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Anti-Semitism in France, an Assessment
A report from Haim Musicant, Director-General of CRIF
(Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France - the umbrella body representing the organized Jewish community in France)
This report originally appeared in the CRIF English-language newsletter

Posted: December 30, 2003

France is not an anti-Semitic country. Why then have there been so many anti-Semitic attacks in the past years? CRIF's Haim Musicant tries to explain in this overview why it took the French authorities so long to grasp the new reality of anti-Semitism.

A few years ago, in 2001 for instance, I do not think we would have discussed an issue such as the one on our agenda. At the end of the 1990s, the Jewish community of France was living in peace. Worrying events did occur, however in the past three decades we never felt the Jewish community being questioned regarding its role within French society. The future of the Jewish community in France was simply not an issue. This situation has changed in the past three years partly due to the large amount of serious events that have occurred, pointing at a deep crisis within French society and due, too, to the comments made by intellectual circles, by the powers that be, by the media, by the public opinion and by the Jewish community itself.

Before adding my own remarks, let me give you a brief overview of the Jewish community of France and its background.

It is a community with a broad spectrum, the first in Europe and second only to the United States. It is a strong, structured, centralized community. The Consistoire Central takes care of the religious issues; the Fonds Social Juif Unifié is in charge of welfare and of education and the CRIF is representing French Jewry on a political level. CRIF commemorated this year the 60th anniversary of its creation in 1943 under German occupation, an offspring of the networks of Jewish Resistance. On this occasion, CRIF organized a symposium, "Long Live The Republic!" and was invited to the presidential palace by French President Jacques Chirac.

Our community is alive with many religious, political and cultural trends. Over 31 000 pupils are attending Jewish schools. Jewish studies become more and more important, including Hebrew and Yiddish classes. There is an active Jewish press, four Jewish radio stations in Paris itself and many more in the provinces, a Jewish television station and a second one in the pipes plus several Jewish web sites on the Internet. French theatre and movie industry often deal with Jewish topics. French Judaism is a visible element of the French landscape.

The Nineties have strengthened the material and symbolic link between the Jews and their homeland. French President Jacques Chirac in his July 16, 1995, speech commemorating the roundup of the Jews in 1942 known as the "Vel d'Hiv roundup" officially condemned the responsibility of the Vichy regime in this tragic event of our history. The Jewish community had been expecting this official admission of the facts and of the French collaboration with the Nazis for the past 50 years. It was greeted accordingly.

In 1997, the Catholic Church recognized that it kept silent during the Nazi Occupation.

The Matteoli commission was appointed to assess the consequences of the then anti-Semitic French legislation on Jewish property. Then came the Drai commission - still active - to compensate those who were despoiled. The compensations enabled the creation in December 2000 of a Fund for the Remembrance of the Holocaust, chaired by Mrs Simone Veil.

This brief overview was just meant to show where we were coming from, as compared to the present situation. May be the violence currently endured by the Jewish community is a backlash in one way or another of the efforts of compensation and of recognition of what happened during the Holocaust. The support in favor of the Jewish people is totally focused on the compensation for the Holocaust. Maybe those efforts have unwittingly unleashed a greater tolerance to the reactions to the Middle East conflict.

The organized Jewish community strongly supports Israel. The debatable aspects of Israel's policy do not weaken this support. The constant flow of French tourists to Israel in general and especially last August proved if needed the capacity of the Jews of France to demonstrate the strength of the links binding them to Israel. Many of those tourists have relatives and friends in Israel and even own flats there. The main Jewish institutions in France often organize trips to Israel with hundreds of participants. In June of 2003, CRIF, the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, the Consistoire Central and the Consistoire of Paris organized a major event, "Twelve Hours in Support of Friendship Between France and Israel". Over 50 000 people participated in Paris itself only.

This link with Israel is vivid and deep. The French Jews experienced it in their daily lives and in an unexpected way in September 2000.

The visit of Ariel Sharon on the Temple Mount and its alleged or real consequences on the revival of the Intifada spread with an incredible speed and triggered serious consequences on the daily lives of Jews in France, still felt today.

In fact, this violence had been brewing for a long time, waiting just for a right trigger to explode.

Forewarning events occurred in the past two decades: the terrorist attacks on the Copernic synagogue in 1980 and on the Goldenberg restaurant in 1982, both in Paris; the desecration of the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras (South of France) in 1990; the rise of the extreme right-wing in Europe and in France itself with the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen since the early Eighties; changes occurring within the French society itself trying to absorb with great pain a large Arab Muslim community; the discovery by the French of their true history of World War II, of the war of Algeria and of the end of colonization; the revival of anti-Semitism clad in new dresses and the denial of the Holocaust.

