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PARIS — One of the grim consequences of each prolonged military clash between Israelis and Palestinians over the past decade has been an eruption of violence targeting Jews in faraway France — prompting quick allegations of resurgent anti-Semitism in a country whose authorities in World War II collaborated in the Nazi deportation of its Jewish population, and which has seen a number of earlier instances of persecution.
Just as in 2004, 2008-9 and 2012, the vast asymmetry of casualties between Israelis and Palestinians has prompted young men in France to “retaliate” with random attacks on local Jews. In recent weeks, synagogues have been attacked, Jewish-owned businesses vandalized and looted, and individual Jews assaulted verbally and physically — often at the margins of pro-Palestinian marches joined by political extremists and thugs bent on anti-Semitic violence.
But French observers concerned by a rising number of anti-Semitic incidents caution that the authors and motives are more diverse and complex than in past eras. Simplistic comparisons with persecution of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s are inappropriate, they argue, and possibly counterproductive in combating today’s scourge.
“In the 1930s and 1940s, the state organized the persecution of Jews by passing anti-Semitic laws, and today the state is working to protect Jews,” notes Dominique Moïsi, special adviser at the French Institute on Foreign Relations in Paris. “Today, Jews are largely being attacked by people angered by Israeli military action, and holding all Jews accountable for that.”
Adds Rony Brauman, an author and professor at Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in Paris, “There’s no doubt it’s become uncomfortable, even risky to be identifiably Jewish in certain neighborhoods, and anti-Semitism that had virtually vanished in France has resurfaced in connection with Israeli offensives in Gaza. But making direct comparisons between anti-Semitism stoked by the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, and the systematic deportation of people to Nazi death camps is repulsive.” Indeed, he warned, “It actually facilitates Holocaust denial or minimization in the minds of hard-core anti-Semites.”
Many factors contributing to anti-Semitism in France have changed in the past decade. Structured anti-Semitism has become largely relegated to militants of extreme right- and left-wing political movements, who tap into anger among young French Muslims over the fate of Palestinians under Israeli siege. Analysts say ideological extremists use recurring offensives in Gaza to pit members of Europe’s largest Muslim community of around 5 million against those of the world’s third largest Jewish community, of about 500,000. Though no known formal ties or alliances exist between political radicals and the indignation of mostly amorphous Muslim delinquents, anti-Semitic actions become more commonplace during pro-Palestinian protests.
The center of gravity of anti-Semitic agitation has shifted on the extreme right. While the Front Nationale (FN) of Marine Le Pen has long been a bastion of traditional (predominantly Christian and staunchly anti-Muslim) anti-Semites, a large reason for the FN’s success in moving into the political mainstream has been Le Pen’s “de-demonizing” the party by excluding notorious racist, skinhead and neo-Nazi factions. (She’s even picked a public fight with her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who she rebuked for uttering yet another of his infamous slurs against Jews.)
Le Pen’s reorienting of the FN has consolidated hardened anti-Semites into better-organized independent groups who openly disseminate their bigoted views. At the same time, mainstream French voters now appear somewhat inured to the xenophobic FN platform that had long been taboo. And the Muslim youth of the banlieue housing projects, already deeply alienated from that mainstream, have been spurred to belligerence by the gruesome scenes from Gaza. After several pro-Palestinian demonstrations in July were marked by anti-Semitic violence and chants of “Death to Jews,” the French government banned marches at risk of being infiltrated by elements bent on attacking Jews.
“Demonstrating to attack synagogues or a store owned by Jews has only one name: anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism isn’t an opinion, it’s a crime,” said France’s Socialist Premier Manuel Valls as he moved to block protests that could be hijacked by France’s current generation of anti-Semites.
“There’s a new, normalized form of anti-Semitism that mixes the Palestinian cause, jihadism, a hatred of Israel and the hatred of France and its values," he said.
Valls’ reaction was a far cry from the Gallic shrug that greeted anti-Jewish actions spurred by Israel’s 2004 military campaign to suppress the second Palestinian intifada. At the time, French leaders condemned the violence against Jews, but explained it as anti-social behavior by unemployed, under-educated and unruly housing project residents who’d shifted their anti-social ire from cops and onto nearby Jewish communities to mimic the Palestinian uprising. The problem, officials said, was a particular French demographic detail linked to mass immigration from North Africa, not “real” anti-Semitism. Needless to say, those comments were greeted with alarm by the U.S. and other Western countries.
Even if aspects of that explanation weren’t wrong, it failed to confront the violent racism of French Jews being attacked simply for the fact of being Jewish. And that failure allowed Israel’s premier Ariel Sharon to urge France’s purportedly imperiled Jewish population to flee “the wildest anti-Semitism” and settle in Israel.
Sharon’s comments were criticized even by French Jewish leaders as a cynical exploitation of French unrest to promote immigration, and they sparked a major diplomatic row between France and Israel. The furor also produced two historic shifts. An outraged but embarrassed France modified its historically pro-Arab foreign policy position in the Middle East towards a friendlier stand towards Israel. It also made it an honor-bound duty to respond firmly to any perceived resurgence of anti-Semitism.
Brauman says France’s pro-Israel turn in foreign policy was in part a response to the Sharon-era controversy. Until Paris’ Aug. 4 statement calling for an immediate halt to the “carnage in Gaza” and declaring that Israel’s need to protect itself “doesn’t justify killing children and massacring civilians,” French authorities had taken pains to refrain from criticizing Israel — and angering protesters and politicians for that remarkable passivity. Long viewed as the West’s main backer of Arab causes, French diplomacy now strikes many in France as overly diffident to Israel.
“France, like other Western nations, has responded to the brutality and ruthlessness of the Israeli army with soft words and platitudes to Palestinian deaths,” notes Brauman, whose book “A Manifesto for Palestinians” is out in October. “When those responsible for anti-Semitic acts hear that, it helps them justify claims that Israel gets away with any outrage and that Jews are controlling everything to make sure it stays that way.”
But Moïsi says that wheel may turn, once again.
“All Western Middle East policy is influenced by colonial and imperialist guilt towards Arab nations, and Holocaust and anti-Semitic guilt towards Jews,” he says. “That guilt ebbs and flows, and policy stances shift as they do. And what has happened in Gaza of late may well influence that balance of guilt once again.”