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The horror of anti-Semitism in France

  • Paula
Weighted down by a bulletproof jacket, I’m standing in front of the iconic French monument, the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. To my right are the French gendarmerie with their shields raised and gas canisters ready. To my left are furious protestors hurling abuse. I don’t notice it today, but previous demonstrations had protestors brandishing posters declaring that French President Emmanuel Macron is “the Jews’ bitch”, “Jewish trash”, “Macron = Zion”, and that he is guilty of “colluding with the Jews”.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 14, 2019

In December last year, a Jewish woman on the Paris subway was taunted by some of these drunken protestors after identifying herself as the daughter of an Auschwitz victim.

Anti-Semitism has been around for centuries. It tends to rise and fall with a nation’s sense of victimhood or well-being. Its expression on the streets of France alongside protests that have nothing to do with Jews or Israel or Zionism should not be surprising. Rather, it is a by-product of a movement that has become a free-for-all.

Eighteen weekends ago, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of France to campaign against a gas tax. The protests soon mushroomed into an all-out anti-establishment movement that later became known as the “Yellow Vests”. And with it came increasing expressions of anti-Semitism.

Last month, a group of these protestors verbally attacked the French Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut – ironically a supporter of their demands – as he walked past them on his way home from lunch. They yelled “Dirty Zionist, you’re going to die!” and told him to “Go home to Israel!” and “France is ours!”

The main attacker turned out to be a 36-year-old Muslim convert. This man, Finkielkraut later said, was not an “authentic” Yellow Vest protestor, but rather a member of one of the extremist sects attaching itself to the movement.

It is these extremist sects that are now coming to the fore. From the start, the Yellow Vests movement was inseparable from far-right politics. Many of the demonstrators support the far-right leader Marine le Pen, who has actively courted them.

Equally worrying is that a significant part of the extreme left has also found its voice in the chaotic movement under the guise of anti-Zionism.

The anti-Semitism playing out on the streets is not the classic anti-Semitism of the Nazis that still exists, and can be found among the educated elite. Rather, it is anti-Israel sentiment that has morphed into anti-Semitism and is supported by both the far-right and far-left, with some buy-in from extremist Muslims.

For years, it has been nearly impossible to speak about French Muslim anti-Semitism. Of course, it’s true that not all Muslims are anti-Semitic. However, there is a growing concern that among the new population of Arab and African Muslims in France – with their roots in support of Palestine and hatred of capitalism, which they see as being dominated by wealthy Jews – support for anti-Semitism is rising.

Speaking to Jewish friends in France, one tells me: “Muslims in France are in a minority, and because they themselves face discrimination, there’s this thinking that victims of racism cannot be racist themselves. But it's not true.”

An increasing number of observers note that among the Yellow Vest protestors are some who come from these communities. Radical preachers, the funding of mosques, satellite television broadcasting of anti-Semitic discourse, and the country’s failure to integrate second- and third-generation Muslims are all to blame.

Macron rightly condemned the verbal attack on Finkielkraut as “the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation”. Many politicians expressed similar sentiments.

But some have tried to use the anti-Semitic incidents to discredit the whole movement, which is too simplistic. Rather, it’s the fact that the movement is leaderless – to its benefit but also its weakness – that allows such sentiments to flourish. Anti-Semitism, sadly, also finds support across the board.

Having said that, what is significant is that the response from the movement’s most popular spokespeople has been to either say nothing, or complain that the mainstream media is trying to paint them as racist. One protestor even sported a kippa at a demonstration, suggesting this was the only way to avoid being “gassed” or “rounded up” by the police.

The problem is bigger than the protests themselves.

There are 467 500 Jews in France, 0.7% of the population. And yet more than half of the recorded acts of racism across the country are anti-Semitic.

This year alone, almost 100 graves were desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, the word “Juden” was scrawled across a Parisian bagel shop, and swastikas appeared over a street portrait of former health minister and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil. Last year, another Holocaust survivor was murdered in a grisly attack thought to be motivated in part by anti-Semitism.

Still, a word of caution. The number of anti-Semitic acts in 2018 was 541, and that included verbal abuse, graffiti and violence. Believe it or not, this was historically low. The figure appears dramatic because it followed a lull, or pause, in anti-Semitic behaviour in 2016 and 2017. There were more than 800 anti-Semitic acts recorded in France in 2014, and again in 2015.

Also, it must be said, there has been a general increase in acts of violence by the Yellow Vest protestors across the board, including the desecration of Catholic churches, and an attempt to burn down the country home of the president of the National Assembly.

Initially, most French people supported the protests, but a recent poll found that nearly 60% of the population now wants them to end. As their numbers dwindle, those who remain in the movement are likely to grow more extreme in their views. The worry for Europe’s largest Jewish community is that, as they do, their anti-Semitism will come more to the fore.

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