Many reasons brought to the current situation in France and in Europe, leading to anti-Semitic attacks. I want to highlight the fact that the revival of the new Intifada and the attacks against the Jewish community on the eve of Rosh Hashanah occurred almost simultaneously in September 2000. Synagogues, community centers and Jewish schools were attacked and a great number of buildings were destroyed or burned down.

These attacks occurred in the suburbs of large cities, mainly in the Paris region and in other areas subjected to daily violence.

Generally speaking, the climate deteriorated. On the eve of Yom Kippur 2000, a delegation of CRIF called on the French President and on the then French Prime Minister. I must tell you that we were not heard; we were not at all understood. We went to state our deep concern following the multiplication of violent attacks against Jewish communities by suburban louts, most of them of Arab Muslim origin. Our hosts replied that France was not an anti-Semitic country, which was absolutely not what we were saying.

This situation prevailed for several months. We firmly condemned it in December 2001 on the occasion of the general meeting of CRIF by publishing the list of all the anti-Semitic attacks that had occurred since September 2000. The same evening, we were hosting at a large dinner party the Prime Minister, the major part of the French government, members of the National Assembly, senators, and political and religious representatives. This event garnered large media coverage. In a very tough speech CRIF's President Roger Cukierman seriously warned about the situation and condemned the lack of reaction of the government.

The French Socialist party today acknowledges that his friends who were then ruling the country did not grasp the seriousness of the situation.

I must go back to the causes of the current crisis. I must point at the obvious inability of the French Left to deal with immigration-related issues, leading to a deterioration that paved the way for the extreme right-wing. Arab Muslims are victims of a very difficult absorption process. The difficulty is stemming from a lack of economic perspective in the long run and from the lack of means to implement a decent absorption policy. Could those victims be held responsible for the attacks they have launched against the Jewish community? The Left had no answer to this question.

The French leaders feared that the Middle-east conflict would spread to the French suburbs, already lawless areas. An Intifada of the suburbs, so to speak.

In this listing of causes I must add the extreme left-wing political groups who served as hothouses in the Sixties and Seventies for today's leading writers in the French media.

I have to quote also the regrettable statements, exposed by a leading French daily, of a French academic and an advisor to the Socialist Party, Pascal Boniface, who made the Socialist leaders aware of Arithmetics 101: political decisions should be made according to simple accountancy rules, Arab votes outnumber Jewish votes by ten to one in France, explained Boniface.

I must also say a few words about the devil-like image of Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in France, preventing any possible discussion on Israel's policy and on the Middle-east conflict. One forgets that Sharon's predecessor was Ehud Barak and that Barak was the man in power when the Intifada broke out.

A few words must be said about the media's responsibility in the reporting of the Intifada. The French media contributed largely to the deterioration of the image of Israel in the eye of the French public opinion. I remember the case of this young Arab immigrant living in a French suburb explaining he decided to attack a synagogue after a TV newscast showing the Intifada. From this point of view, the media coverage improved in the last months. CRIF, with the support of some intellectuals, helped improving the atmosphere through targeted actions on the media exposing the bias and subjectivity of their reports and their serious consequences on the public opinion and on the Jewish community.

CRIF has been active relentlessly on all fronts, politics, media, trade unions, institutions, and public organizations. CRIF repeatedly requested the public powers to increase the security around the Jewish buildings and also to support the in-house security service of the Jewish community.

On April 7, 2002, a few weeks before the French Presidential election, CRIF organized a major demonstration all through France with more than 200,000 participants. The impressive crowd of 150,000 people marched through the streets of Paris chanting its condemnation of anti-Semitism and its support for Israel, victim of terrorist attacks. It was a very large success. However, it was a Jewish success, for 95% of the marchers were Jews and the non-Jewish participation was almost non-existent.

April 2002 was the worst month in terms of anti-Semitic aggressions in France.

This demonstration showed how isolated we were. We were very far from the tidal wave that swept through France following the desecration of the Carpentras cemetery in 1990, with French President François Mitterrand leading the demonstrators. Clearly enough, all political parties and leaders could then take part in the condemnation of the extreme-right wing, of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. On April 7, 2002, we were condemning a sick and blurry drift of the French society but our voice will not be heard as long as the image of Ariel Sharon will indirectly be referred to when we support Israel.

