These words were written by Christophe Barbier, the publisher and leading editorialist of France’s flagship left-of-center magazine, L’Express:
How will Jews who fear an antisemitic upsurge in France and opt to leave behind them those other Jews who cannot or do not want to go away clean themselves from an accusation of cowardice?
French Jews have been subjected to unprecedented violence and intimidation for weeks. Many of them are losing heart and considering emigrating, or are actually emigrating — by the thousands — to Israel or other places, including North America and Australia. Still, in the eyes and under the pen of the country’s leading journalist, they should be reviled as “deserters.”
In fact, Barbier goes even further. He blames French Jews for many more sins beyond emigration: indulging in self-defense, “bunkerization,” support for the Benjamin Netanyahu government in Israel, and, last but not least, an alleged growing sympathy for Marine Le Pen and the far Right. French Jews, as he sees it, are becoming a threat to France as a nation and as a republic.
He warns them: “If they think that it is problematic to be Jewish while French, they vindicate those who say that it is problematic to be French while Jewish.”
Then there is the headline under which he runs his piece: ”Les Nouveaux Baal Zebud” (New Baal Zebuds). That Barbier or L’Express are unsure about the spelling of Baal-Zebuth (or Beelzebuth) is one thing (in the editorial proper, the correct, biblical orthography is restored). That they rhetorically and yet blatantly associate French Jews with Canaanite gods — described in the Hebrew Bible as sanguinary and deceptive, and widely identified in the Christian and post-Christian tradition and culture with the Devil himself — is another.
I will always remember how shocked I was in 1967 when General de Gaulle, the former head of the French Resistance and the founder of the French Fifth Republic, whom my French Jewish family venerated, blamed Israel for the Six-Day War. He also characterized the Jewish people as a whole as “an elite, assertive and domineering people,“ with large resources in “money, influence and propaganda“ in many countries, especially America. Mutatis mutandis, I feel the same about Barbier today.
For years, I have wondered — and so have many other citizens of France — why de Gaulle indulged in anti-Semitism, or took up again with anti-Semitism, at the very end of his administration. I found some answers, from his education and early military career; grand strategy calculations. I now wonder why Barbier, the diminutive media de Gaulle of 2014, is turning against the Jews, too. I see at least one answer.
Anti-Jewish violence and abuse have been endemic in France ever since the early 2000s. As in other European countries, this has to do primarily, albeit not exclusively, with the growth of Muslim immigrant communities, where a casual, unreconstructed, almost candid anti-Semitism is part of everyday life and culture. Muslim anti-Semites are virulent by themselves. In addition, they grant French anti-Semitism at large a “critical mass,” and a new veneer of respectability or acceptability. Witness the success of Dieudonné Mbala Mbala, the French-Cameroonese anti-Semitic humorist and agitator.
In many ways, Muslim-linked anti-Semitism fluctuates according to the situation in the Middle East and the way it is covered both by Muslim media, either foreign or domestic (satellite TV channels from Arab countries, internet websites), and the mainstream French media (which, for various reasons, tend to be pro-Arab or pro-Islamic). A first peak of Muslim and non-Muslim violence was reached in the years 2000-2002, as a reaction to the so-called Second Intifada. Further outbursts occurred in 2006 (the Israel-Hezbollah war), in 2008-2009 (the first confrontation between Israel and Hamas), and in 2012 (the second Israel-Hamas confrontation).
Muslim and non-Muslim anti-Jewish violence may happen as well in between Israel-related conflicts. Although incidents may be fewer, they are often more lethal. Both the kidnapping and torturing to death in the Paris area of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish salesman, in January 2006, and the murder in cold blood of a Jewish teacher and three Jewish preteen children in Toulouse in March 2012 occurred during periods of relative calm between Israel and the Palestinians. The same is true of the massacre at the Jewish museum in Brussels last May, presumably by a French Muslim terrorist.
Everyone expected the third Israel-Hamas confrontation this summer to translate into anti-Jewish violence. What came as a surprise, however, was the level of violence. BNVCA (the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti- Semitism), a private agency founded and directed by Sammy Ghozlan, a former police commissioner and a board member of Consistoire (the National Union of French Synagogues), reported at least one hundred anti-Semitic aggressions in less than three weeks. They ranged from verbal abuse to attacks on persons or property, including shops, restaurants and synagogues. Some attacks were carried out by just a few individuals; others were conducted by mobs in the wake of pro-Hamas demonstrations, and were very much like pogroms, a completely unprecedented outcome.
