On 16 February, a video emerged in which some gilets jaunes protestors were shown hurling abuse and anti-Semitic insults against prominent French Jewish philosopher and intellectual Alain Finkielkraut. Among the words heard were, “dirty Zionist,” “We are the people,” “France is ours,” and “Go back to Tel Aviv.” The son of Polish Jewish immigrants who had survived Nazi concentration camps, he has expressed his fears about the future of Jewish communities in France and Europe in general and has been outspoken about his defence of the State of Israel. But this has been just the latest incident of anti-Semitic abuse that has rattled French society. During the three months of the gilets jaunes movement, there have been other incidents, such as when a memorial tree dedicated to the murdered Parisian Jew Ilan Halimi was chopped down. With Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated just last month, it is perhaps a stark reminder that anti-Jewish sentiment remains.
In response to the incident, French President Emmanuel Macron has been resolute. “The son of Polish immigrants who became a French academic, Alain Finkielkraut is not only an eminent man of letters but a symbol of what the republic allows for everyone,” tweeted Macron. In another tweet, the French president said, “The anti-Semitic insults he has been subjected to are the absolute negation of who we are and what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them.”
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has denounced the incident as a “surge of pure hate.” Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of Le Rassemblement National (formerly Le Front National, a party historically associated with anti-Semitism), has also been vocal. She called the verbal attack “detestable and shocking” and described it as an example of how “the anti-Semitic extreme left has tried to infiltrate the gilets jaunes movement.”
As mentioned earlier, the world commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January) last January. Some 70 years after the end of the Second World War and the closure of Nazi concentration camps, the status of Jews in Europe remains a prominent topic of social discourse. With fears that both the extreme left and extreme right in France are trying to co-opt the gilets jaunes movement in order to project their own political aims, it is vital that the socio-economic focus of the movement does not become distorted by fringe groups. If the political extremes dominate the discourse, then the unified front of the gilets jaunes will undoubtedly fracture. If the extremes are not excluded, then the legitimacy of the movement will be undermined. Indeed, the success of the gilets jaunes relies on its socio-economic focus.
The recent anti-Semitic incidents are symbolic of France’s long and often troubled relationship with its Jewish communities. Jews have long had a presence in France, dating back to antiquity and most prominently during the Middle Ages. They faced significant persecution during the medieval era, particularly during the Crusades and the Inquisition, and for a time were expelled from France. They made important contributions to French society, despite being marginalized, but it was not until the French Revolution that they were fully emancipated, accorded rights and freedoms as French citizens. Under Napoléon, as his armies conquered Europe, the Jews were liberated from the ghettos.
During the 19th century, the status of French Jewish communities was a great paradox. Jewish communities flourished during this period and were increasingly assimilated into French society. Some of the greatest thinkers, writers, and artists of the period were of Jewish origin. Such composers as Fromental Halévy and Jacques Offenbach, and writers as Marcel Proust, contributed to the cultural fabric of 19th century French society. At the same time, Jews still faced social stigmas, as manifested in the Dreyfus affair of 1894 that deeply divided French society. During the Second World War, the Vichy puppet regime collaborated with Nazi Germany in rounding up Jews to be sent to concentration camps.
In modern France, French Jews constitute the largest community of Jews in Europe (estimated at half a million) and the third-largest in the world, after Israel and the United States. France is also home to the largest Muslim community in Europe. As criticism of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian question mounts, French Jews have become a target of anti-Semitic verbal abuse and violence. At the same time, vestiges of pre-WWII anti-Semitism from the extreme right have resurfaced.
After the previously mentioned incidents, and reports that anti-Semitic incidents increased by 74 percent last year, the status of the French Jewish community is unknown. A number of French Jews have moved or have considered moving to Israel. Fears over anti-Semitic attacks becoming the norm have increased. For a community that has had a long presence in France and contributed to its cultural and economic development, it is imperative that it is protected. It is hoped that the political climate in the country does not devolve into either the paranoia of the Dreyfus affair or the victimization of the Second World War.
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