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France battles to contain the rise of violence against Jews

People gather outside the Bataclan theatre and other sites of the terror attacks in the 11th district of Paris on November 14, 2015, to pay respect to the victims, At least 129 people were killed and 352 others injured -- 99 of them in critical condition -- after the terror attacks in Paris on November 13. Photo by David Lefevre/ABACAPRESS.COM - Credit: ABACA/PA Images

While elements of the British left struggle with the spectre of anti-Semitism, France is facing its own virulent problems.

It was the second such murder to rock the nation in a year – and the details were nothing if not shocking.

Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old grandmother, was stabbed 11 times in her east Paris apartment and then set alight. Knoll, who 70 years ago managed to flee occupied Paris and so avoid being rounded-up and sent to a Nazi death camp, was murdered in what the authorities say was an anti-Semitic attack. The chief suspect is one of her own neighbours, a young man who had know the victim since he was a child.

Almost exactly a year earlier, in a nearby arrondissement, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old orthodox Jewish woman had been brutally beaten and thrown out of the window of her third floor apartment by an attacker who shouted reportedly ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘I killed the demon’.

Halimi’s murder also rocked France – but not immediately. Initial reports were sketchy, and both judicial authorities and the press were accused of maintaining a marked silence on the case. The accused denied anti-Semitism as a factor in the crime, claiming a cannabis-induced ‘acute delirium’. A court in February, however, added anti-Semitism as a motivating factor to the charges he faces, and elevated the case considerably up the national agenda.

This time the reaction has been swift. In late March, just days after Knoll’s murder, thousands congregated at Place de la Nation in eastern Paris to protest against anti-Semitism. In a country institutionally affronted by sectarianism, murders apparently inspired by religion risk undermining faith in the nation itself, founded as it is on the secular moral equality of all citizens.

Place de la Nation is no stranger to demonstrations, but the recent focus of public attention, aside from the usual strikes, has more often been on Islamophobia than on anti-Semitism. Now, though, attention in France is focusing on anti-Semitism.

While the Islamist violence visited on France in recent years has seemed to be fairly evenly distributed and indiscriminate, there has been an anti-Semitic strain, often overlooked in the wider analysis. Two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in January 2015, Amedy Coulibaly – a friend of the two Charlie Hebdo gunmen – took hostages in a kosher supermarket, killing four, before he was killed by police.

The November 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert venue, which saw 90 people murdered, is also considered to have had a specifically anti-Semitic undertone, on account of it being owned by two Jewish brothers, Joel and Pascal Laloux, until just weeks before. In 2011 it was threatened by a group styling itself the Army of Islam. Newsweekly Le Point reported that the statement said: ‘We had planned an attack against the Bataclan because its owners are Jews’. It was also regularly picketed by anti-Zionist groups objecting to it hosting ‘pro-Israel’ events.

But if the vast scope of the Islamist terror threat facing the entire French nation in recent years has masked the specific problem of anti-Semitism, the brutal murders of two elderly Jewish women in their own homes has made it unavoidable.

Newspaper Le Parisien recently published a open letter headlined ‘A manifesto against the new anti-Semitism’. Signed by 300 notable writers, journalists, business leaders and actors including Gérard Depardieu, as well as former president Nicolas Sarkozy, it denounces politicians for refusing to speak out against anti-Semitism on the basis of cynical electoral calculations.

It claimed that 50,000 Jews have fled greater Paris in a ‘quiet ethnic purging’. The figure includes Jews leaving Paris’s suburbs or ‘banlieues’ for the safer environs of the solidly bourgeois western half of the city, but 5,000 left France altogether in 2016 alone, and 10% of France’s Jewish community quit the country between 2000 and 2017.

Anti-Semitic incidents, some violent, have also spiked. The French ministry of the interior recently released figures indicating that there were 92 violent anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, a 28% increase on the previous year. The upward trajectory had been noteworthy for some time: figures for 2014 show that 51% of all reported racist attacks targeted Jews.

The manifesto added: ‘In our recent history, 11 Jews have been assassinated – and some tortured – by radical Islamists [simply] because they were Jewish.’

Written by centre-left journalist Philippe Val – a former editor of Charlie Hebdo and later director of public service broadcaster France Inter – the manifesto didn’t just focus on the Islamist threat, however. It also took a swipe at the ‘radical left’ which had, the manifesto said: ‘found in anti-Zionism an alibi for transforming the executioners of Jews into society’s victims’.

The key accusation, echoing that made in Britain, is that some on the left, seeking to burnish its ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials, has moved from hostility to Israel to hostility to Jews. This month a Jewish student group at the Sorbonne university found its offices had been ransacked and scrawled with anti-Israel graffiti.

Indeed, France’s leading left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon recently found himself in company he would rather not keep when both he and Marine Le Pen, as leader of what is now the National Rally (formerly the National Front) were told by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) to stay away from the demonstration at Place de la Nation. Both politicians, enemies from opposite ends of the spectrum, turned-up regardless – separately of course. Both also found themselves jostled and shouted at by the crowd.

