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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Fifty Years of French Intellectual Bias against Israel

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 4

In recent years France has stood out negatively, not only because of its many violent assaults on Jews and their institutions but also due to the often anti-Semitic intellectual and media attacks on Israel. Simon Epstein, researcher at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out that the origins of French intellectual anti-Israelism date back almost to the creation of the Jewish state. To gain a perspective on present problems, one must have a better understanding of its historical development.


The Soviet Doctors’ Trial

Epstein elaborates on one early, particularly low point of moral abuse against Zionism: “In November 1947 the Soviet Union voted in the United Nations for the creation of the Jewish State; therefore, French communist intellectuals had a positive attitude toward Israel. When, after a few years, the Soviet Union started to adopt anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic positions, the views of many French communists also shifted.

“In January 1953 the newspaper Pravda broke the news of the indictment of nine doctors, six of whom were Jews. They were accused of having caused the death of leading Soviet figures by incorrect diagnoses and treatment, and of planning further assassinations. At the same time, the Soviet press intensified its campaign against ‘Cosmopolitanism and Zionism.’

“French communist intellectuals organized a major solidarity rally in Paris in support of the official Soviet position on the ‘doctors’ plot.’ The organizers saw to it that there were enough Jews among the many speakers on the podium. The key figure was Annie Kriegel, who later became a fervent anti-communist and pro-Zionist, and wrote for the right wing daily Le Figaro.

“The message of the speakers was frightening. Many of them explained that it was normal to suspect doctors of poisoning people: one only had to look at Mengele’s role in Auschwitz. If he was capable of what he did, why should other physicians not use poison? A Jewish physician was among those who publicly took such a stand. As a medical doctor, he bore witness that the charge was not absurd. He also based his position on the misconduct of German physicians during the Second World War, stating that it could not be definitely excluded that Jews or Zionists decided to poison Soviet personalities. (In later years he very much regretted his words.)”


Instrumentalizing Jewish Communities

“The moral aberration of these ‘witnesses’ was so great because France, unlike the Soviet Union, was a free country. The speakers spoke voluntarily. Communist organizations also arranged a large media campaign. Intellectuals wrote articles about the ‘criminal doctors,’ or signed petitions against them. Again, Communist Party organizers saw to it that many Jews were among the signatories.

“This party contained identified Jewish organizations, among them L’Union des Societes Juives de France and the MRAP movement against racism. Both were mobilized for agitation on the ‘doctors’ plot.’ Many anti-Semitic themes used at that time resurfaced in anti-Israeli campaigns following the Six Day War in 1967.

“The initial intensity of these campaigns was much lower than in the pre-war decade. The communists attacked Zionism, while always recognizing — like the Soviet Union — Israel’s right to exist. In the 1950s they dominated the French Left. Trotskyism was very small then, expanding only twenty years later after the events of May 1968, when communism began losing power.

“At about that time, the extreme right gained strength in France. By 1953 all collaborators condemned after the war had been freed. Many took part in the French democratic society, where everybody is entitled to assemble and express himself. The extreme right-wing press again published anti-Semitic articles. A rightist populist movement led by Pierre Poujade won about 50 seats in the Parliament at the time. It concentrated its attacks against Pierre Mendes France, a progressive Jew who had become Prime Minister in 1954. The anti-Zionist publicity was almost entirely fed by the Communists.”


The Characteristics of French Intellectualism

Epstein explains the multiple deviations of French intellectualism by referring to its general characteristics: “It is typified by a tendency toward extremism. The French intellectual’s position is by necessity one of representing absolute morality and imparting the feeling that his analysis is the only justified one. He must be confrontational and define enemies; nuances and intermediary positions are not permitted.

“Another characteristic concerns the way the intellectual expresses himself: language, which is very important, must always be complex and contain highly rhetorical aspects. Thought departs from reality and is embodied in theoretical constructions aspiring to an absolute world. The combination of these features stimulates major intellectual distortions.”

Epstein provides an unrelated example of the same phenomenon: “Since the 1970s, many French thinkers have been interested in the role of words and the multiplicity of concepts. They have generated schools of intellectuals whose words are incomprehensible. When standing before an audience they produce endless abstractions without using simple words. This leads to an absurd intellectualism, which exists also in the social sciences elsewhere, but has initially been developed in France.”


