France Confronts an Uncomfortable Truth

Politicians take pains to emphasize that Muslim anti-Semitism is confined to radical Islamists ... But is a 15 year-old shouting 'I hate the Jews' a radical Islamist?

Corinne Mellul
Corinne Mellul
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Corinne Mellul
Corinne Mellul

France's professional Jews rejoiced at the sight of Benjamin Netanyahu and Francois Hollande standing side by side last week at the Ohr Torah School in Toulouse, where the two attended a ceremony honoring the memory of the four Jewish victims killed there by a French jihadist in March. Commenting to the media on the part of Netanyahu's speech that contained a thinly disguised call on French Jews to immigrate to Israel, the local representative of the CRIF, France's umbrella Jewish organization, said that he was "fulfilling his role ... his mission to gather the Jews in Israel."

But it's hard to imagine that French Jews who are not contemplating aliyah and don't approve of the unconditional support that France's main Jewish institutions extend to the current Israeli government found any comfort in Netanyahu's Toulouse address. What appeal can Israel hold today for Diaspora Jews who value democracy, tolerance and the separation of religion and state, with the growing power of the religious there and no end in sight to the occupation?

The problem is that things don't look good in France either for Jews these days. The Toulouse killings have left the community traumatized, and there are multiple signs of a rising anti-Jewish sentiment among a segment of the French Muslim population - a fact not lost on Francois Hollande, who pledged in Toulouse to turn the safety of French Jews into "a national cause."

There is no way to know what proportion of French Muslims may hold anti-Semitic positions, because in France both the state and private bodies are prohibited from undertaking surveys that take into account respondents' ethnicity and/or religion. France's view of equality does not welcome official acknowledgement of cultural differences between citizens. One clear fact, however, is that Muslim anti-Semitism in France no longer feels the need to cloak itself in the garb of anti-Zionism, as it did in the past. Today, it unabashedly targets Jews as Jews. The reality of Muslim anti-Semitism in France used to be hushed up in the media. But in recent months, all the major dailies and weeklies have had headlines and editorials on this new, developing trend. A recent issue of the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur announced on its cover page: "Anti-Semitism: What They Don't Want You to Know." The inside pages were replete with reports of synagogues being shot at, kosher stores being attacked, kids wearing yarmulkes being assaulted and beaten up on the street, "Jewish-looking" youngsters being mobbed in public transportation, and rabbis being stoned.

The rise of attacks such as these has also been widely covered in other French mainstream media. Hate-mongering sermons against Jews in mosques and high school students of North African descent expressing hatred of Jews in class and refusing to study the Holocaust have become regular news items. A new surge of anti-Semitic incidents has been observed since the Toulouse killer was shot dead by police forces, and some media report that he is now viewed by some Muslim youngsters as a hero and a martyr. In October, an Islamist network was dismantled and found to possess a list of Jewish sites, potential targets for future attacks.

For the first time in a country that loathes to refer explicitly to its citizens' religion or ethnic origin, the media have begun to say that those responsible are "often" Muslim young people of North African or sub-Saharan African descent (while rushing to add that they represent a tiny minority among Muslims - a fact no one in France has the means either to verify or disprove ).

In France's national context, this rising brand of anti-Semitism is a grievously complex issue, and one that has put Hollande's government in a bind. On the one hand, the French embrace of community-blind policies and discourse makes it politically risky for any official to point the finger at a religious group. Politicians here always take pains to emphasize that Muslim anti-Semitism is confined to radical Islamists. But is a 15-year-old shouting "I hate the Jews" in class a radical Islamist?

On the other hand, Hollande, and more vehemently yet his interior minister Manuel Valls, have been expressing a determination to combat this trend not seen in previous governments. The question is, how will they manage such a delicate balancing act?

Mainstream Muslims complain that too much official discourse and media focus on radical Islamists tends to stigmatize their entire community. Yet as a group, they have taken no organized steps to dissociate themselves from attacks on Jews and others carried out in the name of Islam.

Hollande may or may not prove capable of rising to the test. But Netanyahu's address in Toulouse was clearly unhelpful: By clamoring over the fact that Jews now have a state, with Jerusalem as its eternal capital - a capital virtually no nation in the world recognizes - Netanyahu seemed to want to compound the problem. In-your-face statements of this kind from Israeli leaders are music to the ears of Muslim anti-Semites, always eager to pin the responsibility for the oppression of Palestinians on every single Jew, and of anti-Semites from the European tradition, always quick to accuse the Jews of double allegiance.

Corinne Mellul is a political commentator in France.



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