12 Jan 2015

France’s troubled history of anti-semitic prejudice

After the murders of four Jews in a supermarket in Paris, thousands of police officers are being deployed to protect Jewish schools. It is not the first time French Jews have been on their guard.

It should not have surprised anyone that Jews were targeted by Islamist extremist Amedy Coulibaly – in an attack described as anti-semitic by President Francois Hollande.

Coulibaly said he was acting in defence of the Palestinians, and it was not the first time in recent months that French Jews have been attacked in apparent “revenge” for the Gaza conflict.

But it is noticeable that even when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been quiet and people are not dying, Jews in France have been beaten, insulted and worse – commonly by Muslims of North African heritage.

Some French Jews, many of them also from North African backgrounds, are so worried that they are emigrating to Israel – with an estimated 7,000 making aliyah in 2014, according to the Jewish Agency.

‘Mort au Juifs’

This is the largest movement of French Jews to Israel since the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Equally significant is the fact that more Jews from France emigrated than from any other country.

France has the largest Jewish population in Europe – at 500,000, nearly twice that of Britain – and it might be assumed there would be strength in numbers. But violence against Jews is not isolated. There are simply too many incidents for this to be so.

In December in Paris, a Jewish couple were robbed, and the woman, raped, in what appeared to be anti-semitic attack.

In July, there was anti-Jewish rioting in the Sarcelles area of Paris during a pro-Palestinian rally, with Jewish businesses looted and a synagogue attacked.

Not for the first time, there were chants of “gas the Jews” and “kill the Jews”. One Jewish eyewitness said it “took us back to 1938”, an apparent reference to Kristallnacht, when Jewish businesses were attacked across Nazi Germany and Austria.

Read more: Dieundonné, Anelka and the far-right anti-Jewish gesture

More alarming was the shooting of three Jewish children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. Like the victims of the supermarket shootings, they were buried in Jersualem (see picture above).

Their killer Mohammed Merah was of Algerian origin and said he had been motivated by the Palestinian conflict and the ban on the full face veil in France.

Six years earlier, a French Jew, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped and tortured over a three-week period by the so-called “gang of barbarians”. He later died, while the ringleader Youssouf Fofana fled to Ivory Coast before being extradited to France.

2015, Vichy and Dreyfus

David Cesarani, a professor at Royal Holloway College in London who specialises in Jewish history, believes "hysteria" should be avoided when talking about the emigation of French Jews to Israel on the basis that is difficult to work out how many "have left for social, economic or religious reasons and how many are leaving specifically as a reaction to the anti-Jewish events of the last two or three years".

He told Channel 4 News: "I think it's necessary to think very carefully about what is meant by anti-semitism. The traditonal sources of anti-Jewish hostility to Jews in France from the far right have declined enormously over the last 25 yeas and now the far right proclaims to be a friend of the Jews and of Israel. Now the major source of tension and friction is emanating from certain parts of the Muslim population."

Prof Cesarani believes "some young people have become radicalised, bought into a package served up by certain preachers, who are able to do their work unmonitored and unrestrained". He understands why some young Muslims are angered by events in the Palestinian territories, "but anything that goes beyond angry words is unacceptable and should be treated with all the harshness the law allows".

He sees no connection between anti-Jewish hostility in France today and the Vichy regime's treatment of the Jews and the Dreyfus affair. "Anyone who makes a connection with the Dreyfus affair is an idiot. France of the fifth republic is not France of the third republic. To talk about Vichy is a red herring because it doesn't help us understand anything about angry young Muslims, but it helps us understand the French republic, which is extremely sensitive about what is happening to Jews because Vichy is an appalling strain on the history of France.

"There's a greater connection between strained relations between Muslims and Jews in North Africa in the 1940s and 1950s than between Christians and Jews in France in the 1940s and 1950s. A key part of this is the state of Israel, which is a source of tension between Jews and Muslims in France."

Anti-semitism in France is not a recent phenomenon. The historian and best-selling author Eric Zemmour has provoked debate in France by claiming in his latest book that the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Petain (pictured above), which collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation in the 1940s, had a better record in its treatment of Jews than previously thought.

A quarter of France’s Jews died in the Holocaust. The rest, according to Zemmour, were “saved” by the regime. Zemmour is of North African descent, and he is Jewish.

No discussion of anti-semitism in France would be compete without mentioning the Dreyfus affair, which divided the country from 1894 to 1906.

Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was jailed for treason after being falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans.

He was later cleared, after a notorious miscarriage of justice that saw the pro-republican, anti-clerical Dreyfusards line up against the pro-army, largely Catholic anti-Dreyfusards.

It heralded a return to the alliances of the French revolution, when atheist republicans turned on the Catholic church (the establishment) and made common cause with France’s Protestants and Jews.