, and to some extent anti-Semitic, sentiments to the left. Traditionally, the left was friendly to Israel and was the political home of many Jews. Leon Blum, the first Jewish premier of France back in the 1930s, was also a socialist. Anti-Semitism was largely the province of the right and defending Jews part of the mythology of "red" France.

Now this has changed, even among some Jews, including Mandy's filmmaker cousin. Over a delightful lunch along the Seine, this well-heeled, well-educated and utterly assimilated 30-something producer blamed both Israel and French Jews for exacerbating bloodshed in the Middle East and needlessly offending French Muslims. To him, the kippah-wearing defenders of Israel were not too far from National Front bully boys.

The views of this cousin, ironically himself the grandchild of survivors, are not likely shared by a majority of French Jews. But they are widespread on the left, where sympathy for the Arab minority in many ways resembles traditional American leftist identification with African Americans and other "people of color." The growing anti-American, anti-globalization movement in France is now also increasingly anti-Israel as well. To participate in "progressive" circles, you often have to take the whole package.

Indeed, among French Jews there now seems to be a sharp divide between the most assimilated, who largely either oppose Israel or, more often, simply avoid involvement, and those, increasingly Orthodox, who strongly identify with the current Israel government. The seeming dominance of Israel by Likud and its ultranationalist, even racist, religious allies can only drive the assimilated Jews, particularly on the left, away from both Zionism and communal involvement.

Does any of this have relevance here in America? More than we may like to think. As the Israeli government, under the pressure of constant terrorist attacks, grows increasingly right-wing, it will become harder for liberal and even centrist Jews to identify with it. The strong support for Israel on the American political right, particularly among Christians, is further confounding leftist Jews, who seem horrified to see the Jewish state so strongly defended by religious conservatives.

Many liberal Jews, particularly in the older generation, also need to recognize that the global left-wing embrace of the Palestinian cause will have an enormous impact on the next generation of "progressives" now being indoctrinated by the '60s retreads who dominate the social science and humanities programs at many schools. We already see well-funded leftists, at major universities and in organizations like the Bus Riders Union, openly advocating positions that are clearly anti-Israel.

It would also be foolhardy to ignore the long-term impact of America's own growing Muslim population, one which will soon or which may have already passed that of the Jews in this country. Although less heavily Arab than their French counterparts, this population, including a large number of African Americans, is largely anti-Israel and, in a few districts at least, a potentially important political force.

Of course, America is not yet close to France or Europe as a whole in supporting the new anti-Semitism. But it may not take long for it to come to fruition -- particularly if Jews here refuse to see where the threat is coming from, which is largely on the left and increasingly inside our own society. In France, the process is probably too far gone to stop fervent anti-Israel sentiment from hardening, but here, we can still take steps, on the campuses, the political parties and the foundation boards to fight the new anti-Semitism and prevent Israel's only reliable ally from following the example of Europe.

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