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May 12, 2014 6:53 am

The Coming, Fearsome Test for French Jews

avatar by Ben Cohen /

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Dieudonné M'bala M'bala—the anti-Semitic French comedian who invented the quenelle. Photo: Axis for Peace via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgFrance has a rich Jewish history and a vibrant Jewish community of approximately 500,000 souls. At the same time, France is a country where anti-Semitism has deep, seemingly immovable roots. Modern Zionism evolved partly as a reaction to the Dreyfus trial at the end of the 19th century, while in the middle of the 20th, around 90,000 Jews were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust.

In our own time, France has provided fertile ground for Holocaust deniers—known in local parlance as “negationistes”—while during the last 10 years, we have witnessed a horrifying hate crime involving the kidnapping and murder of a young Jew, Ilan Halimi, an Islamist terror attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse which claimed the lives of three children and a rabbi, and a burgeoning anti-Semitic social movement which takes as its symbol an inverted Nazi salute known as the “quenelle.”

Small wonder, then, that French Jewish leaders are continually asked whether their community has a future in the long-term. Nonetheless, it is a question—as I discovered when I met with a delegation from CRIF, the representative body of French Jewry, in New York this week—which the leaders answer with patience and good grace.

At the head of the delegation is Roger Cukierman, the elder statesman of French Jews who was first elected as CRIF’s president in 2001. Sitting in the offices of the World Jewish Congress, where he also serves as a vice president, Cukierman was candid about the profound problems the community faces, while emphasizing its extraordinary durability. “There have been Jews in France for the last 2,000 years,” Cukierman said, listing the names of Rashi, the great 11th-century rabbi; Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Renaissance author; and Marcel Proust, the 20th-century novelist. Even as he acknowledged the many instances of anti-Semitic persecution through the ages, Cukierman noted simply and proudly, “We are still here. And we are not the only country where anti-Semitism is developing. It may develop in America also.”

Still, there is a genuine urgency about the situation in France. A recent survey of global anti-Semitism issued by Tel Aviv University reported 110 violent attacks on French Jews in 2013—the highest single number for any country. More alarming is the fact that although Jews make up just one percent of the French population, they are the target of 40 percent of racist assaults in the country. It isn’t surprising, then, that David Tibi, a Jewish leader in Paris, recently declared, “We no longer have a place in France.”

Cukierman is insistent that Jews do have a place in France, adding that anti-Semitism emanates from three distinct sources, rather than being a general phenomenon. First, there is the far right—and particularly the National Front party—which has traditionally been the home of Holocaust deniers and Vichy-era apologists. Second, there is the far left, whose aggressive promotion of the BDS campaign against Israel “affects the comfort of living in France for Jews,” Cukierman said. Third, there are the “banlieues,” run-down suburbs that are home to many disaffected Muslim youths who are frequently the executors of violent anti-Semitic acts.

Any mention of the banlieues inevitably leads to a discussion of Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, the notorious comedian whose attempts at humor are often little more than crude Jew-baiting antics. It was Dieudonne who popularized the quenelle, the anti-Semitic gesture that became internationally known when it was performed by the French soccer star Nicholas Anelka, a friend of Dieudonne’s, during a match in England.

Among the numerous challenges in responding to Dieudonne is his appeal to young people in France, many of whom are attracted by his anti-establishment stance, his hatred of Israel, and his mockery of the Holocaust. So brazen is Dieudonne that he recently suggested to Ilan Halimi’s mother, Ruth, that the two of them embrace the idea of “reconciliation”—this in spite of the fact that Dieudonne has openly defended one of the murderers of her son. Ruth Halimi, of course, rejected Dieudonne’s overtures, but his general appeal remains strong—and using conventional methods, like anti-discrimination legislation, to counter him merely boosts his reputation.

Dieudonne, Cukierman said, brings together the “extreme right with the black and Muslim population.” How to reverse this trend is an especially knotty question. Yonathan Arfi, a young CRIF leader traveling with Cukierman, observed that historically, European Jews have adopted a “vertical” approach to anti-Semitism, pushing for government agencies to address the problem. But nowadays, Arfi continued, the approach is becoming more “horizontal”—in other words, engaging and dealing directly with the twists and turns of public attitudes to Jews, their religion, their culture, and their political loyalties.