The Success of Marxism

“Marxist intellectualism was far more than a play of words. The fascination Marxism exerted on major parts of the French left led to a much larger percentage of intellectuals being attracted by it than elsewhere in the West, with the possible exception of Italy. It became extremely successful in post-war France among intellectuals, both in its orthodox communist and in various Trotskyite forms.

“There were multiple reasons for this. Marxism is a superb theoretical construction, opening a fascinating world, which attracted entire generations. Once one accepted it, one could find explanations for everything from short-term issues to long-term developments. It was a complete system, applicable to both politics and history.

“Other factors also played a role. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union enjoyed great esteem in view of its important contribution to the defeat of Nazism. This status added to Marxism’s prestige and to the fascination of its all-embodying theory.”


Another Complete System: Fascism

Epstein points out that in the 1930s, fascism was also a complete system with similar characteristics, and increasingly attracted intellectuals. Some anti-fascists changed their positions radically in 1933 or 1934. Among them Ramon Fernandez and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. Under the Nazis, the latter would become editor of the leading literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Fran?aise (NRF). In their later works one finds an aesthetic fascination with fascism, which also has a reply to all questions.

“Fascism’s attraction to intellectuals who had formerly written against anti-Semitism was very widespread. Among the first to support it in 1933 were pacifists opposing war on Germany. They were not interested in what happened to German Jews. Others changed direction in 1936, and many more followed in 1938 at the time of the Munich agreement. They claimed that the Jews would be responsible for a possible war. Many intellectuals who had formerly written against anti-Semitism became either moderate or extreme anti-Semites. This shift from being pro-Jewish to anti-Semitism was an important phenomenon in the 1930s.”

Epstein has dealt with one aspect of this phenomenon in a book on the attitudes of former supporters of Dreyfus under the German occupation, for which he received a French Academy award. His main and surprising finding is the high probability that if one had been an active, ardent and well-known Dreyfusard during the “Affair,” chances were high that one would later become an anti-Semite.1

Epstein is now working on a new book, dealing with a much broader cross-section of French intellectuals and politicians who supported the Jews and protested against racism and anti-Semitism before World War II. Under the Vichy government and the German occupation, a majority of these favored collaboration in a variety of forms.2

“This major shift from philo-Semitism to anti-Semitism has a double meaning. It confirms the multiple left-wing roots of collaboration with Germany. It also shows the fragility of philo-Semitism and of all systems of Jewish defense against anti-Semitism.

“The search for the absolute manifests itself in different ways in French intellectualism. For instance, France took the intellectual lead in Holocaust denial after the war, as if it had a need to support the Germans after their defeat. This can hardly be explained.”


After the Six Day War

“After the Six Day War and the events of May 1968, intellectual anti-Zionism exploded for a second time. Its student leaders belonged to various factions. Some were Trotskyites and others extreme leftist intellectuals. Among them were many Jews, such as Alain Krivine, leader of a Trotskyite party. Some were communists, who wrote regularly against Israel in the communist daily L’Humanite.

“In June 1967 Benoit Frachon, a leader of the French Communist Party, described the Israeli victory ceremony in Jerusalem in the following terms: ‘The presence of leading personalities from the financial world gave [the ceremony] a different character than the religious fervor which the true believers who participated in it tried to find there….The spectacle gave the impression that, like in Faust, Satan directed the ball. Not even the golden calf was lacking…contemplating its diabolic machinations. In fact, the information indicated that two representatives of the cosmopolitic tribe of bankers, well known in all countries of the world, participated in these Saturnals: Alain and Edmond de Rothschild.’3

“Others attacking Israel were left-wing Gaullists, such as Jacques Debu-Bridel and Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie. Both had been in the Resistance and had belonged to the extreme right before the war. Yet others, no less vehemently anti-Israeli, like Georges Montaron, came from Catholic-Social backgrounds. In the left-wing Catholic intellectual journal Temoignage Chretien, he constructed an analogy between Christ and the Palestinians.