The first pogrom-like incident occurred on July 13 on the eve of Bastille Day, France’s national holiday. Bernard Boucault, the Paris préfet de police (high police commissioner), had authorized a pro-Palestinian demonstration right across the city from Barbes, the beating heart of Muslim Paris in the 18th district. The protest would kick off in Place de la Bastille (Bastille Circle) in the central district — an almost legendary landmark for leftwing rallies. Apparently, the préfet had not realized that the demonstrators were to march through Jewish-populated areas and quite close to many synagogues and Jewish shops.
The demonstration itself was eerie enough. The mob — overwhelmingly people of North African or Sub-Saharan African origin — waved Arab and jihadist flags, displayed scale models of Hamas rockets, and chanted “Itbah al-Yahud!” (“Slaughter the Jews” in Arabic). According to BNVCA, some demonstrators covered the doors or windows of presumably “Jewish-owned“ shops and offices with stickers urging people “to boycott the racist state of Israel.”
As the rally was about to end, about one hundred demonstrators headed to the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue on Rue de la Roquette (Roquette Street), a few blocks from Place de la Bastille. Two to three hundred Jewish worshipers had gathered there around the chief rabbi of Paris, Michel Gugenheim, for a pro-Israel and pro-peace service. Security was provided by a few policemen and members of two Jewish youth organizations: SPCJ (the Jewish Community Security Service) and LDJ (Ligue de Défense Juive: a French group modeled after the American and Israeli Jewish Defense League). According to many eyewitnesses, the pro-Hamas mobsters attempted to storm the synagogue and to disrupt the service, or maybe even to torch the place; the Jewish youths fought back.
Manuel Valls, the socialist prime minister of France, whose private home is located in the same neighborhood, called Serge Benhaim, the synagogue’s chairman, and urged him to keep the worshipers locked inside the building until substantial police forces could be gathered. It took hours. In the meantime, Rue de la Roquette turned into a street guerrilla theater scene.
More demonstrations took place on the following day, Bastille Day itself, which is usually devoted to patriotic ceremonies only. There were also protests in many other French cities, in spite of last minute bans issued by the local préfets (ordinary government commissioners) who wield police powers everywhere but in the largest towns. In Nice, conservative mayor Christian Estrosi had urged for days that a pro-Hamas demonstration be banned. The ban was issued so late that police forces did not bother to enforce it. In Greater Lille, where half the population is deemed to be Muslim, demonstrators circumvented the ban by picking up an alternative itinerary.
On July 19, an unauthorized pro-Hamas demonstration complete with Palestinian, North African, and jihadist flags as well as hate slogans against Jews was blocked by the police in the largely Muslim neighborhood of Barbes, in Paris. Street violence ensued.
On July 20 things went even worse in Sarcelles, a Northern suburb of Paris where large Muslim, Jewish, and Middle Eastern Christian communities had hitherto lived together on largely peaceful terms. Pro-Hamas rioters attacked and indiscriminately torched synagogues, Jewish and Christian shops, and public offices. On July 26, another unauthorized demonstration in the Place de la République (Republic Square) area in Paris, partly sponsored by the Trotskyite New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), ended in violence and clashes with the police. Far Right activists joined the rioters. Some mobsters attacked the Marais, the old Jewish district in Central Paris. One kosher restaurant, located near the famous Hector Guimard-designed Art Nouveau synagogue, was targeted in particular.
Only one demonstration in Paris, on July 23, was authorized and went on without major incident. It was supported by thirty-three socialist members of the National Assembly or the European Parliament, and apparently closely supervised by the pro-Palestinian wing of the socialist party. Indeed, in contradistinction with the previous rallies, the crowd was European in outlook, rather than North African or African. Still, Bruno Roger-Petit from Le Nouvel Observateur, a leftwing weekly, pointed out that crude pro-jihadist and anti-Semitic placards could be seen even there, and that members of the anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta, who had taken part in full Chasidic garb in the rally, had been subjected to verbal and physical abuse.
For about two weeks, the mainstream media and the political class dwelled on the issue of anti-Semitism and the need to combat it, even as it masqueraded as “anti-Zionism.” On July 20, while streets in Sarcelles were set aflame, socialist president François Hollande reiterated that “anti-Semitic or racist words or deeds would not be tolerated.“ The day after, Valls commented: “What happened in Sarcelles is unacceptable. Attacks against synagogues or kosher shops are racist and anti-Semitic, period.”
