Are These Demons Old or New?

There is still no cut- and-dried answer to the question of whether we are looking at the same anti-Semitism from which Jews have suffered throughout generations, or a new brand.

"Beshem Ha'akher: Hirhurim Al Antishemiut Shebapetakh" ("Au nom de l'autre: Reflexions sur l'antisemitisme qui vient") by Alain Finkielkraut, translated from the French by Shlomit Haran, Shalem, 36 pages, NIS 34.50

Anti-Semitism in Europe, and France in particular, is a hot topic that never seems to leave the headlines. Scores, if not hundreds, of broadcasts and media reports in Israel and around the world have poked and probed the issue from every possible angle. French President Jacque Chirac is adamant that France, the first country to grant the Jews equal rights, is not anti-Semitic, and French officials claim that anti-Semitism is on the decline. But a report published at the end of March by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna, a body funded by the European Union, points to a worrying rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. According to this report, the greatest increase has been in France - a rise of 503 percent from 2001 to 2002 ("EU anti-Semitism report called `misleading,'" Haaretz, April 1).

This report has provoked a great hue and cry among the Jewish communities in Europe because the authors refrained from naming the Muslims in Europe and France as the chief perpetrators of anti-Semitic crimes. The 2003 report of Tel Aviv University's Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism also lays the blame on Muslim groups ("Study: EU loathe to admit Muslims are prime source of anti-Semitism," Haaretz, April 19).

With all the debate going on, there is still no cut-and-dried answer to the question of whether we are looking at the same anti-Semitism from which Jews have suffered throughout the generations, or a new brand that has recently emerged, with other causes and characteristics. Is the current wave of anti-Semitism exacerbated by opposition to Israel's policy toward the Palestinians or are anti-Israel policies the outcome of anti-Semitism?

Alain Finkielkraut, one of France's leading intellectuals, offers a brilliant and fascinating analysis of this issue. In his essay, he aims his barbs at the French intellectual elite, "the do-gooders," as the chief culprit in this new round of anti-Semitism. As a philosopher who takes a sober-eyed view of reality, Finkielkraut is aware of the anti-Semitic violence in France today, but he rejects the widespread notion among the Jews that the "old demons" of the Nazi regime have awoken. According to Finkielkraut, these acts have nothing to do with letting down our guard and being less vigilant in our efforts to prevent another Holocaust. The very opposite is true.

Both the United States and Europe are committed to memorializing the Holocaust. But Finkielkraut says that their way of internalizing the lessons of the Holocaust is completely different. The U.S., which perceives the Holocaust as a denial of the basic doctrines and principles of the American people, employs an active policy of fighting its enemies from without. Europe, on the other hand, is fighting the ghosts of its nightmarish past, full of remorse and guilt feelings for crimes that took place on its soil. It responds with obsessive fear and aggressive sloganeering to any racist or fascist incidents that threaten it from within.

Blinkered world

As an example of the way Europe is wrestling with the demons of its past, Finkielkraut cites the demonstrations of May 1, 2002, when masses of Frenchmen went out to the streets to protest the victory of Jean Marie Le Pen in the first round of presidential elections on April 21, 2002. This rally in support of the republic was a euphoric, unifying event for the people of France. They patted themselves on the back for triumphing over the "monsters of the past" and felt that they had made up for the indifference and hatred that engendered one of the darkest eras in the history of Europe.

But Finkielkraut is not a partner to this smug, self-righteous euphoria. From his point of view the evils of anti-Semitism are right there in the protesters' camp. These are the people who accuse the Jews of persecuting "the Other." These are the ones who bear a grudge against the Jews for not joining the festival of breast- beating and building their national home on the ruins of the Other.

Finkielkraut lashes out at the genteel souls in France who worship their religion of anti-racism with such uncompromising fervor and intensity that they are blind to the complexity of the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He quotes the American philosopher Michael Walzer, who distinguishes between four wars in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a Palestinian war to destroy and replace the State of Israel, a Palestinian war to establish a state alongside Israel, an Israeli war to defend the state, and an Israeli war for Greater Israel.

