On anti-Semitism, France Is Failing the Test of Its Moral Health

The Soviet Union had plenty of laws against discrimination, but it meant nothing. Such is the case with France’s laws against anti-Semitism, which won’t protect its Jews either.

Protesters run by a fire barricade in Paris, on July 19, 2014.
Protesters run by a fire barricade near the aerial metro station of Barbes-Rochechouart, in Paris, on July 19, 2014.AFP

“So will France expel its Jews? Come on. In contrast, the Jews will expel themselves, at least the most vulnerable, the most exposed. To the great detriment of France itself. One thing is certain, the fate of the Jews has always been the infallible test of the moral health of a nation.”

That’s how a former Israeli ambassador to France, Elie Barnavi, writing at i24news.tv, reacts to my Haaretz opinion piece last week on the attack by an anti-Semitic mob on the synagogue in the rue de la Roquette at Paris, France. I had written that it would be inaccurate to say that France is expelling its Jews, but the distinction starts to dwindle, and noted that Spain never recovered from the expulsion of its Jewish community.

Ambassador Barnavi calls this “panicked idiocy.” When one actually reads his column, which I recommend, it’s hard to tell whether he’s disagreeing with me or making my point. In any event, I stick with my own view, which is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was speaking prophetically when he said, 10 years ago this week, that it was time for the Jews of France to leave

Barnavi seems to feel that is poor advice, even though his own family brought him, as a child, to Israel from Romania. In respect of Romania, they took advice analogous to what Sharon was giving in respect of France. My own ancestors brought my grandparents, as children, to America for similar reasons. In any event, it’s not my purpose here to cast aspersions on Professor Barnavi’s bona fides. He has a PhD from the University of Paris.

It is my purpose to suggest that what is happening to the Jews of France — and the rest of Europe — is something to watch like a hawk. It seems that Barnavi and I share the view that, as he put it above, “the fate of the Jews has always been the infallible test of the moral health of a nation.” I would but add that it’s not the only test but it’s one of the crucial ones. And right now France is flunking it.

This is ironical enough. Barnavi notes that in France and much of Western Europe “anti-Semitism is a crime punishable by law.” Adds he: “The political establishment unanimously rejects it, as do the press, social actors and most of the public.” The former ambassador notes that “there was a time when anti-Semitism was a significant political and cultural force” but insists, “It is no longer.”

His words remind me of the Soviet Union. It had a constitution that promised all sorts of good things like the freedoms of speech, press and religion. It meant nothing. It may be that anti-Semitism is illegal in France. But how many people in France are put in the dock for anti-Semitism? How many members of the mob that surrounded the Synagogue Don Isaac Abravanal will ever face charges of anti-Semitism?

It’s more complicated still, because anti-Semitism in France (and the rest of Europe) today travels under cover of hostility to Israel. They are not always the same thing (Israel’s own Jews, after all, are its most articulate critics), but it’s a distinction without meaning in 21st century Europe. Professor Barnavi himself refers to the “new Judeophobia” and “ideologized Islam.” It is, he says, “what profits primarily from the famous concept of ‘free speech’ in apathetic and feeble France and Europe.”

“If France is at the forefront, it is not because of some particularly French laxity or complacency,” writes the former ambassador to France. “It is simply because France has the largest Jewish community in Europe, along with the largest Muslim community in Europe, which is also predominantly Arab, and these two communities often coexist in the same socio-economically downtrodden neighborhoods and suburbs.”

Writes Barnavi: “The painful paradox is that with the secular and assimilationist Republic, France created the most effective tool for integration in the Western world and this tool is now in trouble. I do not have room here to detail the reasons. But make no mistake, it is the whole of Europe that has hurt its Jews by not knowing how to integrate its immigrants. Treating the root of this problem, beyond the clearly insufficient police measures, requires a huge collective effort of which European societies now seem incapable.”

Let me just say that it’s amazing that Ariel Sharon was able to figure this all out and put it so plainly ten years ago.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.