France, Zionism and antisemitism

There’s a good piece by Karina Piser in the New Republic today on the so-called “new antisemitism” in France. (This New York Times story from a couple of weeks ago gives you more background.) What’s “new” about it is that it’s supposed to be driven more by France’s large and growing Muslim population and the stresses of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Piser explains why this is a bit problematic. There are two problems.

First, focusing on the “new” antisemitism risks giving “old” antisemitism a free pass, and missing the continuity between them. France’s history with its Jewish population is a long and troubled one, and if Muslims are now responsible for a large proportion of antisemitic incidents, that’s not necessarily because antisemitism is something they’ve brought to France with them.

On the contrary, there were already deep veins of antisemitism in French culture. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that France’s Muslims have assimilated so well that they now practise antisemitism like the natives, but there would perhaps be a grain of truth in it.

As Piser puts it:

Yet the Muslim perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence tend to invoke the same old tropes about money and power that are widespread among the French population at large. “Anti-Semitism hasn’t changed, it’s alive and well,” Johanna Barasz, a spokesperson for the Dilcrah, a government organization that coordinates efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, told me …, describing a “living room anti-Semitism” that not only remains vibrant but “ideologically feeds anti-Semitism among Muslims.”

Moreover, the old-fashioned anti-semitism of the French far right, most obviously among the National Front (now called the National Rally), feeds seamlessly into anti-Muslim bigotry. The same rhetoric of an “alien” presence in the body politic, once applied to the Jews, is now mostly directed at Muslims; indeed, the narrative of a “new” antisemitism is sometimes part of it.

But it would be foolish in the extreme for France’s Jewish population to think that the old animosities have disappeared. As Donald Trump and his white nationalist supporters have demonstrated, whenever there is demonisation of minorities, antisemitism sooner or later pushes its way to the forefront.

(It’s an interesting question as to whether the fact that both groups are actually “semitic” has helped the rhetoric of bigotry to adapt, or whether that’s basically just coincidence. Perhaps someone has studied this?)

The second point is that the relationship between antisemitism, Zionism and the whole Israel/Palestine question is, to say the least, complex.

The Israeli government’s apologists have adopted the strategy of equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, as has been seen with many of the recent attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. That’s not only wrong in principle (for reasons Ben White explained earlier this month), but it’s dangerous, because it can sometimes provoke the very thing it’s trying to counter.

If you keep telling people that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same thing, some of them will come to believe it. And Israel’s strategy risks fuelling, in Piser’s words, “the confused perception that Jews, by virtue of their religion, are unconditionally tied to Israel and its politics—and accordingly, that they are a legitimate target for anti-Israel sentiment.”

There’s always been a strand in Zionism that has viewed European antisemitism as a sort of tactical ally. Although coming from opposite sides, they have been selling the same basic message: that the Jews are a distinctive people who don’t belong in Europe. No doubt Israel’s leaders have a genuine concern for their fellow-Jews in places like France, but it also serves their interests to exaggerate the dangers that they face there.

At the extreme, this enables Benjamin Netanyahu to make common cause with such antisemitic leaders as Viktor Orbán in Hungary. They share an ideological interest in promoting ethno-nationalism and weakening the liberal international order, so as long as his hostility is confined to his own Jews, not those of Israel, Netanyahu is willing to overlook it.

On the other hand, as I said, it’s complex. There’s no doubt that many opponents of Israel, whether in Europe or the Middle East, really are driven by antisemitism. It’s perfectly reasonable for Emmanuel Macron to try to take a stand against that, even if (as seems to me) he did so clumsily and unwisely.

And other such opponents, while they might not have started out with any animus towards Jews as such, have now come fully on board with antisemitism – it’s no credit to Corbyn that he seems to have aligned himself with a number of them. Saying that the Israeli government needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs doesn’t make it go away.

We can’t undo the past; we have to deal with what we’ve got. What Piser refers to as “the increasingly religious undertones of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” are a disturbing reality. But we can at least, on all sides, try to refrain from making things worse.

That’s a message that Macron and Corbyn both should heed.



5 thoughts on “France, Zionism and antisemitism

  1. I am unconvinced by this whole “new antisemitism in France” except that there is increasing anti-Israel passions around the world, including amongst other Jews–in France and US, though their voices are often shouted down by the activist elements like Labor’s Michael Danby who is retiring from his federal seat of Melbourne Ports–good riddance as far as I am concerned as he is exactly the tedious type who accuses anyone who opposes him in anything of anti-semitism. (Danby is not well liked by Labor or by his own electorate which could feasibly go to the Greens next election.)
    In other words, it is mostly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict especially its extreme asymmetry with Netanyahu and their hardline approach as exemplified by the horrific bombing of Gaza over the years, killing thousands and destroying water-treatment plants, electricity generators, hospitals, schools etc. It strikes me that there is a new “antisemitism” around the world if interpreted in this way. It really doesn’t seem that Corbyn is actually anti-semitic.
    Having said all that, obviously it is also a complex question perhaps especially in France. And to be honest I am not sure I am particularly informed enough to comment, even after living in Paris for so long. In the professional classes there really seems little to talk about (the director of my institute was a Tunisian Jew and there were plenty of Jewish- and Arab-extraction French in his own group and in the institute). Though both these groups do have a strong tendency of what we geneticists call assortative breeding …

    Anyway in response to your query (“Perhaps someone has studied this?”) the study by Maud Mandel might address it:

    Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict
    by Maud S. Mandel, 2014,
    ISBN-13: 978-0691173504

    I haven’t got the book. FWIW the blurb says “Maud Mandel shows how the conflict in fact emerged from processes internal to French society itself even as it was shaped by affairs elsewhere, particularly in North Africa during the era of decolonization.” Her study is of Marseilles which therefore focuses on both groups derived from north Africa (in Paris many Jews are from other parts of Europe) and is thus a somewhat specialist study, not necessarily generalizable to the rest of France or Paris that more us will experience. But I think everyone, simply everyone, has opinions that colour their conclusions on this subject so I remain unconvinced until/if I read it. Remember too that France has Europe’s largest populations of both Muslims and Jews (though Germany is catching them on Muslims).


    1. Thanks for that Michael – I’ll have a look for the Mandel book. (I wonder if she’s related to Georges Mandel?) I do think the increasingly extreme positions of the Netanyahu govt are a big part of the story, but it’s complicated. I’ll try to write more about Corbyn in the next week or so.


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