The Dilemma of French Jews and the Fight Against Racism

French Jews wanting to stand with Black Lives Matter find themselves stuck in the middle of a battle between authorities and protesters

Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
People attend a banned demonstration planned in memory of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black Frenchman who died in a 2016 police operation, in Paris, France, June 2, 2020.
People attend a banned demonstration planned in memory of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old Black Frenchman who died in a 2016 police operation, in Paris, France, June 2, 2020.Credit: GONZALO FUENTES/ REUTERS
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

PARIS – “Israel is the mothership of all police brutality,” read a sign held by two protesters. “No to Israel’s annexation in the West Bank,” shouted another demonstrator. No, this wasn't a protest for Palestinian rights, it was a Black Lives Matter event in Paris on June 13, 2020, organized by the Adama Committee.

The committee, named for Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Malian-French man who died on July 19, 2016 in police custody after being arrested, has become one of the most vocal antiracist and anti-establishment groups in France. At least 20,000 people are estimated to have attended the Paris protest.

That in and of itself helps explain the anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian slogans at a BLM rally. Pro-Palestinian activists routinely join protests over other social issues, such as the Yellow Vests for "economic justice" in France, and marches by hospital workers and pensioners. They use updated slogans, like “Palestinians can’t breathe” after the killing of George Floyd.

Hundreds of demonstrators gather on the Champs de Mars during a demonstration in Paris, France, June 6, 2020, to protest against the recent killing of George Floyd.Credit: Francois Mori,AP

But it was another slogan that made headlines after the June 13 event: “Dirty Jews,” shouted by at least one man over and over again at far-right activists brandishing a “White Lives Matter” banner. A video showing this was posted on the right-wing weekly news site Valeurs Actuelles, which reported that a number of protesters had also shouted that.

Paris’ chief of police called on prosecutors to investigate and the Jewish umbrella group Crif said antisemites had infiltrated the protest “using a noble cause, the fight against racism, to spread hatred against Jews and Israel.”

“This says something about the protest. How can this type of incitement be shouted again and again without people reacting and demanding that those people leave?” Francis Kalifat, the head of Crif, told Haaretz.

All together now

The Paris protest had been organized by Assa Traoré, sister of the late Adama Traoré, and she did condemn the antisemitic slogans while the protest was still ongoing. “We are all Jewish, we are all Christian and all Muslim. We’re fighting racism together,” she told the crowd during the protest on June 13.

Assa Traoré has long-standing ties with the French Jewish community, working for the OPEJ foundation as a “special educator” for children. OPEJ had originally been founded to help hide Jewish children separated from their parents during World War II and later helped them find solutions after the war, Now it is devoted to helping children of all backgrounds, operating out of Sarcelles, home to one of France’s largest Jewish communities.

Assa Traore delivers a speech in front of a mural showing her brother Adama Traore, with George Floyd, in Stains, north of Paris, Monday, June 22, 2020.Credit: Thibault Camus,AP

But many Jews and non-Jews suspect the Traoré family may have been manipulated by far-left, decolonial and Islamic activists, such as the committee’s No. 2, Youcef Brakni, who according to media reports belongs to a group called the Islamic Liberation Movement.

“Maybe Assa Traoré is naive, but she is clearly surrounded and manipulated by a group of antisemitic activists,” says Gershon Nduwa, who heads Fraternité Judéo-Noire, an organization which aims to give a voice to Black French Jews.

Former government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye told French radio on June 15: “The family may have been manipulated, used perhaps, but its demand for justice is legitimate.”

Some Jews joined the Traoré BLM protest, including senator Esther Benbassa, but France’s main Jewish organizations abstained, saying they will keep fighting racism alongside their traditional partners, including the historic antiracist group SOS Racism.

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“I was taught to fight racism in a universal way. A united battle against discrimination. That’s what I’m still doing today but the Adama committee does not act in a universal way, they divide people,” Noémie Madar, the head of the Union des étudiants juifs de France (Union of French Jewish students), told Haaretz. “The other major problem is that they are anti-establishment. I want to root out racism but I want to keep the system in place. They don’t want to keep it. And I can’t protest against the system.”

