A New Anti-Semitism?

, September 4, 2018

This article was originally pulibshed in French in the June 2018 issue of Esprit.

Contrary to accepted thinking, the survivors of the destruction of European Jewry wanted to express themselves at the end of World War II. However, they were not given much space within public debate. As established by my sister Annette Wieviorka, it was not because their experience was so inexpressible. It was because society did not want to listen.1

The Loss of the Centrality of the Holocaust

Subsequently France began to discover and ponder what was called “the genocide,” “the Holocaust,” and then “the Shoah.” The Jews still wanted to express themselves and now they were listened to. Their word was respected. The growing awareness of who the Nazi barbarians were became widespread. As Sartre once stated, anti-Semitism had now become a crime.

The responsibility of the Vichy regime has been established. At the same time, a disturbing phenomenon developed: philo-Semitism, the love of non-Jews for a Judaism that is somewhat imaginary. There is support for making many Jewish sites part of the dominant culture, to the extent that it could be good and desirable, as Olivier Revault d’Allonnes said, to be a “Diaspora goy.” With the Vatican II Council, Catholicism broke with the teachings of contempt and the hatred of a nation that had “killed God,” which had been the legacy of over a millennium of religious anti-Judaism.

In brief, the genocide gave French Jewry a new type of protection, and any hatred that they saw was apparently becoming residual. For about 15 years French Jews lived in a favorable climate. They were allowed to become more visible, in contrast to the classic French republican model. The Jews stopped being the “Israelites” in order to become citizens like everyone, apart from their private and religious lives.

Today, however, the shadow of the Holocaust no longer affords French Jewry the same protection. The survivors are disappearing. There is hardly anyone left to give a living testimony to schoolchildren. The younger generations, within their social circles or their own origins, feel less concerned than their predecessors about a history that seems to them very distant and to have very little to do with them.

The good side of this evolution is that it dispels the arguments of “denial,” propounded by Faurisson and others who claim that the gas chambers are a mere fabrication. Today, however, the fight against anti-Semitism can no longer be based, or has become much less based, on the evocation of the Holocaust, which continues to provide its protective power. Anti-Semitism is becoming less obtrusive and is being redefined as an opinion.

Changes in Israel’s Image

Until the beginning of the 1980s, French Jewry could not only use the memory of the Holocaust as a safeguard but also benefited from a positive image of Israel, which was then perceived as a pioneer society with its kibbutzim, a progressive and modern oasis in a Middle East where it formed a minority. It was a David that had overcome the Arab Goliath that threatened it with destruction during the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Here also, however, everything has changed. Israel’s military operation in Lebanon in 1982 aroused much disapproval when its army refused to obey a UN request to withdraw and did nothing to restrain the Christian militias that massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Since then Israel’s image has never ceased to deteriorate, and this has generated or intensified major, passionate disputes.

From then on, two types of thinking emerged simultaneously. On the one hand, anti-Israeli sentiments are nourished by the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians, and they eventually turn into a type of “anti-Zionism” that can easily be confused with pure and simple anti-Semitism. On the other hand, as notably evident in the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, pro-Israeli sentiments assume the form of unconditional support for anything the Israeli government does.

15 Years of “New Anti-Semitism”

Thus anti-Semitism is growing today in France, facilitated by the exhaustion of the protective functions of the Holocaust and the deterioration of Israel’s image. Those, however, are not the only factors.

The renaissance of French anti-Semitism is due to many other major transformations, especially those that are roiling French society. The strongest of these are changes caused by economic immigration from the Maghreb during the “30 glorious years” from 1945 to 1975, which created an entire population group of immigrants. In brief, it can be said that within this population and its descendants, expressions of hatred for Jews – especially those who take part in a cultural or religious revival – have been resuscitated or intensified. These expressions stem in part from sympathy for the Palestinian cause and in part from a combative form of Islam that is engaged in a “clash of civilizations.” As Marc Sageman has established, jihadism espouses virulent anti-Semitism.2

Furthermore, the phenomenon of anti-Zionism spiraling into anti-Semitism (or vice versa) is common among certain sectors of the extreme left.

Thus, since the end of the 1990s, the “new anti-Semitism” has been seen in abundance. It takes the form of prejudices among the extreme left and of pure hatred among immigrant population circles, in each case with a strong anti-Israeli tendency that exacerbates Middle Eastern tensions.

The Return of Old Nationalist Prejudices

When it comes to levels of anti-Semitism, France is not alone. Nevertheless, in Europe and also in the Americas, where issues of recent Arab or Muslim immigration are either small or not really present, nationalism is growing in extremist or populist forms, and everywhere the hatred of the Jews is reviving. It required a strong dose of blindness to believe in 1986 that the radioactive cloud of Chernobyl would pause for long at our borders. It requires another one not to see the winds of nationalism and the extreme right also blowing through our country.

From the moment the shadow of the Holocaust loses its protective effectiveness for Jews, Petainism is revived and the most ancient prejudices are released. It is true and understood within educated circles that the abhorrent anti-Semitic literature from the period between the two world wars and Nazism needs to be republished. A kind of banalization allows for the resurgence, more or less indirect or veiled, of expressions charged with prejudices. Hatred, rumors, and prejudices transmitted via blogs and social media are a modernized form of anti-Semitism with a new, added dimension. Furthermore, because they ask more than others for regulation, sanctions, and for pressure on internet operators liable to spread anti-Semitic speech, “the Jews” are perceived as an obstacle to freedom of expression or even of opinion. All this runs counter to the culture of the immediate, of instant reactions and interactivity, of the untrammeled expression of any and all notions that current communication technology allows.

A more detailed analysis would show that forms of Jew-hatred are very particular or are found within certain circles. What is essential is to recognize the diversity of aspects that converge within the same mindset and to demand collective reflection or measures that go beyond differences of opinion and partial points of view. It is very urgent. Anti-Semitism is becoming violent, lethal,  and associated with an aggressive type of Islam, as seen in the cases of Mohammed Merah or Amedy Coulibali. Sometimes the hatred is accompanied by a certain logic of financial gain, as in the case where Ilan Halimi was abducted, tortured, and left to die by the so-called Gang of Barbarians. This phenomenon appears capable of reaching the level of the political system and the state – as seen in Poland and Hungary. It is a global problem. It is irresponsible and dangerous to reduce it to only some of its aspects.

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Notes

1 Annette Wieviorka, Déportation et génocide. Entre la mémoire et l’oubli (Paris: Hachette, coll. « Pluriel », 2003).

2 Marc Sageman, le Vrai Visage des terroristes (Paris: Denoël, 2005).

Michel Wieviorka

Michel Wieviorka is a French sociologist, noted for his work on violence, terrorism, racism, social movements, and the theory of social change.