France struggles
to address rising anti-Semitism

AUBERVILLIERS, France —It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday in this suburb north of Paris and Mrs. Presman’s students take their seats. There are twelve, all girls, and they keep the giggly chatter to an impressive minimum.

They wear matching black skirts that hover above their ankles. Some accessorize with colorful knit sweaters over their uniforms. One, sitting in the front row, keeps fiddling with her hair. “You’re beautiful as you are!” Mrs. Presman says, shaking her head, as if it’s something she often tells her students. “Natural is the best.” The girl blushes and ties her hair back in a ponytail.

Each student, a high school sophomore, has a Torah on her desk. Rebecca, sitting at the front of the class, had decorated the fore-edge of hers with multicolored neon highlighter: blue, orange, yellow, pink. (I’ve changed the names of the students, who are minors, to protect their privacy.)

The subject of the day is anti-Semitism, and not just here: Chné-Or, a private school affiliated with Chabad, one of the world’s largest Orthodox Jewish movements. Earlier in the week, thousands of protesters had mobilized in cities around France to denounce a rise in anti-Semitic acts: a 74 percent spike in 2018, and a flurry of startling incidents in February alone. The week before, vandals uprooted a tree planted in the memory of Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old tortured to death in 2006 by the so-called Gang of Barbarians, who said they kidnapped him “because Jews have money.” Days later, swastikas were spray-painted on portraits of Simone Weil, a Holocaust survivor and feminist icon; “Juden” was graffitied on a bagel shop; during a Yellow Vest protest, a man hurled anti-Semitic insults at Alain Finkielkraut, a Jewish philosopher; and 80 graves at a Jewish cemetery in Alsace were desecrated with swastikas.

Anti-Semitic outbursts have punctuated the Yellow Vest protests, which began in December in response to a fuel-tax hike but have since developed into a diffuse denunciation of the political system and economic inequality. Protesters’ rebukes of what they call President Emmanuel Macron’s elitism have often carried anti-Semitic undertones, with regular references to the Rothschild bank—where the president used to work, but also a longstanding code for alleged Jewish control of global finance. During a recent protest, vandals graffitied “Macron Jews’ Bitch” on a Paris building.

But it was the verbal assault on Finkielkraut that brought months of symbolic violence to a head. Video footage of the incident shows a group of men, with one in the lead, hurling insults—including “Go back to Tel Aviv,” “dirty Zionist,” “we are the people” and “France is our land”—as Finkielkraut, a vocal advocate for Israel, accompanied his mother-in-law to her home on the capital’s Left Bank, where the Yellow Vests were marching for the fourteenth consecutive Saturday since December. Macron immediately tweeted, “the son of Polish emigrants who became a French academic, Alain Finkielkraut is not just an eminent man of letters but a symbol of what the Republic allows for everyone.”

A police investigation into the incident revealed that the man at the front of the group was known to French intelligence for his involvement in traditionalist Salafi circles, an ultra-conservative movement in Islam. The revelation swiftly shifted the national conversation away from concern over anti-Semitism among the Yellow Vests and its connection to generalized anti-system discontent. Instead, France revived an old debate about a “new anti-Semitism”—perpetrated not by the far right or far left, but French Muslims, notably in the banlieues, or suburbs—and the role of anti-Zionism in fueling mounting resentment toward Jews.

France, like other European countries and the United States, has once again found itself entangled in a war of words over what constitutes anti-Semitism and who’s driving it. As extreme voices on each side supplant nuance, the debate is more fractured than ever.

                  Mrs. Presman’s sophomore class

Defining contemporary anti-Semitism

As thousands rallied across the country to denounce anti-Semitism in February, the capital’s Place de la République was packed, with police blocking off the surrounding streets.

“This is a personal subject for me. My grandparents were deported,” Grégory, 38, told me. He didn’t think the surge in anti-Semitism had much to do with the Yellow Vest protests, although he believed that “when people are unhappy or struggling economically, they look to the Jews as a scapegoat.” But the main reason he showed up was the “new anti-Semitism,” he said. “Just look at what happened to Finkielkraut. That was the most shocking image to see. He’s someone I respect, with the same profile as my parents—same age, same roots. It’s clear that under the cover of anti-Zionism, people think anti-Semitism can be normalized.”