The leaders of the Jewish umbrella group Crif feel much the same. “These protesters say they’re against discrimination and hatred, then why did they not protest when Sarah Halimi and Mireille Knoll were murdered?” Francis Kalifat told Haaretz.

CRIF President Francis Kalifat, center, with lawmakers Gerard Collomb and Christophe Castaner, march in memory of Mireille Knoll, a woman killed in an anti-Semitic attack in Paris, March 2018.Credit: Thibault Camus / AP

“I think what needs to be done now is intensify our actions against racism, push more for change, denounce all discrimination. The universal fight against racism can bring results.”

Halimi, 65, was killed by her neighbor, Kobili Traoré (no known relation with Adama and Assa Traoré), on April 4, 2017, who was found unfit to stand trial by the court. Knoll, 85, was a Holocaust survivor who was murdered allegedly on anti-Semitic grounds in 2018.

An AFP TV video frame grab shows a picture of Mireille Knoll posted on the door of her apartment in Paris on March 27, 2018. Credit: AFP

Asked if Jewish groups had previously acted against alleged excessive police brutality and racism against people of color, Kalifat answers, probably not enough. “Maybe were we not fully aware of the scope of the problem. After all, police forces are regularly probed by state inspectors.”

Souls who need saving

In the past decade, French police have protected Jewish institutions and synagogues from terrorism, antisemitism, and even angry rioters in 2014. Does that make it difficult for French Jews to criticize police? No, say both Kalifat and Madar: police or any other government institution should be exemplary and should be criticized if they err.

Many in the community and outside of it may also be reluctant to join the Adama Committee protests because Traoré was a former convict accused of violently attacking his cellmate while in jail, not necessarily the type of alleged victim that can be easily identified with.

Assa Traore, the sister of late Adama Traore, a man who died in police custody, takes part in a protest march to call for justice, on July 18, 2020 in Beaumont-sur-Oise, outside Paris. Credit: AFP

Jews have long played a role in the fight in France against racism; one of the founders of SOS Racism in 1984, Julien Dray, is Jewish. But Jews have long fought to keep the Palestinian cause out of that and other organizations.

“I participated in the creation of SOS Racism, as a student activist,” Arie Bensemhoun, head of the Elnet-France pro-Israeli think tank said at a conference in early July. “We decided to block the Middle East conflict from being imported to Paris and at the same time tried to stop the extremist ideology of the far right from progressing. It was like building a dam in a gushing river, the flow of the water continuously rising and us trying to raise the dam to keep the waves from overflowing.”

SOS Racism has its critics too. Other antiracist groups, like anti-colonialist associations, accuse it of being too close to old politics and too mild in its demands. “In Africa, when people want to take down the president they go to the palace and take it over. Why is it different in France? We should do the same here. We can carry out a beautiful revolution,” Assa Traoré said in 2018.

“SOS racism was created by socialist party members Julien Dray and Harlem Désir [who were government employees], maybe because the ruling party wanted to tame the antiracist movement which had gained momentum back then," journalist and antiracism activist Rokhaya Diallo told Haaretz.

"SOS Racism was created by the system and it’s subsidized by the state so it has no intention of denouncing what is deeply racist within the system,” Diallo adds. “SOS Racism says there are bad people who are racist, but when we say racism is systemic, we say it’s not a question of bad or good. People who discriminate don’t do it because they are bad but because the system is discriminatory by nature.”

Palestinian rights are not the only international cause among “antiracist activists,” she says: but the Palestinian cause remains symbolic. "decolonial activists are against occupation, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about occupation, especially now when Israel has such a hardline government. Jews shouldn’t let that stop them from joining our battle because racism and antisemitism are the same, they are related. In fact many Jews have joined us,” Diallo sums up.

