PARIS – “Death to the Jews!” In Paris and other French cities, the hate-filled words ring out. Attacks on synagogues have taken place for the first time since the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the nineteenth century. In suburban areas near Paris, such as the town of Sarcelles, known for its climate of religious and ethnic tolerance, groups of young people have deliberately targeted Jewish properties.
Faced with the spectacular rise of anti-immigrant populism in France, and now with anti-Zionist demonstrations (which often coincide with an updated version of anti-Semitism), the French Jewish community is anguished and puzzled. Some of its members are quietly asking themselves whether there is a future for them in the land of human rights.
French Jews are rediscovering the dual trauma that they experienced during the twentieth century: the death-camp deportations of World War II and their flight from Algeria following its independence in 1962. It is to be expected that these episodes color – and tend to exacerbate – the emotions of the present.
French descendants of Eastern European Jews have not yet fully come to terms with a continent – including Vichy France – that they still associate with the Holocaust, whereas Jews from the Maghreb tend to resent the fact that even in France, they remain surrounded by “Arabs.” Indeed, a significant portion of the Jewish community in the south of France votes for the far-right National Front, which, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, has concentrated its xenophobia on Muslims.
In this tense setting, it comes as no surprise that the question of whether anti-Semitism has returned to France, after a seven-decade hiatus, is making international headlines. British and American media reports have made comparisons to the Nazi era, with some even referring, in the aftermath of attacks on French synagogues, to a French Kristallnacht.
Such hyperbole must be firmly rejected, for it offends the memory of those who suffered as a result of Vichy France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. After the Gestapo arrested my father in Nice in 1943, he was escorted by French gendarmes to the transit camp at Drancy, in the Paris suburbs, before being deported to Auschwitz. In 2014, by contrast, the French state defends the synagogues and denounces any form of anti-Semitism.
But even if the French state is not anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism does exist in France – and probably more so recently than in the postwar period. And the worsening situation in the Middle East has, of course, played a key role in this, particularly the shocking images from Gaza. The asymmetrical war being waged there by Israel seems disproportionate to a majority of world opinion, not just Arabs and Muslims.
To be sure, no state can passively accept rocket attacks on its cities. And, yes, Hamas deliberately chooses to place its military arsenal in highly populated areas under the involuntary protective shield of innocent civilians – or those Israeli officials sometimes refer to, with barely concealed mistrust, as the “uninvolved.”
But the strategy of terror used by the Israeli authorities to deter further attacks or to restore a temporary “quiet” has been costly not only in terms of Palestinian lives lost and Israeli soldiers killed; it has also contributed to the deterioration of the security of Jews around the world. In France, too, many of them express – often quietly – both their deep love for what Israel is and their deep concern for what Israel is now doing.
It is one thing to say that the Middle East conflict should not be exported to France. It is another to recognize the inevitable impact of images of dead Palestinian women and children on communities in France that feel close to Palestine the way that Jews feel close to Israel. If the images from Gaza seem to resonate so much in France, it is partly a matter of sheer numbers: the largest Muslim community in Europe faces the largest Jewish community in Europe.
But it is not only a question of numbers. The young thugs who have attacked synagogues come mostly from the ranks of the unemployed and frustrated. They vent their rage at a system that does not integrate them. They even resent the Republic’s commemoration of Jews’ suffering during WWII. For them, past horror is abstract; only the present horror can be felt.
The encounter between the images of today’s Middle East and the discontent of Muslim minorities (sometimes influenced by radical fundamentalist ideologies) should not be allowed to obscure traditional French anti-Semitism, white and bourgeois, which still lingers and is never far beneath the surface. Thanks to the Internet, it, too, has begun to emerge more often.
But the French state does what it has to do to repress and contain anti-Semitism. Comparisons to Nazi-era Europe do nothing to reassure a community that, despite all of the major historical differences between then and now, cannot quite shake the feeling that it is dancing on the rim of a volcano.