Analysis

What's Behind the Drop in anti-Semitic Incidents in France?

Rising Jewish-Muslim segregation might have something to do with it

A rabbi flanked by a French paratrooper leaves the 'Ozar Hatorah' Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, a day after a deadly shooting attack took place there, March 20, 2012.
AFP

PARIS – Don’t call it “anti-Semitism”: The new term is “Jew hatred.” It’s not just semantic. The Muslims are of Semitic origin, and because most of the anti-Semitic incidents in France are perpetrated by Muslims, the French felt obligated to come up with a new term.

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In the beginning there was Manuel Valls. France’s former prime minister was the first politician who dared to admit the existence of anti-Semitism of a new type in France, or so at least it will be documented in the minutes of the National Assembly. Last Wednesday (November 8), in a rare moment of consensus, the members of the French parliament burst into spontaneous applause when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe thanked his predecessor for “his clarity of thought and his absolute determination” in the struggle against a profound social problem that many in the French elite had preferred to ignore, hoping it would somehow just go away.

Since that original acknowledgment by Valls two years ago, which was accompanied by a special budget of 105 million euro, France has been investing considerable efforts in the banlieues, the impoverished suburbs of Paris, where an old French disease has been festering for decades in a new guise. “Let us not forget that we are winning this struggle,” President Emmanuel Macron told school pupils in September. Statistically, at least, he’s right: Anti-Semitic incidents have been declining steadily in the country over the past two years.

But 5,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel last year, and at least another 4,000 are expected to follow suit this year. The number of Jews who are leaving the suburbs in general is far higher. Estimates are that 50,000 of them have left the place where they were born and raised – Creteil, Sarcelles and other suburban towns that until not long ago were considered to have large Jewish populations – in favor of other, more affluent suburbs west of Paris, or the 17th arrondissement in the city itself, where hardly any Muslims live.

People rally in Jerusalem in support for the French nation and the Jewish community in France, following a series of attacks in Paris and its suburbs, January 11, 2015.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Other symptoms are trickier to pinpoint. For example, the fact that there are now next to no Jews in the public schools of the banlieues, and even in Paris itself most Jewish children attend private schools, either Jewish or Christian, a development that was inconceivable even 10 years ago. The public schools, where tuition is free, have many Muslim pupils, and there are incidents – and the first time a school has an incident, Jewish parents pull their children out of the school of the Republic in favor of the private sector. There, too, they will have a hard time forgetting that they are Jews, because these schools are closely guarded by the police and the army.

Nevertheless, France is convinced that it can be victorious in this struggle. It’s a struggle of consciousness as much as education. The educational efforts are aimed at young Muslims in the suburbs, the consciousness-raising effort at the politicians and journalists in Paris. Last week Le Monde devoted a lead headline to anti-Semitism in the banlieues – another phenomenon that would have been unimaginable a decade ago – and Le Figaro urged that the problem no longer be ignored and that it be recognized for what it is: the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on French soil.

But is that really the case? Studies show that the situation is more complex, and for the French also harder to swallow: In the suburbs of Paris, it’s not only the Middle East conflict that is being reincarnated, but also the war in Algeria. Against this background, Macron’s admission during the election campaign last winter that France “committed crimes against humanity in Algeria” is related to the struggle against anti-Semitism, even if it’s not directly connected to the Jews.

According to police statistics, most of the anti-Semitic incidents in the Paris area take place in the Saint-Denis district, which also has one of France’s highest poverty rates. Ido Shaked, an Israeli theater director who has been at the National Theater in the district for the past five years, has spoken during that period with hundreds of Muslim high-school students, often after they watched a production of his play based on Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” 

“The reactions were very powerful, and they identify classic anti-Semitism with racism,” he says. “But from their viewpoint, Jews are something exotic, because in recent years all the Jewish students have disappeared from the [public] high schools. Certainly it’s impossible to talk to them about Israel-Palestine, because they don’t even know where that is geographically. What guides them is their struggle against the French establishment, and the question of who has a place in this country.”

In regard to the students’ response when he tells them that he’s an Israeli, he says, “That surprises them very much, and they know it’s a war zone. But then their next question is whether I can teach them Krav Maga. Just today I met with 150 school pupils in a poor suburb, Argenteuil, and for most of them I was the first Jew they’d ever seen. It’s a situation no one would have imagined a few years ago.”

According to official reports, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France has decreased by 58 percent over the past year. Is it possible that the success of the campaign against the new anti-Semitism is based on a formula that is anything but new – a total separation of Jews and Arabs? A partial answer was provided last week in the trial of Abdelkader Merah, the brother of the Toulouse terrorist who killed three Jewish children, a teacher and three French paratroopers before being killed himself by police, in 2012. Abdelkader was sentenced to 20 years in prison for involvement in a terrorist conspiracy, but was found not guilty of aggravated complicity in the murders. The trial revealed the terrorist’s family to be largely dysfunctional, the only method in its madness being hatred of Jews.

A plaque commemorating Ilan Halimi in Bagneux, outside Paris.
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

In response to a question from Carole Masliah, a lawyer who represents some of the families of the victims and also Ozar Hatorah school, which was the focus of the massacre, Merah denied that his family disseminated hatred of Jews in their area. “On the contrary,” he said. “I think that we are cousins, and therefore we should not kill each another.” “Kill each other?” Masliah asked him. “Is that what you said? Who shot whom here?” “I didn’t mean only that,” Merah replied, and refused to answer further questions. 

Attorney Masliah reminded the court that the victims were buried in Israel, because only there will their graves not be desecrated. Indeed, last week the mayor of the Paris suburb of Bagneux revealed that the monument in memory of Ilan Halimi, the most famous victim of the new anti-Semitism in France – he was tortured and murdered in 2006 –  had been vandalized and smeared with anti-Jewish graffiti.

“The new anti-Semitism is a very old French disease,” Le Monde wrote in an editorial last week. Ido Shaked, the director, tends to agree: “If I have to come up with examples of anti-Semitism in France, I can’t do that from my work with young Muslims, but it’s very easy for me to talk about comments I have been subject to from the heart of the French establishment, in banks, in the Interior Ministry, in good old France.”

The prosecutors in the Merah case have appealed the punishment (they had requested a life sentence), and the interior minister announced that he has appointed a special investigative committee to arrest the desecrators of Ilan Halimi’s grave for committing a hate crime. Because France’s urgent mission is not only to reduce the incidence of the new anti-Semitism, but to prevent tacit complicity between the new and the old.