Next year will be the 50th anniversary of General De Gaulle’s famous sneer about Jews. “Les juifs,” intoned the General, form “un peuple d’elite sur de lui-mme et dominateur,” which is harder to put into English than the simple words might lead you to think.
- France presents Middle East peace initiative to Israel
- French envoy to arrive in Israel Sunday for Mideast peace conferece initiative talks
- French PM: Won't accept reality in which Jews are afraid to wear kippa
Roughly translated, de Gaulle said Jews are an elite people, cocky and domineering. The phrase was used in a televised press conference in November 1967, some time after Israel won the Six-Day War. Although de Gaulle spoke without notes, every word in his legendary televised press conferences was written out before and learnt by heart.
Indeed de Gaulle repeats the phrase using exactly the same words twice over in order that no-one could misunderstand his insult. De Gaulle added that a "Zionist home" followed by the "State of Israel" had been set up on lands largely populated by Arabs.
About the same time in the United States, Martin Luther King was rebuking young black activists attracted by the black racial supremacists of the Black Panther movement. They too decided to make anti-Zionism a cause to mobilize black Americans against Jews.
King turned on a young activist who complained about Zionism: “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
The debate about whether attacks on Zionism constitute anti-Semitism continues to rumble on, as indeed does the unending discussion of what constitutes anti-Semitism, as the Holocaust historian, Timothy Snyder, discussed in a long essay on recent books, on being Jewish and on anti-Semitism in a recent Times Literary Supplement.
Snyder’s conclusion was that the debate will never die, nor find a final resolution, so to speak, which is fine for an academic, but little help in the push back against today’s use of the word “Zionist,” which in Britain and continental Europe is always a derogatory term for the kind of Jew you shouldn’t like.
To be fair, the term “Zionist” is also used to smear non-Jews who support the State of Israel. In European, Islamist and even moderate Muslim discourse “Zionist” – as in calling Israel a “Zionist entity,” which is like calling Pakistan an “Islamic entity" – is a code word to encourage a negative response about the right of the Jewish state to exist.
The leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, now voted out of the European Parliament, wrote that his Party members should always use the word "Zionist" and never "Jew." Attacking the latter was anti-Semitism. Attacking the former was politics.
Now, France’s prime minister, Manual Valls, has had the courage to say that “anti-Zionism” and “anti-Semitism” are “synonyms.” It is brave and welcome language, all the more so in France, where physical attacks on Jews – including murdering them – and political attacks on Israel, especially from the left, are more prevalent than in any other country in Europe.
The endorsement by Valls of the Martin Luther King line that anti-Zionism is a variation of anti-Semitism earned him a rebuke from Laurent Joffrin, the philo-Semitic editor of Libération, the main left daily in France. (Full disclosure: Joffrin and Valls are personal friends and I admire them both).
In a signed editorial in his paper, which sets the left’s public opinion agenda in France, Joffrin says Valls should not have made the equivalence between “anti-Zionism” and “anti-Semitism.”
Joffrin offers the old arguments that many Jews, especially on the left, opposed Zionism, notably the Bund in early 20th century Poland.
He also makes the fair point that if Zionism goes beyond defending the creation and then defense of the State of Israel to justify the occupation of every bit of land outside the borders of the Israel, as recognized by the United Nations, then the concept of Zionism is voided of its meaning as an expression of the right of Jews to have a nation. This same argument would hold as much for Australians, or the Irish or more recently, the Kosovars, who are nonetheless entitled to their own nation even if territories were obtained after violent conflict or dispossession of other inhabitants.
Criticizing Israeli settler politics and the occupation of non-Israeli territory is not an attack on Zionism, but on modern political failures to achieve a negotiated settlement after 1967 and 1973. In 1967, Charles de Gaulle was wrong to use his language about Jews, and in 2016 Manuel Valls is right to repeat the Martin Luther King point that the charge of “anti-Zionism” is not even coded “anti-Semitism”. It is – en clair – an attack on the right of Israel to exist.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister for Europe and author of a biography of François Mitterrand. He writes and broadcasts regularly on European politics in France. He is a senior Advisor at Avisa Partner, Brussels. Follow him on Twitter: @DenisMacShane