During the French revolution, Voltaire and Rousseau were faced with a curious dilemma. Amongst their writings on tolerance, they had inserted copious anti-Semitic commentaries, but were still trapped into unwillingly tolerating the Jews. Their own revolution was based on the principles of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” which needed somehow to apply to the Jewish masses as well. September 1791 brought about a bitter battle in the halls of the new National Assembly of France as a law of complete emancipation of the Jews was drawn up.
Historically, France has always been virulently xenophobic and often anti-Semitic. (A point with which Alfred Dreyfus would agree.)
Recent fears of a united Europe, the advent of the Euro currency and massive immigrant populations – especially Muslims – pouring into France, have Francophiles worried about their republic. France today has the largest Jewish and Muslim population in Europe, with 5 million Muslims and 650,000 Jews.
Leah, a French ex-patriot living in New York, looks uncharacteristically solemn as she describes a recent visit to her family in France. She had always felt that her fellow Frenchmen were faintly anti-Semitic but tolerable. It was over the Passover holidays and tension was building in the Middle East. Arafat’s compound was under siege and so were the Jews of France. Her husband and brothers had to face spitting and hisses of ‘dirty Jew’ on the way to synagogue.
It has been suggested to those living in France that they should try to look less Jewish. But the Jews of France feel this is their home – they were born in France and love France, but are even more proud of their Jewish identity. “Why should they cover up their kippah?” asks Leah. The way a Jew answers a Jew with a question, I reply, “You are right. Why should they?” There is no answer.
Leah told me more horror stories. Her 12-year-old niece was walking from the school to the gym with classmates and teachers, when thugs began attacking them throwing rocks. A young girl was hit in the head and the blood began to flow.
She says the propaganda makes it ten times worse. Coverage of Israel mostly shows sad Palestinians burying their dead. Suicide bombing reports always speak only of the oppression of the Palestinians and how they heroically blow themselves up on “special operations” for the sake of their people. Zionism is commonly referred to as a form of Nazism. The French have always been a bit uncomfortable with the Jewish people, who can never be totally French due to their loyalty to Jerusalem. There is a feeling amongst the French political far left that the Palestinians are the new proletariat, and they are portrayed by the French media as freedom fighters deprived of their rights.
Leah is not imagining the anti-Semitic tension. Other incidents have occurred, unthinkably similar to events leading up to the Holocaust.
In Bondy, France on April 11th, hooded attackers wielding metal bars and sticks attacked a Jewish amateur soccer team. The 15-year-old goalkeeper suffered a head injury and was treated in the hospital. The sports center was defaced and fires were lit, but they went out on their own. On April 7th, there was an arson attack at Gan Pardes Jewish School during the night. On April 5th a small bomb was found in a synagogue in Strasbourg, which fortunately did not ignite. Another bomb was found in the Jewish cemetery and arsonists also set fire to the prayer pavilion there. March 31, a gunman opened fire on a kosher butcher shop in southern France; a synagogue was gutted by fire in Marseille; another synagogue was attacked in Brussels; and a young woman was confronted in the subway, by chants of, “Dirty Jew, we are going to finish the work of the forties… all of you will burn.” The list of incidents is endless but few suspects have been found.
Police say perpetrators are probably a small number of young, second and third generation French citizens of North-African descent who sympathize with the Palestinians and want to get in “on the action.”
Sam Pisar, a Polish born Jew who survived Auschwitz and two other concentration camps and has lived more than half his life in France, says he never thought he would face a time when Jews were persecuted again. He believes the climate of anti-Semitism is as bad as it was just before World War II. He said, “Not enough is being done to stem the whole thing, people are just letting it go and praying that it will not explode.”
The French political leaders are no lovers of the Jews. The government controls the heavily biased media. It was even reported recently, that during a conversation about the Middle East crisis with Conrad Black, (owner of the Daily Telegraph newspaper), French ambassador to Great Britain, Daniel Bernard spoke about “That (expletive) little country Israel, that is smaller than three French ‘departments’ (provincial districts) is causing so much worldwide trouble.” The story yielded denials and editorials mostly on free speech but largely ignored the escalating contempt for the Jews of France.
The government has belatedly officially sided with the Jews in the attacks, but the French are generally known for favoring the Palestinians.
French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, did make a statement saying: “Any act of violence committed against Jews is committed against our whole national community. It is a violation of our Republic’s most fundamental principles.”
President Chirac also made a statement: “I have come here to convey to the Jewish community of France, my indignation, my sense of solidarity and above all my strength of feeling following the attacks which, lately in ever-increasing numbers and more especially in the last few days, have been directed against persons, property and symbols of the Jewish community. These acts are utterly unimaginable, unforgivable, indescribable, and must be condemned and punished as such. They are unworthy of France, they are unworthy of the French people.”
For some, the statements are just more and more empty words.
Then there is the ultra-nationalistic National Front (FN) party and the blatantly anti-Semitic comments by its leader, Le Pen. Le Pen’s growing political support shocked the world. Last February, Le Pen accused Chirac of being “In the pay of Jewish organizations and particularly of the notorious B’nei Brith.”
Catherine Mégret, who stood in for her husband, Bruno at a meeting, (the number two leader of the FN and often described as the party’s brain) repeated another Le Pen statement that “there are differences between the races… there are differences in the genes… there are simply too many immigrants, and they make who knows how many children whom they send into the streets and then claim welfare…”
And so it goes on…
It says in Tehillim (Psalms), “His mouth is filled with false oaths, with deception and malice; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity. He waits in ambush near open cities; in hidden places he murders the innocent” (Psalms 10:7-8). This could be a quote about the suicide bombers and the propaganda machine that supports this behavior, however it was written by King David thousands of years ago. Anti-Semitic propaganda is not new, it has all been said before. We just need to be aware of the threat to our brethren, particularly now in Europe.
Leah does not want to go back to France anytime soon. She just prays that her family and community will be safe. Her parents will not move to Israel, for their whole life is in France and they feel they are too old to start again somewhere else.
The words of Tehillim also offer us comfort: “G-d is the champion of the orphan and the downtrodden, so that he shall no longer be terrified of an earthly mortal” (Psalms 10:18).
May G-d grant us Moshiach (Messiah), the only peace process that will be everlasting.