However, a second, very different issue was looming as well. Many people had been shocked, not just by the pro-Hamas demonstrators’ sheer anti-Semitism and violence, but also by their aggressively ethnic or even supremacist attitude. It was perhaps legitimate for demonstrators to wave Palestinian flags. Waving Hamas yellow flags or ISIS black and green flags was certainly more problematic. But what about Algerian, Tunisian, Mauritanian, and Turkish flags? And what about the conspicuous absence of French flags? The message, clearly, was that the immigrant Muslim community, as such, was showing its muscle. And that it was the wave of the future. The Gaza war was merely a pretext.
Conservative media and blogs — which on the whole had been a bit more supportive of Israel in the Gaza confrontation than the mainstream media — were very concerned about the pro-Hamas demonstrations’ implicit message (a “French intifada,” as it was often described), and the rise of an Islamic counter-nation within the nation. The conservative political class, who usually lags much behind conservative public opinion in these matters, took heed. The former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is likely to run in the 2017 presidential election, let Valeurs Actuelles, the authoritative conservative weekly, report the following view: “What is going on now in terms of anti-Semitism is very worrying. … First, what is at stake is our Jewish brothers. … Then, it should be stressed that everybody is going to be somebody else’s Jew. … The next step is hatred for all French people.”
Almost instantly, liberal, left-wing, and progressive media engaged in a global whitewashing of the pro-Hamas demonstrators — a trend culminating with Le Monde, the distinguished newspaper, praising “the #Gaza generation“ on its front page on July 25. Moreover, they started a smear campaign against LDJ, presumably in order to show that “Jewish extremists” were as dangerous as jihadists. On July 31, Libération, which is to France what The Guardian is to England, ran a story on its front page on LDJ and the need to ban it. It quoted, quite accurately, senior officials as saying that the interior ministry was prepared to take such a step. Joel Mergui, the chairman of Consistoire, fiercely retorted on several TV channels that he was not aware that “one single Jew on one single instance attacked one single mosque or Muslim place in France,“ and wondered why LDJ should be singled out as a security hazard rather than “the organizers and sponsors of antisemitic demonstrations“ and other hate inciters.
On the same day, a pro-Israel demonstration was held in Paris, one block away from Elysée — the French president’s palace. The new chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, said the Prayer for the French Republic, which, as required by Jewish religious law, is said on Sabbath day in every synagogue. Marseillaise, the national anthem of France, was sung. French flags were waved along with Israeli flags. Placards expressing solidarity for Iraqi Christians were displayed. Not a single racist or anti-Muslim word was heard. In fact L’Express devoted its July 9 cover story to the event and the French Jews’ existential dilemmas. It did not prevent Barbier from writing and publishing the astounding editorial where, in fact, he ascribed to French Jews the controversial or unacceptable behavior of many French Muslims.
The love for symmetry and the passion for polarization are powerful human characteristics. Still, it is very unlikely that French liberals, progressives, and liberal media are siding with the pro-Hamas demonstrators and the Muslim community, and getting entangled in anti-Semitic diatribes, just because the conservative media sides with the pro-Israel demonstrators and the Jewish community. Something else must be at play.
Call it the French socialists’ Muslim conundrum. Both President Hollande and Premier Valls are seen, rightly or not, as pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, and have managed to derive some benefit from that. On the other hand, the Muslim vote was overwhelmingly (86%) pro-socialist and pro-Left in the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections and thus instrumental in their otherwise narrow victory (less than two points over Sarkozy and the conservatives in global terms). Many socialists may think they just cannot afford to lose the Muslim vote in future elections.
One way to win back the Muslim vote is to reiterate the socialist administration’s commitment, as Hollande did on Bastille Day, to such revolutionary and possibly unconstitutional measures like granting electoral franchise in local elections to mostly Muslim foreign residents and thus increasing dramatically Muslim political leverage and patronage. Another way is to give the pro-Islamic socialist wing more visibility, as was done with the “authorized” July 23 pro-Hamas demonstration. Still, the wildest card is to pretend to be fighting extremism “on both sides,” which may imply, in practical terms, building from scratch a hitherto non-existent Jewish “extremist threat.”
Hence the LDJ scare, Barbier’s pathetic “Baal-Zebuds,“ and so forth.