With its 2-1 victory over England, Croatia has secured its place in the World Cup final, squaring off against France for the coveted cup this Sunday. So, who should Jews root for in the final match? To answer this question, we need to look at the countries’ records, not in soccer, but with the Jews.
France’s history with Jews is far from spotless. Though it has the distinction of being the first European country to emancipate our ancestors, providing them with full rights in 1791, Anti-Semitic flare-ups are not uncommon to the Gauls.
We all know the Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th to early 20th century, in which Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of treason and served 10 years in prison. The ugly miscarriage of justice divided French society in a way a later Jewish-French affair — that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn — would only come close to.
For Croatia’s part, the country’s Christian population peacefully cohabitated with Jews until our forebears were expelled from its borders, along with most Protestants, in 1456. By the time the Habsburgs ran the show Jews were barred from settling in Northern Croatia, but throughout the 19th century, the People of the Book gained steady ground towards full citizenship. By 1873, they were granted legal equality, and by the 20th century had established some prominence as a minority community.
The crux of both countries’ records comes down to World War II. Neither looks great.
France’s Vichy government surrendered its Jews to the Third Reich in 1941, helped along by Vichy police and civil servants, though many Jews escaped deportation and played an important part in the Resistance.
That same year, Italy and Germany allowed a Croatian fascist and terrorist organization, Ustashe to control a puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia. The Ustashe were not just collaborationists, they dictated their own racial policies and were active in killing their own Jews, operating their own extermination camps, where 32,000 Jews perished.
Bringing us into modernity, the Jewish populations in both France and Croatia are still encountering prejudice.
In late March of this year, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor’s body was found killed outside her Parisian apartment. Many believe her murder was motivated by anti-Semitism. Knoll’s death came at a time of mounting Nationalism in France, personified in part by Marine Le Pen, the president of the country’s National Rally party, and daughter of politician and Holocaust denier, Jean-Marie Le Pen. But while Le Pen controls her party, she is not the head of state.
In both 2016 and 2017, Croatian Jews boycotted the country’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, as former presidents and current ministers have demonstrated an eagerness to downplay the Baltic nation’s role in the Holocaust and done little to stop a startling rise in Neo-Nazi sentiment.
In April 2016, former president of Croatia, Ivo Josipovi, laid flowers on a plaque commemorating fallen soldiers of the Croatian Independence War. The plaque contained the words “za dom spremmi,” an Ustashe salute, which is bad enough, but the site of the offending monument was in Jasenovac, home to Croatia’s largest concentration camp. In October 2017, the Minister of Culture, Zlatko Hasanbegovi praised a revisionist documentary that claimed the Jasenovac camp was a mere labor camp.
But back to sport: Croat fans have been caught jeering anti-Semitic slogans during Croatia-Israel matchesto which current prime minister, Tihomir Oreskovic, in their company, sat silently) and, in 2015, Croatia’s team was penalized by the UEFA after a swastika appeared on the pitch in their stadium in the city of Split.
France certainly sees racist displays during soccer games, but the people have also been known to protest, as they did in the case of Knoll’s murder, in response to acts of hate. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and has fostered great musicians like Serge Gainsbourg, thinkers like Bernard-Henri Lévy and mimes like Marcel Marceau. France’s last president, Nikolas Sarkozy even had some Jewish ancestry (his mom’s dad—though he converted) and who could forget “J’Accuse?”
Though French Jews are right to be alarmed by an uptick in prejudice, French President Emmanuel Macron has renewed a comittment to fighting anti-Semitism, which he called “the shame of France.” American Jews can feel ok cheering France on, knowing that Macron’s stance on hate is stronger than that of our own president.