SOS Racism leader Dominique Sopo accuses decolonial activists of being just like the Far Right and Islamist radicals, as far as antisemitism goes. “They all use the fantasized Jew as a figure to hate. Hating that Jewish figure justifies their mere existence. They attribute to Jews close ties to authorities, a classic antisemitic claim from people pretending to be ‘anti-system’,” he says.

A protester during a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd in Paris, France, June 6, 2020. Credit: Francois Mori,AP

The 'ultimate victims'

For years, critics of decolonialists have accused them of deliberately targeting Israel as a strategy to delegitimize Jews. Journalist Brice Couturier believes that the effort to delegitimize Israel by certain BLM activists is part of a broad competition over victimhood.

“Jean-Michel Chaumont wrote it in his 1997 book ‘The Competition Between Victims’: the decolonialists’ goal is to discredit Jews so that they would replace them as the 'ultimate victims' and use that for their political purposes,” Couturier says.

“They give activists such cynical motives, when the true goal is to fight injustice,” Diallo rebuts. “It’s like men criticizing feminists when it’s not up to them to say how women should lead their battles.”

Demonstrators holding a placard reading "Generation Adama-Climate, we want to breathe" to mark the fourth anniversary of the death of Adama Traore, in police custody, in Paris, July 18, 2020.Credit: Rafael Yaghobzadeh,AP

Jewish groups in France have sometimes been caught in the crossfire between the Israeli government and anti-Zionists.

“We have been their target. They vandalized our room at university, spraying slogans against Israel and when we asked other student groups to speak out they refused, saying they don’t want to meddle in the Middle East conflict,” Noémie Madar of the UEFJ told Haaretz.

“Antisemitism exists among activists and it should be condemned but the best way to stop it is to know each other better, to act together against hatred,” says Diallo.

“I understand that some Jews are scared because in recent years Jews were attacked and killed because they were Jewish, by people saying they were acting in the name of Islam. Still, many Jews have been protesting with us. Most of them are young but not all. There was a Holocaust survivor who used to back us. When he died a few weeks ago, his son read out at a protest a moving letter that he had written, where he linked anti-Jewish hatred to racism.”

French Jews are often criticized for being too close to Israel, too supportive of the Netanyahu government and of failing to denounce Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, unlike some U.S. and U.K. Jewish groups who have criticized the annexation plan.

Crif for example has denounced activists boycotting Israel but refused to criticize Israeli policies because “they’re an internal Israeli affair.”

Yet when French Jews censure Netanyahu and his annexation plans, they do not win plaudits. Thinkers such as Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard Henri Levy, who have been frequently denounced for their opinions on immigration or the war in Libya, signed a petition against the West Bank annexation plan but are still harassed.

“They are still dirty Zionists, I don’t care what they signed, they didn’t mean it,” said “Soumia” a 21-year-old pro-Palestinian protesting in Paris on June 27, who refused to give her real name because, she said, she fears retaliation. “I was expelled from high school after criticizing Israel. There is no free expression in France," she claims, despite the fact that this is not the case.

So the Jews of France have a dilemma. If they don’t react to antisemitic slogans, animosity against them could escalate. If they do react, if they criticize BLM as politicized and anti-Israel, they could turn into a potential target. Thrown in the middle of a battle between authorities and protesters, they could be used as a tool to discredit BLM.

France’s chief rabbi Haim Korsia has told Haaretz he wouldn’t ask anyone to boycott the Adama committee, but said he did not wish to be associated with the group after the slogans heard in the June 13th demonstration.

It seems the French BLM movement has recently tried to give itself a more moderate image.

No antisemitic slogans were reported in its July 18th protest. One speaker said activists were opposed to the killing by police of Blacks, Arabs and Jews, although there is no known incident of French Jews being killed during an arrest in recent decades. Meanwhile, Palestinian flags were nowhere in sight during the rally. It’s unclear whether the Adama Traoré committee asked pro-Palestinian activists to remain discreet this time or not, but one of the groups taking part in the march had warned its members: “Don’t bring any flags to this protest."

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