A Response to the Cries of anti-Semitism in France
By Stéphane Beder
In the past few days I have received numerous messages of concern from friends from all over the world. They refer to media coverage of the anti-Semitic attacks that took place in Paris and often make comparisons to World War II, such as the attacks of Kristallnacht.
First, let me be clear: These are very serious and bad events but the situation is far from being the apocalyptic crisis that one could believe when hearing CNN; I can’t help thinking of my Israeli friends who explain that life continues even when siren alerts are heard several times a day.
Secondly, France isn’t an anti-Semitic country: I encourage those who are interested in the subject to read the New York Times op-ed co-written by France’s Minister of Interior affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs a couple of weeks ago.
So what is exactly going on in France?
Today’s anti-Semitism in France has nothing to do with historical dark events (Dreyfus Affair, Vichy regime). Actually, given its tragic past France still holds anti-Semitism as the ultimate taboo – prohibiting anti-Semitism supersedes freedom of speech, hence the government’s cancellations of the shows of an anti-Semitic comedian named Dieudonné; the government ban on Pro-Hamas demonstrations; and government legal action against anti-Semitic posts on Twitter.
France has both the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe. There is a fringe group of suburban poor young French Muslims with North African roots who have not integrated well in France and are very receptive to a narrative of victimization: “You have a miserable life and see no good future for yourself while others nearby enjoy a much better life. The people responsible for all your problems are the Zionists.” The people who are most receptive to this narrative are typically not politically, religiously or academically educated.
A few cynical demagogues have managed to manipulate them very easily into identifying themselves with Palestinians using a mix of conspiracy theory and anti-Semitism.
There are some occasional strange connections between some extreme right fringe groups, Islamic radicals and extreme left parties around these themes.
The French authorities could not be any clearer, starting with the current president and prime minister, in their desire to fight against anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said in a public speech that any attack against French Jews is an attack against France and will not be tolerated.
But it is also true that today is probably the time in history with the lowest overall authority and respect for the French government.
So the question that most my friends abroad ask is what can we do?
Here are a few concrete suggestions:
Come, visit and support Reform Judaism in France.
We have a number of growing synagogues all over France with a shortage of French speaking Rabbis and very little resources.
With the current difficulties, many Jews tend to also radicalize, and Reform Judaism offers a unique opportunity to build bridges and keep reason and wisdom as a guide to our actions.
The words of Abraham Joshua Heschel come to mind:
“Racism is man‘s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
Stéphane Beder is the president of the Federation of French-Speaking Liberal Jews, vice-chairman of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, and a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s executive board.