Then came the results of the first round of the presidential election in France. The National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen ignominiously ousted outgoing Prime Minister and Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. This political earthquake left the Jewish community between the hammer of the extreme right-wing's anti-Semitism and the anvil of a new anti-Semitism coming from the extreme left-wing and from an ideology close to the Arab-Muslim population.

Jacques Chirac won the second round and was thus re-elected for a five-year term. His victory put an end to the "cohabitation" (a right wing President with a Socialist Prime Minister) and led to the appointment of a right wing government who hurried to condemn the anti-Semitic attacks. These events thoroughly changed the political landscape but it cannot be said that we are back to the situation that prevailed before October 2000. In his first speech in front of a Jewish institution, the new French Prime Minister firmly condemned the attacks against Jews and stated, "Attacking a Jew is tantamount to attacking the Republic".

The Prime Minister's concern permeated to all other Cabinet Ministers who have to deal with anti-Semitism, namely the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Education. Together with CRIF, decisions were taken to fight anti-Semitism efficiently. The first results are already visible. Members of the National Assembly have unanimously passed a law toughening the sanctions for anti-Semitic attacks. This French law is said to be the most stringent in the world. I must however highlight that most of the lawsuits for anti-Semitic slurs or attacks while getting large media coverage, were thrown out of court. French law can be interpreted, allows for extenuating circumstances and French judges are independent. In spite of this, the French Minister of Justice repeatedly asked the Prosecutors to request "exemplary sanctions".

The police are collaborating efficiently with the Security of the Jewish community. The police protection is highly visible around Jewish institutions, schools and synagogues. The level of protection was upgraded to prevent any terrorist attack. In the past months, the attacks reported against Jewish property were by no means at the level of those of October 2000, September 2001 and April 2002. One may say that the peak of anti-Semitic attacks was reached in mid-2002.

In the same time, the situation kept deteriorating regarding the Middle-east conflict. There was an increasing number of demonstrations in favor of the Palestinians with people carrying Stars of David daubed with Swastikas, pictures of Ariel Sharon dressed as Adolph Hitler. Attempts were made to boycott Israel-made products and Israel's universities. A campaign was led to prevent the European Union from renewing its cooperation agreements with Israel. We successfully reined in the activities against Israel's universities. However the slogans against "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing" still appeal to militants of all sides and fool a public opinion unaware of the true meaning of the words being used. The fact that an overwhelming majority of the Jewish community is supporting Israel is used against it.

While there are no more major anti-Semitic events logged in the monthly reports, there are daily incidents on a smaller scale involving Jews in public transports, in the streets, at work, in residential areas and mainly at school. In other words, anti-Semitism is thriving. For the time being and luckily enough, there were no casualties, but the situation is tense.

This report is not something I wrote on my own. The remarks and comments come from the French National Commission for Human Rights. This institutional body is reporting once a year to the French Prime Minister on racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. It concluded that 2002 witnessed a worsening of the situation of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic attacks outnumbered racist attacks in 2002. 193 such attacks were recorded in 2002, six times the amount in 2001. The Ministry of Interior registered 731 anti-Semitic threats. The Commission for Human Rights turned on a red light following its worrying conclusions, requesting the Prime Minister to act to improve the situation. In the same report, the Commission disclosed a poll showing the public's ignorance and indifference to the increase of anti-Semitic attacks.

It is impossible not to see what is happening at school. The situation has been thoroughly analyzed in "The Republic's Lost Territories," a book published under the authority of Emmanuel Brenner in 2000. It is a series of accounts written by teachers, describing their daily experience. Their conclusion is the sad evidence of a deep-rooted anti-Semitism in state-run schools. This issue was picked up by CRIF's President Roger Cukierman in a powerful speech addressing the Prime Minister, the largest part of the French government and scores of political and religious representatives, on the occasion of CRIF's annual dinner in January 2003. Hundreds of copies of the book were handed out to the participants. Since the schools were named in the book, no one could decently claim from then on that he didn't know that Jewish children were prevented from attending some state-run schools because they were mobbed by Arab Muslim children; or that teachers couldn't teach anymore their classes about the history of the Ancient Hebrews, about the Dreyfus Case or about the Holocaust without being ragged by some pupils; while anti-Semitic slogans are taken for granted by the latter.