Flora, 60, took a similar position. “There’s an anti-Semitism coming from the banlieues, especially from Muslims, and I think it’s imported from the Middle East. A lot of people think Zionism means colonizing and being the oppressor. And a lot of the people who are against Israel are against the Jews.”

Classifying the Finkielkraut incident as the product of alleged Muslim anti-Semitism may be overly simplistic. The man who accosted Finkielkraut is indeed a Salafist, but he was also wearing a yellow vest. When he called Finkielkraut a “dirty Zionist,” telling him to “go back to Tel Aviv,” he also yelled “France is ours,” grabbing the keffiyeh around his neck—the checkered black-and-white scarf associated with Palestinian nationalism. “We are the people!” he cried.

During an interview on “L’Hebdo,” a TV news show, Finkielkraut said what he found most “extraordinary” was the use of “France is ours! France is ours!”—a slogan typical of the far right. “I’ve become the symbol of an anti-Semitism that we have trouble characterizing,” he said. And yet, since the episode, politicians and pundits have—perhaps reductively—sought to do just that: identify just what kind of anti-Semitism is facing France.

In the banlieues, palpable fears

The notion of a so-called new anti-Semitism has been explosive since it entered the national conversation in the early 2000s, which saw a series of violent attacks against Jews that often corresponded with upticks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It returned with urgency last year after Mireille Knoll, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, was murdered by her Muslim neighbor; the authorities declared it an anti-Semitic hate crime. Gunther Jikeli, a German historian at Indiana University who conducted an in-depth study of Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe, described the phenomenon as “blindingly obvious” in an opinion piece in the newspaper Le Monde at the time.

                  In Paris, a portrait of Simone Weil vandalized with a swastika (Photo credit: France3)

But Muslims have strongly denounced what they see as a blanket condemnation of their community, and of Islam itself. Many consider the allegations stigmatizing and counterproductive. The fixation on Muslim antipathy toward Jews is particularly delicate in a society where Islam’s place is constantly called into question. It has drawn criticism for pitting two minority groups—the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe—against one another.

Those who defend the idea of a new anti-Semitism do not necessarily argue anti-Jewish sentiment is limited to Muslims. But they point to an uncomfortable reality they say many, especially on the left, have willfully ignored: that Muslims have been behind a spate of murders since the early 2000s, from Halimi’s grisly death in 2006 and Mohammed Merah’s 2012 killing spree at a Jewish school in 2012 to the murders of Lucie Attal in 2017 and Mireille Knoll in 2018, at their apartments in eastern Paris. In many of those cases, the attacks’ perpetrators relied on old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish money and power. Others evoked the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, equating French Jews with the Israeli occupation.

The troubling trend of Muslim-Jewish hostility is especially volatile in France, which abides by a national myth of strict universalism that elevates national belonging above any other particular religious or racial identity. Accordingly, the “new anti-Semitism” fits neatly into what has become a common argument since the 1980s: that Islam and Muslims threaten the Republic and its values.

To support the thesis of a “new anti-Semitism,” French Jews and pundits often draw attention to the waning number of Jewish families living in suburbs of Paris, and especially in the northwestern department of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Government statistics indicate that the rate of anti-Semitic acts in Seine-Saint-Denis is similar to the greater Paris region). The majority of residents are of foreign origin, and Muslim—it was a post-colonial hub for immigrant workers. A host of public intellectuals often derisively call it a “lost territory of the Republic,” referring to its high crime rates and rampant unemployment. It has accordingly been at the center of an ongoing soul-searching over identity that has become a something of a national obsession.

The assertion that the banlieues are hemorrhaging Jewish families comes up every time France reckons with anti-Semitism. Indeed, there is evidence to indicate that Jewish families have trickled out of Seine-Saint-Denis over the past decade, or have left France entirely, saying they no longer feel safe. Some have gone to Israel, others to Paris; a significant community, for example, has taken root in the 17th arrondissement in western Paris.

