The Yellow Vests and French Jews
The month of November is significant for the modern history of French Jews.
On November 11, 1942, 745 Jews were packed into trains near Paris, and eventually sent to Auschwitz. That same day, German and Italian troops marched into the parts of France formerly controlled by the Vichy government.
Throughout the Holocaust era, it wasn’t just French-born Jews who were persecuted. Some 13,000 “foreign Jews” from all over Europe, including 4,000 children — some as young as two — were detained without water, food, and sanitary facilities. Parents were deported first to their deaths, then the children.
November 17, 2018 was the “bright color day” — and formal launch — of the ongoing Yellow Vest demonstrations in France.
The protests, at first essentially leaderless and ignited by social media, soon generated a “populist” economic groundswell favoring lower taxes, higher minimum wages, and better pension benefits — even if these policies violated EU rules.
Widely supported across the political spectrum, these demands forced economic concessions from the government. But substance may have meant less than rhetoric.
During World War II, first “non-French” Jews — and then “French Jews” — were coerced into wearing stigmatizing yellow stars. Now, once again, yellow represents the hatred of Jews in France.
The terrible dilemma that the French — and concerned Jews everywhere — now face is how a seemingly popular democratic movement has taken on antisemitic and other troubling trends. As Bernard-Henri Lévy put it, many of the movement’s participants should not be called “yellow vests” but “brown vests” — the color of fascists and Nazis.
On the Paris subway right before Christmas, a 74-year-old Jewish woman told three inebriated Yellow Vest protesters that her own father had been deported to Auschwitz. Instead of stopping their abusive chants and gestures, they escalated their insults and used the inverted Nazi salute, invented by the antisemitic comedian Dieudonne.
Calls for “social justice” were increasingly drowned out in street protests by orchestrated cheers from both the right and the left that were reminiscent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, whose father was an immigrant from Poland, was verbally assaulted in central Paris by protesters yelling “Dirty Jew,” “you’re going to die, you’re going to hell,” “Dirty Zionist,” “France is ours,” and “return to Tel Aviv.” Police intervened to protect Finkielkraut.
In the latest outrages, worshipers attending Shabbat services at the Great Synagogue in Lyon were regaled with antisemitic insults during a Yellow Vest march that involved one protester urinating against the wall of the historic synagogue.
Visiting a Jewish cemetery where 80 gravestones were defaced in the small Alsace town of Quatzenheim, President Macron challenged national leaders across Europe to speak up against the scourge of antisemitism. He also recognized how “anti-Zionism” and antisemitism mutually reinforce each other.
A large gathering in Paris took place, with government luminaries joining thousands of ordinary citizens in articulating the rallying cry, “That’s Enough!”
The only prominent faces missing were the leaders of the political extremes. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front held a separate rally to denounce Muslim extremism.
Hopeful signs are a shrinkage of the numbers of Yellow Vest protesters as the movement reveals its ideological incoherence. But what has already happened is worrisome enough.
President Macron, in pursuing sensible “centrist” solutions, too often lost touch with the frustrated French grassroots, including the Jewish community. Let’s hope he has learned his lesson.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).