“In this atmosphere, De Gaulle’s declaration in November 1967 about the Jewish people being a people who were ‘sure of themselves, elitist and inclined to domination’ generated a huge public debate about the loyalty of the Jews to France. The Jewish political philosopher Raymond Aron intervened in the discussion, reproaching De Gaulle for having resurrected ancient anti-Semitic myths.”4


Supporting the PLO

“From 1967 till 1973, while verbal anti-Zionism was strong, classic anti-Semitism seemed insignificant. The extreme right was politically weak. There were few violent incidents against Jews during that period, and many Jews thought that anti-Semitism had finally ended. They were aware of the anti-Zionism, but considered that the old anti-Jewish prejudices had definitely vanished.

“When the PLO made its first public appearance, the intellectuals of the extreme left accepted all its arguments. They entirely supported the Palestinians and delegitimized Israel, expressing themselves in favor of its elimination and the creation of a democratic and secular Palestine in its place.

“The one dominant figure in the extreme left environment who distanced himself from the anti-Zionist campaign was the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The Israeli historian Eli Ben Gal, who was particularly close to him at the time, was a witness to this.


Jewish Reactions

“Many Jewish intellectuals reacted against the attacks on Israel. Among the most important was Jacques Givet with his 1968 book The Left against Israel?5 in which he gave a systematic response to anti-Israeli propaganda. He used the expression ‘neo anti-Semitism’ for the anti-Semitism of those who said they were against anti-Semitism.

“Leon Poliakov published a short hard-hitting book on anti-Zionism in 1969, explaining that it was a form of anti-Semitism.6 Poliakov was well equipped to do so, as he was the first to write a coherent history of anti-Semitism for which he is mainly known — turning its study into a new field of scholarship. Before that, it appeared in Jewish history books in a fragmented way. Poliakov also devoted his attention to the concept of ‘new anti-Semitism.’

“Both authors distinguished between moderate and extreme anti-Zionists. The first category makes a false equivalence between terrorist attacks and Israeli retaliation, using distorted base data of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The second frequently criticizes the Rothschilds — symbols of Jewish wealth — as supporters of Israel. They also reproach pro-Israeli Jews for being more Israeli than French, and deny Israel’s right to exist as a normal state. They thus consider the Jews the only people on earth not entitled to a state of their own.

“Outside France this was seen very clearly by Daniel Elazar who wrote: ‘The passing of the post-war generation in the mid-1970s marked among other things the demise of the taboo against Jew hatred. Now in the early years of the second generation since the Holocaust, the Jewish people must come to understand that we face a new situation, one which will allow certain kinds of expressions of anti-Semitism with relative impunity.’7

“Most anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic motifs appearing in current campaigns were already present more than 30 years ago, albeit in a less intense form. In the early 1970s, the anti-Zionists started a deliberate strategy of presenting the Palestinians as victims and the Jews as perpetrators. The vocabulary of the Holocaust was applied to the Palestinian side of the conflict. This recurred in the war in Lebanon: the Palestinians were presented as confined in camps and in ghettos, the Israelis as barbarian and brutal.”


The War in Lebanon

“In 1982 — during and after the Lebanese war — there was a new outburst of anti-Zionism, often sliding into open anti-Semitism. Again, verbal violence of the leftist intellectuals went very far. There were calls for a boycott on Israel, and the Shoah vocabulary was used when discussing the siege of Beirut in August 1982. That war was much shorter than the present one, and the attacks did not develop in such great detail.

“The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut (1983) gave various examples of Nazi metaphors being applied against Israel. The French daily Liberation wrote that the survivors now resemble their persecutors. Temoignage Chretien called the Palestinians of West Beirut ‘the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.’8 The false equivalence with the Shoah focused on another major parallel: the French village Oradour, which was burnt with its inhabitants in 1944 by the Germans — a symbol that evokes strong associations.

“These distortions point to a false interpretation of the Israeli 1982 intervention: exaltation of Palestinian heroic resistance, demonization of Israeli premier Menahem Begin. This was accompanied by accusations of Israeli war crimes, especially after the Sabra and Shatilla tragedy. The second distortion was linked to the reemergence of basic anti-Zionist arguments, emphasizing the illegitimacy of the State of Israel and developing the concept of ‘the criminal State.’