After the Finkielkraut incident, Éric Zemmour, a notorious right-wing polemicist who regularly appears on television talk shows discussing immigration and identity, said there are “no longer any Jewish kids in public schools in Seine-Saint-Denis.” That is nearly impossible to formally verify because statistics based on religion or ethnicity are illegal in France, but it is a common trope among those seeking to sound alarm bells about the banlieues. It is also untrue, according to Rodrigo Arenas, co-president of the parents’ union in Seine-Saint-Denis, who says some Jewish kids do attend public schools.

Still, Jewish families living in the banlieues have increasingly looked to private education, which many attribute to anti-Semitic bullying by classmates, particularly those of Muslim origin. It’s a trend Véronique Decker, the principal of an elementary school in Bobigny—in Seine-Saint-Denis, adjacent to Aubervilliers—has observed over her four decades in the public school system in the banlieues.

“When I first started teaching in Seine-Saint-Denis, there were Jewish families here who lived in the HLMs with everyone else, but they mostly left over a decade ago,” she told me, referring to habitation à loyer modéré, the blocky social-housing projects that tower over the banlieues. “The last Jewish girl I had here, about 12 years ago, was spit on by the other students, and her parents came to me and said we have to leave. At the time, it wasn’t okay to talk about anti-Semitism here.”

The Chné-Or school, which has seen registrations increase by 30 percent in the past five years, reflects those dynamics. Mouchka Tewel, whose grandparents founded the school in 1960, greeted me in her office on the second floor, where girls’ classes are held. Tewel is in her late thirties and striking, with hot-pink lipstick and long, dark blond hair. She directs Jewish School for All, a Chné-Or initiative that offers financial subsidies and transportation to Jewish kids—they bus in 260 every day from all over the banlieues, and some from Paris, too.

Some 60 percent of Chné-Or students previously went to public school, and half left because of anti-Semitism, Tewel estimates. She recalled one boy who came with his parents to register and showed her a large scab on his breastbone: he had gone to school wearing a pendant with the Hebrew letters for “Chai,” the Jewish symbol for “life,” and a classmate had yanked it off, dragging the metal across his chest.

                  Chné Or in Aubervilliers

The majority of Mrs. Presman’s sophomores, almost all of whom live in the banlieues, see anti-Semitism through the prism of Muslim hostility. When I asked about their experiences with discrimination, Aurélia, who is tall with a long dark braid, raised her hand. “There are a lot of Arabs in my neighborhood, and some are respectful of Jews,” she said, saying she lives in Clichy-la-Garenne, a suburb northwest of Paris. The grocer downstairs, for example, “is Arab, and very nice.” But one day, when she was heading home from synagogue with her family, “a group of Arab women blocked the street and called us ‘dirty Jews.’ We needed to push past in order to keep walking. There’s a lot of disrespect.”

“It’s because they’re jealous!” Rebecca interjected. “Muslims have always been jealous of the Jews.”

“Maybe so,” Aurélia said. “But we won’t ever be ashamed to be Jewish. We’re in a democracy, and we are what we are. Nothing anyone says will change how I feel or what I believe.” The classroom started buzzing; all the girls agreed.

Another girl, who lives in the Seine-Saint-Denis township of Bobigny, chimed in. She had experienced anti-Semitism at her public school and was relieved when she switched to Chné-Or, she said. “They stick us with a label of ‘Jew,’ and so they’re against us. But Judaism is a religion like any other, and everyone should be able to practice their religion as they wish,” she said.

Rachelle, with a round face and curly hair, echoed that sentiment. “If they can walk around with their headscarves or whatever, then we shouldn’t have to hide our kippas, or our skirts, or our tzitzit,” she said, referring to the knotted tassels observant Jewish men wear.

