“The darkness drops again”: The Rise of Anti-Semitism in France
On January 26th, the French Ministry of the Interior released its yearly statement about anti-religious, anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic acts, noting a 27% rise in anti-Semitic acts in 2019 (compared with the previous year). 2018 also proved to be a dire watershed in the history of contemporary French anti-Semitism, with a 74% rise . Such ominous figures inevitably raise the question of their interpretation: is anti-Semitism gaining momentum in France? Is it becoming more casual than before to openly take part in anti-Semitic acts and speeches? Are there new causes for anti-Semitism, along with the evil roots of our recent past? “The darkness drops again”, Yeats wrote, fearing the “second coming” of a catastrophe; this article aims at studying the causes of this renewed darkness.
It is important to start with a study of the analytical tools used to produce these statistics, insofar as they reveal major divides.
Firstly, these figures are not calculated by a single governmental body. They come from various religious associations, which provide the Ministry of the Interior with the data they have gathered. One of the main actors is the Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ), founded in 1980. It is able to draw a list of anti-Semitic acts thanks to continuous exchanges with the police and the gendarmerie, as well as with direct ties with the Ministry of the Interior, using the same terminology . It distinguishes between actions on the one hand (violence, attacks, damage…) and threats on the other (mostly inscriptions and offensive behaviour). These two categories frame the entire investigation process, before having the results sent to the Ministry, which will eventually lead to the release of the final statistics. The assessment of anti-Semitic acts thus results from a tight cooperation between the state and subsidiary entities, making it a seminal issue for both public policy and civil society.
However, the calculation method used by the SPCJ is not greeted with unanimous support from certain observers, especially when it comes to the mere characterization of anti-Semitic acts. The limits of such investigation processes is often highlighted by the reports of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), a French governmental organization created in 1947. For instance, the 2000 activity report underlined the necessity to specify the diverse categories of anti-Semitism. Polls and surveys often smooth out major distinctions that prove decisive in order to qualify the cause of these acts; whether it be religious anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism as an opposition to the existence of the State of Israel, anti-Semitism as racism towards Jews… Added to that is a significant evolution of answers themselves. In this report, political scientists Nonna Mayer and Guy Michelat have noticed a decrease in the refusal to answer questions related to anti-Semitic biases. According to them, it is not so much a blatant rise of anti-Semitism as it is a decline of what they call “shameful anti-Semites”. In other words, we have been witnessing since 2000 onwards a more liberated expression of anti-Semitic speech. There lie the limits of these surveys, which hardly take into account the evolution of answers to their own questions. This is why the SCPJ often reminds the Ministry of the shortcomings of such figures: these statistics inevitably underrate the reality of anti-Semitism in France, whether it be its actual calculation or its various facets.
But one of the most important dimensions of this topic is the political divide regarding the fight against anti-Semitism, a political divide that is widened by these rising acts.
The state has obviously a major part to play. As sociologist Samuel Ghiles-Meilac put it , “producing and releasing statistics aims at making anti-Semitism part of the agenda as a stake of public policy”. The goal of these surveys is to make it a public issue that — should the government fail to tackle it — would somehow reveal its weakness. The fight against anti-Semitism thus offers a valuable opportunity to observe and assess the state’s ability to protect its citizens, especially minorities. That is the reason why prominent members of the government always attend the yearly dinner held by the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF). The latest took place on February 20th, 2019, and was attended by French President Emmanuel Macron. The speech he delivered aimed at framing his administration’s policy so as to grapple with rising anti-Semitism. He notably pledged to abide by the definition that is put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which considers anti-Zionism as a new form of anti-Semitism. The IHRA denounces the idea that all Jews would be collectively responsible for the state of Israel, which underpins the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionist comments and acts should therefore be punished with the same severity as anti-Semitism. Mr Macron’s declaration led to legislative changes in December 2019, by adopting this new definition, which sparked a fiery debate in France and abroad. For instance, 127 Jewish intellectuals (including Judith Butler and Joseph Levine) published an opinion piece in the national daily Le Monde, explicitly calling upon French MPs to vote against this law. According to them, linking anti-Zionism (i.e. the rejection of the very existence of the state of Israel) to anti-Semitism implicitly designates Israel as “a community composed of Jewish citizens”, whereas 25% of its population is mostly Muslim or Christian. Adopting such a definition would thus be tantamount to casually dismissing about a quarter of the Israeli population. Moreover, they believe it would consistently undermine the possibility of criticizing Israel policies, especially related to the Palestinian issue. They accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of comparing anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in order to defuse any attempt to criticize his nationalist policy. France therefore dances to Mr Netanyahu’s tune by acknowledging this new definitional frame. This reaction to the French bill exemplifies the kind of controversy that the anti-Semitism issue sparks off, insofar as it provides a good example of the government’s ability (or not) to assert and defend the rights of its citizens.
