Opinion

When anti-Semitism Wears a Yellow Vest

Why has the yellow vests, which began as a social justice movement, been painting itself in anti-Semitic hues?

A yellow vest protester shout slogans in front of police cordon during a protest in Paris, February 17, 2019.
AP Photo/Thibault Camus

The video that went viral Saturday night was shocking: An older man leaves a building on Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris. The moment that some of the demonstrators, wearing yellow vests, notice him, they unleash a torrent of verbal abuse: “Zionist piece of shit,” “Dirty race,” “Go back to Tel Aviv.” The leader of the cacophony was a protester who pointed at his scarf, which resembled a kaffiyeh, and said proudly, “France is ours.” (He was later identified by the security services as a Salafist Muslim.)

The target of this anti-Semitic barrage — the Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, 69, a member of the Academie Francaise — left the area accompanied by a man with a yellow vest folded under his arm.

>> Read more: France's Yellow Vest movement dogged by anti-Semitism and extremist conspiracy theories

Last week was a black week with regard to anti-Semitism in France. According to official figures, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the country rose 74 percent last year from the previous year. During the last round of yellow vest protests, the word “Juden” was scrawled on a bagel shop and swastika graffiti defaced street portraits of Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor who served in the French cabinet. Of course, not all the incidents were connected to the yellow vest demonstrations, which have been taking place every Saturday for the past three months, but the protests have become fertile ground for expressions of hatred.

Why has the yellow vests, which began as a social justice movement, been painting itself in anti-Semitic hues? Not all the vest-wearers are anti-Semitic, of course, but the public debate in France about the “rich” in government versus “the people,” who are needy, is often tainted with anti-Semitic tones. French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t hesitate to point this out recently. When a woman started lecturing him about his career at the Rothschild investment bank before he entered politics, he answered, “Your remarks hint at things that I don’t like. If the bank where I’d worked had been called Bank DuPont, people would be making fewer comments.” It was a reminder that the name Rothschild has for centuries been a code name for the Jews who ostensibly run the world.

It was 121 years ago that Emile Zola wrote the most famous opinion piece in the history of journalism, “J’Accuse.” Since the time that France exonerated the French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, it has cooperated with the Nazis and was the site of an anti-Semitic outbreak in the early 2000s that claimed lives.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from all these cases, it’s that anti-Semitism was always a problem of the state, and not just of its Jews, and that anti-Semitic waves always portend broader phenomena that harm non-Jews as well. It seems that today’s French leadership understands this, but no effective remedy seems to be at hand.

In Israel, incidents like the attack on Finkielkraut generate a Pavlovian response of “why don’t they make aliyah?” There are two problems with this response. The first is that immigration to Israel is a personal decision, not a collective or coerced one. Second, if there’s something that Israel must also learn it’s that any attempt to whitewash or blur one kind of anti-Semitism — the “old” kind from the extreme right, at the expense of the “new” anti-Semitism of the anti-Zionist left, which demonstrates understanding when Muslims attack Jews because of solidarity with the Palestinians — is doomed to fail.

The yellow vest protests, where one can find both kinds of anti-Semitism, must remind not only the French of this fact, but also Israeli politicians.