The firebrand leftist Mélenchon has a history of making remarks that have been interpreted by some as anti-Semitic, or at least inflammatory, including saying a French Socialist party politician ‘thinks in international finances, not in French’, and praising French youth for demonstrating outside the Israeli embassy.

In 2017, in the heat of the presidential election, CRIF told the Jewish Telegraph Agency newswire that ‘They [Le Pen and Mélenchon] both traffic in hatred, and they are both a danger to democracy’.

Anti-Semitism is France has as long a history as it does elsewhere in Europe. It was, in one sense, the birthplace of Zionism, the movement for a Jewish homeland. It began, at least in part, here, in response to anti-Jewish sentiment.

Despite the French Revolution emancipating the country’s Jews, prejudice persisted, eventually coming to a head with the Dreyfus Affair, which began in 1894 when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was falsely accused of spying for Germany.

Along with pogroms in eastern Europe, the Affair inspired Theodor Herzl to argue for the foundation of a Jewish state, where Jews would be safe from persecution.

Despite inspiring much soul searching, notably the famous ‘J’accuse…!’ open letter from Émile Zola, France’s dark history did not end with the Dreyfus Affair. Visitors to Paris arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport often take the RER suburban train into the city, largely unaware that it travels through Drancy, the suburban marshalling yard that was once the site of an internment camp where almost 70,000 Jews were held before being shipped to Nazi death camps in central and eastern Europe.

Rocked by the experience of the Holocaust, France sought to purge itself of anti-Jewish prejudice in the name of a secular republic – and, to some degree, was successful. France today has, with 500,000 Jews, the largest Jewish population in Europe, and the third largest in the world after the United States and Israel.

In the post-war period French anti-Semitism was clustered on the far-right, by the 1970s congealing around the National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who famously declared the Holocaust to be ‘a detail of history’.

Le Pen remained on the fringes, though, and his one shot at power – facing-down Jacques Chirac in the 2002 presidential election – saw left and right unite to give his party a drubbing: 82.2% of the vote went to Chirac, and just 17.8% to Le Pen.

In the end he was ejected from his own party, ousted by his daughter Marine Le Pen, who spent a decade attempting to change the party’s image from being a collection of cranky Holocaust deniers, would-be colonialists and Vichy nostalgists to the doughtiest defender of republican values. In order to do this Marine Le Pen openly courted Jewish votes, and though few expected her to win significant numbers, the strategy was nonetheless central to the party’s later rise: by declaring itself a friend to Jews, Marine Le Pen was telegraphing that the party was the true inheritor of French secularism. Certainly, washing away the malodour of Jew-baiting was more important than winning the votes of actual Jews, who make up less than 1% of France’s population.

Today, the old right, elements of the radical left and now, radical Islam, all stand accused of incubating a revival of anti-Semitism.

Addressing the role of Islam in strictly secular France is, perhaps, the most controversial element for those attempting to address the country’s anti-Semitism problem.

The manifesto published by Le Parisien called for Qur’anic reform, saying: ‘The verses of the Qur’an calling for the killing and punishment of Jews, Christians and unbelievers [must] be made redundant by [Islamic] theological authorities, as were the inconsistencies of the Bible and [therefore] Catholic anti-Semitism abolished by the Second Vatican Council [in 1965], so that no believer can rely on a sacred text to commit a crime.’

Not everyone accepts the idea that anti-Semitism is abroad in the country, and by taking aim at the Qur’an itself the manifesto has raised ire among some Muslims who feel they are having the finger pointed at them unjustly, with innocent Muslims blamed for the actions of extremists.

Speaking to the AFP news agency, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, said the manifesto ‘creates a clear risk of pitching religious communities against one another’. Boubakeur denounced the ‘unjust and delirious accusations of anti-Semitism levied against French citizens of Muslim faith and against the Islam of France.’

Ahmet Ogras, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said: ‘The only thing we can agree on is that we must all unite against anti-Semitism’.

A second open letter followed, this time in Le Monde, signed by a series of French imams, which said that greater discernment was needed. The real perpetrators were, they said, ‘naive youth [who are] easy prey for ideologues who exploit their distress’ and who, influenced by geopolitical events, sought suicide as a form of ‘deliverance of existential suffering’ – a statement that could itself be interpreted as an intentional indictment of modern France, which stands accused by many Muslims and left-wingers of Islamophobia.

Clearly, this is one argument that, having now surfaced, will not quietly melt into the night.

Meanwhile, though reduced in comparison to recent years, the military patrols continue to stalk Paris, and synagogues and Jewish schools and community centres remain under armed guard.

The threat of mass terrorist attacks appears to have receded, at least for now, but France’s Jewish community continues to feel that it is under siege – and, in its darkest moments, that its very future in the country is in doubt.

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