The Minister of Education was made aware of this point during a meeting with a delegation of CRIF led by its chairman Roger Cukierman in February 2003. The Minister of Education condemned the rise of demagogy in schools, the partisan use of the Middle-east conflict, the freedom given to the pupils' anti-Semitic speech and the lack of reaction of part of the teaching corps. The Minister announced a series of measures to counter this unbearable situation in total contradiction with the principles of the Republic's secular school system.

This issue reached the front pages of the French and International press. Dailies and weeklies wrote about anti-Semitism in schools, anti-Semitism in general, about the French Jews' "unease" and about the so-called "conflict with the Arab-Muslim community". There, too, insidiously, semantics went astray. Until now, the Jews in France were a model of integration into the Republic and were regarded as French citizens for generations and centuries. In the eye of the press, they suddenly became again "a community" with lots of question marks and suspicion at a time when France is asking itself how it will absorb its large Arab-Muslim community.

Simultaneously, the gap between France and the United States widened over the Iraq issue. France piled up presidential decisions against the war and demonstrators took to the streets at such a pace that one may have thought that the Jewish community would not get away unharmed. And again, we saw demonstrators with flags, slogans and scarves blaming Bush and Sharon, Israel and the United States being the Great Satans of a Little International sacrificing the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples.

In the course of one such pacifist demonstrations, a party of demonstrators left the march to violently attack a tiny group of Jewish youths of Hashomer Hatzair standing at the gate of their premises for a Saturday afternoon activity. The young Jews were spotted because one of them was wearing a skullcap. Here again, the French government and part of the political class condemned this particularly violent aggression.

The Jews of France are living against this background. The evil is visible to the naked eye and medicines cant help. The current French government has demonstrated its good will and its decisions are providing a slight improvement. For instance, on the issue of anti-Semitism at school, the educational system braced itself to come up with tools of prevention and monitoring of any event that could even look like anti-Semitism at school. Contacts with CRIF are going on in a spirit of open cooperation.

The same good will and open spirit prevails in other Ministries where civil servants are working on the issue of anti-Semitism. I personally meet with representatives of these Ministries in the framework of the monthly encounters initiated by France's current Prime Minister. The police are also collaborating with the Jewish community's Security service, in a spirit of efficiency and good communication.

CRIF is fighting on all fronts, and the battle is tough. On the political side, we must maintain a fruitful dialogue with the media, with the representatives of the major religions, with the local communities and with the trade unions. In some areas, there are breakthroughs; in others, things move at a slower pace. We do insist upon maintaining two channels, two directions for the work we have been performing since our creation: the protection of the Jewish community in France and the support of Israel. It is not always easy to strike the right balance between both activities. From this point of view, the large demonstration we organized on June 12, 2003, "In Support of Friendship Between France and Israel" was a major success. Over 50,000 people stood at a standstill to listen to an impressive parade of France's main political leaders - from Left to Right, with the exception of the extremes - who literally begged CRIF to be invited.

Protect the Jewish community, protect Israel are our two daily and difficult missions. We are always looking for new ideas and new initiatives. One of our most successful initiatives is the organization of tours in Israel for French journalists. The aim is to show them something they have never seen before: the reality of Israel. Slowly, we start to see a little change and improvement in the representation of Israel in the media.

Our constant concern is to find out how to pursue a sustained dialogue with our non-Jewish partners, in France and abroad. We do our best to keep up with our principles and defend our rights in a country offering an unlimited space to the Jews. We do not think we are living in France in a particularly anti-Semitic environment. It is obvious to us that there is a revival of anti-Semitism in several other countries. There are beyond the shadow of a doubt sociological and historic distinctive features in France putting us Jews in a rather sensitive position, but I hope we will have the means to overcome this situation. Let's not delude ourselves: this goal will be difficult to reach. We know that crises are cyclical and I hope the current one will end soon. Allow me to insist upon the fact that the Jews in France are facing a crisis that is part of a much broader national issue involving sociology, demography, economy and politics. It would be unrealistic to try and assess our own problems without replacing them within a larger reality of which we are part and parcel.

I quoted in my presentation the statement made by France's Prime Minister in July 2002: "Aggressing a Jew is tantamount to aggressing the Republic." This statement has many consequences. Had I delivered this speech some years ago, I would have said, "Jews feel at ease in France and are full of confidence". Well, confidence is out and this is the time for questions.

Mr. Musicant is Director-General of the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), the umbrella body representing the organized Jewish community in France.
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