Mrs. Presman, beaming at her students, turned toward me. “You see? We’re not afraid. I tell them they need to be proud, that they should never hide their Judaism because of fear.” When I asked if she agreed with her students that Muslims were often behind anti-Semitic gestures, she nodded tentatively. “Not all of them, of course there are some who are respectful and want to live in peace. And then there are the racailles,” she said, using the pejorative term that refers to “delinquents” or “thugs” that is often used to deride young Muslims in the banlieues.

Emily, at the back of the room, raised her hand. “Personally, I think it’s ‘French people’ who are the most anti-Semitic, not Muslims,” she said. In what seemed like coordinated unison, her classmates turned toward her. “No way!” one squealed. “What are you talking about? It’s always Muslims,” another said incredulously. Emily shrugged.

                  Mrs. Presman and her students

Anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and Israeli politics

Part of what makes the debate about anti-Semitism so difficult to parse is discord over Jews’ relationships to Israel—real or assumed.

The night before I visited Chné-Or, Macron gave a much-anticipated speech at the annual dinner of the CRIF, France’s most prominent Jewish organization and an ardent supporter of Israel. “The situation has become worse in the past few weeks,” he said solemnly to an audience of 1,000. “Our country—just like the rest of Europe and the near-majority of Western democracies—is facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that is unprecedented since World War II.”

With that, he denounced the “new anti-Semitism” inspired by “radical Islamism,” and announced that France would officially recognize “anti-Zionism” as a form of anti-Semitism. When I asked the girls at Chné-Or how they would define Zionism and anti-Zionism, they got stuck. After some deliberation, they offered a host of responses: “Zionism means to stand with the Jews, to support them,” said Shiri, sitting in the back of the class. Eliana, who said she had been “called a dirty Jew tons of times” in her neighborhood, defined Zionism as “support for the Jews,” and anti-Zionism as “what the Arabs do.” For her classmate Shaked, Zionism means “to support Israel.”

Previous presidents have described anti-Zionism as a contemporary form of anti-Semitism without clarifying just what it means. After Macron’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his gratitude on Twitter, calling the move an “important decision.” Macron’s announcement drew on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition, used by a host of EU countries. Although it states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic,” many fear the demonization of anti-Zionism can be used to stifle opposition to Israeli policies. Netanyahu, who has long pushed for the IHRA definition’s widespread adoption, routinely leverages it against what he calls the “international campaign to ‘delegitimize’ Israel.” That includes, for example, Airbnb’s decision last November to stop listing accommodations in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, considered by most of the world to violate international law.

There is anti-Semitism among Muslims. There is anti-Semitism on the far right, and on the far left. And we have to do something about it. But right now, we’re letting hysterics control the conversation.

Simon Assoun, a spokesperson for the left-wing Jewish Union for Peace, a vocal critic of Israeli politics, called the move “dangerous.” He warned that associating French Jews with Israel could exacerbate anti-Semitism, giving credence to those who use their objections to Israeli policies to discriminate against Jews.

Marc Knobel, a historian at the CRIF, sees things differently. “We can’t reproach French Muslims or Arabs for being attached to the Palestinian cause,” he told me. “That’s entirely in their right. So why don’t French Jews have the right to defend the existence of the state of Israel? Must Jews, in order to please the rest of society as Jews, completely detach themselves from the Jewish cause, and renounce any solidarity with Israel?”

The resurgence of this debate coincides with an unprecedented rightward shift in Israeli politics, which Assoun and others believe could raise the stakes of associating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. As Macron telephoned Netanyahu to share his decision to adopt the IHRA definition, the Israeli prime minister—who currently faces potential indictment over corruption charges—announced plans to enter a coalition with a far-right, openly racist political party that is an offshoot of a US-designated terrorist organization. Even AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby, condemned the move (the CRIF has yet to comment). During the same week, Netanyahu had generated criticism for hosting right-wing leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary known for xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Anat Berko, a legislator from the prime minister’s Likud party, summed up the logic: “They might be anti-Semites, but they’re on our side.”

Selective outrage

Before the attack on Finkielkraut inspired a renewed focus on anti-Semitism among Muslims, France was having an important conversation about the easy scapegoating of Jews amid the anti-elite, often conspiratorial, fervor of the Yellow Vests—one that, while ongoing, has faded from the headlines. The shift in attention risks distracting from how the current moment, so amenable to populist outrage, creates a climate where anti-Semitism can thrive.