France, in that sense, increasingly seems like a laboratory for both contemporary anti-Semitism and our response to it. I left my conversation with the CRIF delegation with two abiding impressions: that the Jewish presence in France will be sustained, and that, as the young leaders accompanying Cukierman proved, there is no shortage of fine minds to take the community forward. How they manage the persistence of French anti-Semitism will, however, be the most fearsome test they face.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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  • el cid

    Any French Jews reading this should consider emigrating to Quebec, Canada.

    The strict language laws government business will have no negative impact for you since you are already speaking and working in French.

    And, you will be welcomed into a strong, vibrant, Jewish community.

    • For all those Jews! and God love You! You have been under so much pressure to conform, confront or escape! Please stop this insinuating suggestion that Jews need to retreat from their Homes, their Lands, Their Country’s of choice! That is what is expected of them from the far right! What the World needs to do is to awaken to the fact that if a Jew is under threat from extremism, it us, as Human Beings who are under threat. If the World does not stand next to the Jew, we cannot expect the World to stand next to us! Let it be known that We are a people of one Planet and we are Tolerant or Intolerant whatever our label. If we choose Tolerance allow it to accept the differences in Mankind! The Jews are no threat to anyone, so allow us to live with each other. There is a solidarity that God commands, and if that God is the God of Christianity, be Christian! If God is the God of Islam allow for understanding and Toleration! If that God is the God of Judaism, show that God there is no need to despair!

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    When large numbers of French Jews realize that the future for Jews in France as well as in most of Europe is bleak due to the gradual, but progressive, take over of land and corresponding rights displacing the Jewish population by the radical Islamist population, there will be widespread emigration to safer lands, notably North America, Australia, and Israel. No one can predict the future; notwithstanding, here in Israel the building continues at a frantic pace in the hopes that the French relocate here in great numbers.

  • David

    The effect is already being felt with increased aliyah of French Jews. The result in Israel is the emergence of some strongly French areas and the opening of some great French restaurants and bakeries. French-Jewish culture will blossom in Israel as many more will come in the next few years.

  • Victoria D Matlock

    Why can’t we Just let them be there not Hurting any One Jews are among some of my Dearest friends So what all the fuss what did thy do to any one

  • France’s Jewish community does not have the luxury of time to manage persistent French anti-Semitism. French Jews must make Aliyah as soon as possible. Please contact the Israeli Embassy in Paris.

  • Howard

    It’s as old as the hills.

    This pied noir schlepper is trying to ingratiate himself with his moron masters by finding others to pick on.


  • Shalom-Hillel

    Anti-Semitism today has an element it has always had, and that element is Jew-baiting. For many participants in that infamous march in Paris and in other public displays of antagonism to Jews there is an element of fun and festivity.

    Most anti-Semitic groups display this feeling of enjoyment in attacking Jewish sensibilities and attacking Jews. We are again in the phase where Jews are targeted as a proxy for the government in a down time economically. Historically, the government at this point in the cycle could “redeem” itself by repudiating the Jews and throwing them to the mob. I don’t think that will happen in France, but you never know. In any case, unless the government takes real action to enforce the law the threat from the mob will increase.

    • miryam

      The sad truth of history is that a democratically elected government, of a highly intellectual, educated nation was responsible for the Holocaust, so one can never rule out the possibility of another such nation repeating history, because there are too many examples of the world not learning from history.

      • But I, and many like Me, have learned from the lessons of History. The Holocaust, as a programme of Annihilation directed against the Jews of Europe will not be allowed to happen again! Genocides have been exacted in The Balkans and Africa and they were Ethnic in nature. We were slow to act, but we acted. Media of today will identify an escalating crisis before it is allowed to progress to a newer Genocide. Be on alert, but fear is also a tool of those who seek to frighten us, so do not be frightened by a potential that We can all prevent!

  • Eric R.

    “I left my conversation with the CRIF delegation with two abiding impressions: that the Jewish presence in France will be sustained,”

    Jewish life in France will only be sustained until Muslims feel emboldened enough to commit widescale pogroms and murder Jews by the thousands.

    And that time is coming soon. A Jew who stays in France is committing suicide.