However, the major pitfall is that of political appropriation. Indeed, since unwavering commitment to this cause is a token of political respectability, then it might be used as a political tool regardless of its primary goal (reducing anti-Semitic acts and threats on national soil). This is evidenced by the analysis that was conducted by Brigitte Beauzamy and Marie-Cécile Naves about the aggression of three Jewish teenagers in Paris, in September 2008. Many actors such as the press, associations or political leaders immediately qualified this aggression as an anti-Semitic act, although the police investigation was still pending. Yet justice dismissed the aggravating circumstance of anti-Semitism (notably because one of the aggressors was wearing a kippah) and deemed that it was more akin to a school brawl. Mrs Beauzamy and Mrs Naves show that some Jewish associations rejected the verdict and started spreading their own interpretation in the media, so as to win over political authorities and public opinion. “The construction as well as the deconstruction of rumours of anti-Semitism, whether they be based on facts or not, contributes to a political strategy of appropriation by some observers —more than the victims themselves, as it were.” Yet this strategy can also work out against the Jewish community. Such books as L’Antisémitisme partout. Aujourd’hui en France (“Anti-Semitism Everywhere. In France Today”) written by Alain Badiou and Éric Hazan even put forward the idea that the very use of the word “anti-Semitism” aims at preventing any criticism of Israel policies. The systematic qualification of aggressions against Jewish people as anti-Semitic aggressions would evince an unshakable support for Israel, and make it impossible to question it. Beyond the blatant limitations of such theses (which give credence to the idea that all Jews would unanimously support Israel and thus become its unofficial representatives), they show us to what extent the mere characterization of anti-Semitic acts epitomizes partisan and divisive positions.
Such divides worsen when it comes to the analysis of the plausible causes of the rise of anti-Semitism in France. Since the beginning of the 2000s, there has been a debate revolving around the notion of new anti-Semitism, linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would be the main divide regarding the assessment of anti-Semitic acts in France; namely, the correlation with the evolution of this conflict. However, the CRIF itself has made it easy to connect these two dots, by explicitly showing its link with Israel. For instance, from 1977 onwards, the CRIF has been defining Israel as the “privileged expression of the Jewish being” ; and Théo Klein, who chaired the CRIF from 1983 to 1989, declared that “any Jewish child is born with the nostalgia of Jerusalem in its heart”. Such overt support for Israel makes it difficult to analyse anti-Semitic acts without taking into account the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, inasmuch as contemporary anti-Semitism thus seems to partially feed off anti-Zionist grounds (although, as I shall demonstrate, this correlation is hardly systematic). This is what the CNCDH reports have been showing since 2000. The transmission of unbearable images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (especially during the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005) brought about a global context that was “propitious for the expression of anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish feelings”, with the images of dead and wounded Palestinians. Although the correlation between this conflict and anti-Semitic acts in France proves to be an efficient analytical grid, it must not be the only one, insofar as it would not enable us to perceive an actual rise of anti-Semitism in France, but merely a correlation between an exogenous conflict and anti-Semitic acts on national soil that would be nothing but repercussions of this conflict.
This is why I deem it important to provide an analysis of anti-Semitic biases in France, not because they would necessarily spur people into action, but because they would reveal a latent background of anti-Semitism in France, against which violent acts would stand out. Such biases are evidenced by a poll that was conducted in October 2017 by Ipsos and the Foundation of French Judaism. It underscores a glaring contradiction in the way the French perceive French and foreign Jews. 85% of French people think that there is no excuse for anti-Semitic comments and acts, yet 58% of French people share at least five anti-Semitic biases out of a list of fourteen common prejudices. For instance, 52% think that Jews have too much power; 53% believe that Jews feel more attached to Israel than France… This contradiction thus invalidates the idea of an ineluctable causality between anti-Semitic biases and acts, but it reveals how disturbingly pervaded with anti-Semitic biases France is today. No social or political category comes untouched. The rise of anti-Semitic acts is therefore correlated with (rather than caused by) the persistence of such biases, and the casual, growing liberation of anti-Semitic speech.
There is another final factor, that is regularly pointed at by the CNCDH reports, especially since 2012 (right after French jihadist Mohammed Merah shot to death four children and teachers at a Jewish school in Toulouse, among other victims). In addition to the repercussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mrs Nonna Mayer notices a sudden rise of anti-Semitic acts in the wake of extremely violent, highly mediatized acts like Merah’s (she also highlighted the same phenomenon in January 2006, following the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi). The media impact of anti-Semitic violence would thus favour its acting out, as the expression of this violence shows that this expression is possible and feasible. We thus notice a sort of grim spiral, where an anti-Semitic act implicitly paves the way for the following acts. Yet this spiral should be cautiously regarded as a correlation rather than a causality; otherwise, it would amount to abiding by a blind determinism, far from true empirical considerations.
In conclusion, this analysis of the rise of anti-Semitic acts in France reveals well-spread divides in many respects: regarding the causes, between latent biases and a new form of anti-Semitism linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; regarding the investigation methods and political action, with the controversial distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and their equally controversial assimilation. The fight against anti-Semitism in France can no longer spare itself the expense of analysing political and religious dissensions between its various actors, all the more as the conflict in the Middle East has to be taken into consideration. Yet above all, the issue of anti-Semitic biases is seminal, insofar as it implies dealing with mindsets, changing long-established mental structures. “It is the idea of the Jew that one forms for himself which would seem to determine history, not the “historical fact” that produces the idea”, Sartre wrote in Anti-Semite and Jew, showing that the fight against anti-Semitism has to start with representations, along with enlightened political action.
Ghiles-Meilhac, Samuel. « Mesurer l’antisémitisme contemporain : enjeux politiques et méthode scientifique », Revue d’histoire moderne & contemporaine, vol. 62-2/3, no. 2, 2015, pp. 201-224.
Beauzamy, Brigitte, et Marie-Cécile Naves. « Usages politiques des récits d'agressions antisémites et de violences policières. De la rumeur à la mobilisation », Mots. Les langages du politique, vol. 92, no. 1, 2010, pp. 41-56.
Rencontres du CRIF, Paris, 19 et 20 octobre 1985, Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France, mars 1986 (AIU et CDJC, fonds Théo Klein).
CNCDH, La Lutte contre le racisme et la xénophobie — Rapport d’activité 2000, 2012