According to Finkielkraut, the blinkered world of the new anti-Semites has room for only two prototypes: the Nazi and the victim. They are not prepared to see the Palestinians as the enemy of Israel, with whom it is possible to reach some kind of compromise. They insist that the Palestinians are the Other and Israel is a racist state. From their perspective, anything connected to racism has no right to exist and must disappear. Apart from Finkielkraut's criticism of the blindness and one-sidedness of the anti-Semites, he points up the absurdity of their cause. He exposes the paradox of those who support progress and globalization, but side with the Palestinians and justify even their most appalling and monstrous acts.

To challenge the intellectual elite in this way takes a lot of integrity and courage, considering the French intelligentsia's tremendous influence on public opinion. Finkielkraut's book kicked off a furor in France. He was lambasted for walking out on the left and called paranoid for interpreting France's legitimate criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism. Worst of all, he has been accused of the sin of "communal separatism," a serious allegation that implies dual loyalty and betrayal of the French Republic.

Toward the end of his essay, Finkielkraut reexamines his thesis and asks whether anti-Semitism today might anyway be a vestige of the past. "Could it be connected to the ancient censure of the Jew because of his origins, his otherness, his national egotism, his membership in a closed fraternity - censure that has taken on a new life since the trauma of Nazism and found a modern voice?" In the end, he rejects this hypothesis and concludes that the antipathies of the past and present should not be confused. The violence against the Jews of France today, he says, is not a resurgence of the anti-Semitism of old.

`Do-gooder' instincts

But between the lines, Finkielkraut does seem to imply that the State of Israel and the Jews are still the Other among the nations of the world. Reading this slim volume, I found myself wondering whether the perpetrators of the new anti-Semitism are indeed motivated by their "do-gooder" instincts. Maybe it is the anti-Semitism of old, trying to blacken the Jews and show that they are no better than their Nazi killers. Internal records of the French foreign office, which I was granted special permission to view, seem to reinforce this.

Despite clear evidence of the collaboration of the Vichy government in the extermination of French Jewry, employees of the French foreign office saw nothing wrong with drawing an analogy between the Jewish victims and their Nazi executioners. One of them even said that while the Jews were in the Diaspora, they tried to appear ethical and humane, but now that they had a state of their own, they were as adept at using force as the Germans - and had the same mentality.

In these internal documents of the Quai d'Orsay, I found remarks that attributed grievances against the Jews and the State of Israel to the common belief that the Jews killed Jesus. So it seems that this idea of penitence for ancient sins that is so central in Finkielkraut's thesis was already around back then. The French officials bore a grudge against the Israeli victors for refusing to play the traditional role of victim assigned to them by history. Half a century ago, they were already displaying that unholy trinity of opposition to Zionism, traditional anti-Semitic rhetoric and exploiting the Holocaust to badmouth Israel.

Pouring through thousands of Quai d'Orsay documents, I found not a single rebuke from the foreign minister. There were no requests to show more sensitivity in matters related to the Holocaust and no instructions to tone down the anti-Semitic language, as if it were part of the lingo in the French foreign office.

Shlomit Haran has done a fine, professional job of translating Finkielkraut's essay into Hebrew, but she runs into problems with certain philosophical-literary concepts. The word "martyre," for example, is rendered as "yisurim" (suffering), whereas the term in French has religious connotations related to the crucifixion of Jesus. Another example is her translation of the word "Lieu," which is capitalized in the original. Hence the reference is to a holy place - such as the Holy Land - and not just "a place," as Haran puts it.

Finkielkraut shows us what he believes is the new face of anti-Semitism in France. His book helps us understand its origins, motives and distinguishing features. And yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun: Anti-Semitism may wear any number of masks, but it continues to seep in and poison people's minds.

Dr. Tsilla Hershco's book "Those Who Walk in Darkness Will See the Light: The Jewish French Resistance during the Holocaust and the Creation of Israel - 1940-1949" was published (in Hebrew) by Cherikover.