“The attacks sometimes took ridiculous forms. One day a reporter of Le Monde saw Israeli reserve soldiers passing. He wrote that the neglect of their attire was insulting to the Lebanese population. A few days later he saw regular Israeli soldiers passing, and wrote that the correctness of their clothing was insulting to the Lebanese population. This is only a small example of media bias.

“The intellectuals manifested themselves anew against Israel at the beginning of the Intifada in 1988, with much less verbal violence than in 1982, although themes were similar. They called for a boycott on Israel. Nazi language was applied to Israel and magnified Israel’s actions, depicting them as major atrocities. Yet the verbal attacks remained substantially below current levels.”


Physical Violence

“The waves of anti-Israeli verbal violence of the leftist intellectuals should not be confused with those of the physical attacks in France. Physical and intellectual anti-Semitism do not follow the same cycles; they work according to different rhythms. Sometimes they may coincide, as in the past two years, when there has been major verbal violence against Israel and at the same time many physical assaults.”

A number of years ago, Epstein stated in an essay: “The first wave, which came to be dubbed the ‘swastika epidemic,’ was observed in Western Europe, the United States and Latin America. It started with the desecration of a synagogue in Cologne on December 25, 1959 by two young Germans, who were promptly apprehended and severely punished. Some 685 incidents were recorded in Germany, and over 600 in the United States. All told, nearly 2,500 incidents were recorded in 400 localities throughout the world.”9 However, after the 1962 Evian agreements many Algerian Jews arrived in France, and they were not confronted with substantial anti-Semitism.

“The second, much more intense wave of physical violence began in 1974/5, peaking in the early 1980s. Synagogues were burnt. The most dramatic event in France was the bomb outside the synagogue in Copernic Street in Paris in October 1980 that killed four passers-by.10


The 1980s

“In 1982, the intellectual anti-Israeli cycle coincided with the tail-end of the descending classical violent anti-Semitic cycle. Then, as today, a series of symposia on neo anti-Semitism were held. By the middle of the 1980s anti-Semitic violence declined significantly.

“By 1987 the number of incidents of physical violence was mounting once more, with this third wave reaching its peak in 1992. It is unclear what incited this cycle. It could not be the Palestinian Intifada, because that started well before. It seemed almost as if the violence had a natural rhythm.

“The physical attacks increased during the period 1990-1992. In 1990, the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras was desecrated. Initially, the extreme right was blamed. The entire left, including President Mitterrand and many intellectuals, participated in a big anti-fascist protest demonstration in May 1990. From 1992 physical violence declined again, and a number of quiet years followed. The new wave of assaults started just before 2000.”


The Present

“In the last two years, the campaign of physical violence clearly coincided with the intellectual one. Many more violent incidents occurred than ever before in a similar time-span. However, the difference from previous waves is that, according to estimates, about 80 percent of the perpetrators are youngsters from the Maghrebian (Arab) immigrant community. The remaining 20 percent are extreme rightist rowdies, as in the past.

“This leads to four important observations:

  1. The number of attacks in France is relatively higher than in any other country. This is due to the fact that it is the main Western country in which the Muslim population is predominantly Arab.
  2. Anti-Jewish violence is not exclusively linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if triggered by it. There are many indicators that these assaults also have a social basis, as the Maghrebian youth identify the Jews with money and power.
  3. A careful look at the statistics shows a rise in incidents before the start of the Intifada.
  4. There is some relation to the rise of the extreme right in the last two years, that reached its peak in the presidential election in spring this year when National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen eliminated the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin’s access to the second round.


“The wave of intellectual and media hostility against Israel and the Jews expressed itself in the lack of reactions to the burning of synagogues and Jewish centers, especially by leftist circles that reacted very strongly in the past to anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated by the extreme right. Incidents were belittled, because they were perpetrated by young Arab immigrants.

“These developments occur against the background of the discovery by the political parties of the electoral strength of the Arab and Muslim population. For instance, Pascal Boniface, a Socialist strategist, wrote a study for his party stressing that there are ten times more Muslims in France than Jews, and suggesting that it should consequently shift to a more pro-Palestinian position. He also published an article in Le Monde on this subject, which created much polemic.”12


Deafening Silence Accompanies New Attacks

“The deafening silence about the violent anti-Semitic incidents is accompanied by a stream of verbal attacks against Israel which rehash arguments from earlier anti-Zionist campaigns. The moderates compare Sharon to Milosevic; the extremists compare him to Hitler.