Benjamin Belaidi, a local representative in Compiègne, a town in northern France, has been an active organizer since the outset of the Yellow Vest protests. He has attempted to shed light on the anti-Semitism on the fringes of the movement, and was frustrated by the focus on Finkielkraut, which he found disproportionate. “I’ve seen anti-Semitic gestures in the crowd every weekend, and they tend to come from yellow vests on the far right,” he told me.

He has tried to draw attention to a video of what he believes was a more overtly anti-Semitic incident during the ninth week of protests that received far less notice than the episode with Finkielkraut. “Criminals! All the Jews are criminals!” one man yells. “Go home! You fuckers!” Another yells “Dieudonné for president,” a reference to the infamously anti-Semitic comedian, while doing a quenelle, a Nazi-era salute Dieudonné popularized. The video shows Belaidi intervening, telling the protesters to leave. “We need to kick them out of the movement,” he says to a group gathered around the scene. “We can’t have people saying anti-Jewish words here—it’s not possible, and we can’t let it happen.”

 

 

Belaidi found it disconcerting that Finkielkraut managed to captivate the national attention. “I’m sorry, but Finkielkraut isn’t the average Jew,” he said, noting that the philosopher has been a particularly divisive voice when it comes to Islam and the banlieues. (On the subject of the 2005 riots in Seine-Saint-Denis—prompted when two teenagers died from electrocution while hiding from the police in a shed housing a utility transformer—Finkielkraut called the protests an “anti-Republican pogrom.” “The problem is that the majority of these youth are black and Arab, and identify with Islam,” and “hate the West,” he said. In reference to the French national soccer team’s diversity, he derided the players for being all black, calling them the laughing stock of Europe. He has also consistently demonized antiracist activists, whom he recently accused of anti-Semitism.)

The way the debate has all played out—the media frenzy over Finkielkraut, the return of the debate over the “new” anti-Semitism, and Macron’s speech at the CRIF—reveals just how polarized it has become. That’s not unique to France, and is particularly dangerous in European countries with rising xenophobic parties. Far-right populists have capitalized on generalized fear toward Muslims and their alleged antipathy toward Jews to erase their own anti-Semitic pasts. In one poignant example, Austria’s far-right vice chancellor, who has held ties with neo-Nazi groups, recently organized a conference on “Islamic anti-Semitism.”

In the United States, certain pundits and Jewish organizations have chosen to fixate on anti-Semitism on the left and among Muslims. That includes attempts to legislate against the pro-Palestinian BDS movement; the significant attention given to marginal figures like Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam and an avowed anti-Semite with little exposure; and the preoccupation with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s clumsy comments about the Israel lobby. Some Jews, particularly those critical of Israeli policies, fear such selective outrage offers cover to the white supremacists buoyed by President Donald Trump, and politicizes what should be a firm condemnation of anti-Semitism in any form.

After Mireille Knoll’s murder last year, I met with Johanna Barasz, a spokeswoman for the Dilcrah, a government body that fights anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia. She found the tone of the conversation frustrating and counterproductive. Nearly a year later, not much seems to have changed. “We’re in this moment of radicalization around identity that makes it impossible to even have this conversion,” she told me. “There is anti-Semitism among Muslims. There is anti-Semitism on the far right, and on the far left. And we have to do something about it. But right now, no one is speaking moderately—we’re letting hysterics control the conversation, and they’re just fueling the fire.”

About the Author

Karina Piser’s research explores measures promoting French secularism in public high schools in immigrant-heavy areas. In suburbs of Paris, she interviews students, teachers, administrators, and education-policy practitioners to better understand how the government is targeting schools to improve social cohesion in the aftermath of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks. Prior to receiving the ICWA fellowship, Karina was an editor at World Politics Review, and has previously held positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights in Tunis, Tunisia. She holds a master’s degree from Sciences Po Paris, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and World Politics Review, among other publications.