“One extreme example of left-wing distortions was an article written by Sara Daniel in the leading intellectual weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, edited by her father Jean. The article dealt with the crimes of honor against women suspected of illegitimate sexual relations in Arab society. It also mentioned, by the way, that Israeli soldiers deliberately rape Palestinian women because they know that, now dishonored, they will be killed upon returning home. Israeli soldiers are thus presented as Machiavellian rapists. The passage had been copied, without mention by the author, from a Palestinian militant source with no credibility whatsoever. Daniel presented it as proven facts. Her father was asked to apologize, and did so half-heartedly.13

“At the same time, another shocking phenomenon has become known: teachers who mention the Holocaust in French classrooms are intimidated by pupils of Maghrebian (Arab) origin, who do not want the Shoah to be taught. A kind of Islamist censorship on teaching the Shoah has emerged — a widespread and well-documented phenomenon.14

“The current emphasis on ‘new anti-Semitism’ is thus futile. Several authors are publishing books on this subject, forgetting history and assuming everything starts today.15 France’s most acclaimed scholar of anti-Semitism, Pierre-Andre Taguieff, has been studying already since 1980 what he calls ‘the new Judeophobia.’16 When I hear people speaking about new anti-Semitism, I always wonder whether they are not simply ignorant of past history.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

*     *     *


1. Simon Epstein, Les Dreyfusards sous l’Occupation, Paris, Albin Michel, 2001. [French]
2. Simon Epstein, Les Antiracistes dans la Collaboration (provisory title). Publication planned. [French]
3. L’Humanite, June 16, 1967. [French]
4. Raymond Aron, De Gaulle, Israel et les Juifs, Paris, Plon, 1968. [French]
5. Jacques Givet, La Gauche contre Israel, Paris, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1968. [French]
6. Leon Poliakov, De l’antisionisme a l’antisemitisme, Paris, Calmann Levy, 1969. [French] See also on the same subject, but in a less scientific and more polemic style Paul Giniewski, L’antisionisme, Brussels, Librairie Encyclopedique, 1973. [French]
7. Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 16, No. 4, Oct. 1982.
8. Alain Finkielkraut, La Reprobation d’Israel, Paris Denoel/Gonthier, 1983. pp. 122-123. See also on the same subject: Annie Kriegel, Israel est-il coupable?, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1982. [French]
9. Simon Epstein, “Cyclical Patterns in Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Anti-Jewish Violence in Western Countries since the 1950s,” Acta no. 2, Jerusalem, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1993.
10. Simon Epstein, Cry of Cassandra: The resurgence of European anti-Semitism, Bethesda, National Press, 1985.
11. Quoted in L’Arche, March 1983.
12. Pascal Boniface, “Lettre a un ami israelien,” Le Monde, August 4, 2001. See also by the same author: “Est il interdit de critiquer Israel?” Le Monde, August 31, 2001. [French]
13. See Jean Daniel, “Pour cinq lignes que nous regrettons…une erreur et une cabale,” Le Nouvel Observateur, November 22, 2001.
14. See for instance: Eric Conan, “Islam, ce que l’on n’ose pas dire.” L’Express, September 12, 2002.
15. Gilles William Goldnadel, Le nouveau breviaire de la haine, Paris, Ramsay, 2001 and Raphael Dra?, Sous le signe de Sion. L’antisemitisme nouveau est arrive, Paris, Michalon, 2001.
16. Pierre-Andre Taguieff, La Nouvelle Judeophobie, Paris, Mille et Une Nuits, 2002.

*     *     *

Simon Epstein came to Jerusalem in 1974. In France he had been inter alia the secretary general of the French Zionist Federation. He worked as an economist in the budget department of the Israeli Ministry of Finance. Since 1982 he has published books and articles on anti-Semitism and racism. He is a former director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he now carries out research. He also teaches at the Hebrew University.

This interview, by Manfred Gerstenfeld, is based on Dr. Epstein’s lecture, entitled “New and Old Elements in French Anti-Semitism – Monitoring, Analysis and Struggle,” delivered in the JCPA’s first series of Herbert Berman memorial lectures, on April 24, 2002.