A poisoned 'j'accuse' from America

Jean Daniel International Herald Tribune, 10/14/2004

Charges of French anti-Semitism

As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, one of the reasons for the continuing malaise in French-American relations is that no one bothers to define the terms of the debate. We assume that they are self-evident and that we all know what we mean by them. But we don't.

The term anti-Semitism has echoes and connotations that other terms do not. One can be anti-American or anti-French or anti-Arab without being suspected of imagining a "final solution" to exterminate these peoples. In other words, the prefix "anti-" generally does not imply conscious or subconscious racism.

Yet whether we like it or not, "anti-Semite" evokes Nazism, genocide, extermination - in short, the Holocaust. Indeed, some of those who wield accusations of anti-Semitism are very aware of the brutal associations the term carries. The proof is that when these accusations are made against France, they are often accompanied by allusions to dramas of the past, such as the Dreyfus affair or the Vichy government that delivered Jewish children to the Germans. The implication is that a country with such a history is doomed to return to its old demons and prejudices.

Today, it is no longer a question of putting anti-Semitic acts committed in France on trial. For France's accusers, it is a question of purely and simply putting France on trial. It is not actions or individuals that are being judged, but a people, a nation, a republic that must forever be defined by a history that led it to become an accomplice of the Nazis. It should not be surprising, declare the accusers, that a nation thus "marked" takes the side of the Arabs against the Israelis in the Middle East. Because the French cannot help but see the Israelis as Jews.

These observations are not extreme, and I am not questioning the texts that I have in front of me, many of them written by honorable American intellectuals. But this phenomenon has worsened. Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor of Le Monde, was justifiably alarmed that people in New York should explain anti-Americanism solely as a product of American support for Israel and the Jews. He would be stunned to learn that we, the French, are suspected of believing that in Iraq the United States is fighting a "war for the Jews." Let's not fool ourselves. These accusations have huge - and alarming - consequences. It may be that the origins of these sentiments can be found in certain ultra-Zionist camps of French Judaism, which, even before the rise in anti-Semitic acts, accused successive French governments of partiality toward the Palestinians. It seems these groups made their concerns known in Tel Aviv and in New York, where they were then hijacked for use against France. French Muslim activists have done the same thing by touring Arab capitals to denounce French laws against wearing the Muslim veil in school.

(We should note, however, that these communities knew better than to go too far. Jewish institutions rejected the help that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel claimed to give them by inviting them to emigrate. Similarly, Muslim religious leaders in France denounced the Islamic Army of Iraq for taking hostage two French journalists. Both communities were aware of the dangers of these attitudes and, in the end, paid homage to a secular and republican France.)

It is very possible that some Jews have felt the return of an old anguish to the degree in which anti-Semitism - as a kind of allergic reaction, as pure rejection or as anti-Semitic acts - revived memories of the Nazi atrocities. We can also presume that one of the consequences of the Holocaust was to lead many Jews to regard an unconditional solidarity with the state of Israel as part of their identity. But if we allow ourselves to understand and justify this logic, we will end up regarding any objective comments about anti-Semitic acts and all criticism of Israel as manifestations of a retroactive indulgence of Nazism.

Having come this far, we must remember that if we were to define a nation by its past, the United States would not be safe from judgment. Without delving into the literature on American racism against blacks, it is enough to recall President Franklin D. Roosevelt's rejection - along with every European nation except the Netherlands and Denmark - of Hitler's proposal to take in German Jews. All of this could lead to a rather nasty debate.

But we should still note that the Dreyfus affair divided France in two, and that to restore the honor of an unjustly condemned Jewish captain, the French Army reversed itself - at a time when it was passionately nationalistic and chauvinistic, and yearning to take revenge on Germany. It should further be pointed out that according to Jewish experts, two out of three French Jews were saved by the French population during the Nazi occupation. Two out of three!

Thus two of the principal arguments against France's past disappear.

Finally, there probably is no other country in the world that displayed as much warm and active sympathy for Israel as France did from 1948 to 1967 (the government) and to 1975 (public opinion). The entire French intelligentsia was profoundly pro-Israeli. Yes, there has been a change in France since then - as there has been in Israel. There exists an Israeli opposition, to which a whole segment of the French political class has rallied. After all, it was not an Arab or a Palestinian or a Frenchman who killed the great Yitzhak Rabin.

Neither France's past nor its attitude toward Israel is a reason to declare that France is condemned to a national anti-Semitism that could give rise, even very indirectly, to a tendency to persecute Jews - and certainly not to exterminate them. This should be evident to all observers, Jewish or not, who do not succumb to Judeo-centrism.

That leaves individual and circumstantial anti-Semitism. It exists, particularly (though not exclusively) in marginalized parts of the population, usually Muslim in origin, where vandalism finds an ennobling cause - the Palestinian cause. Anti-Zionism is sometimes dangerously transformed into a commonplace anti-Semitism. The least we can say is that at all levels of French government, officials have made the fight against anti-Semitism a priority. It seems this is even something the Iraqi hostage-takers accuse them of.

Another thing. French Judaism today manifests an unprecedented vitality in all areas of science, arts, literature, media, law, higher education and finance. This feeds an envy in other minorities that ranges from benign regret to intense jealousy. The failures of integration at home and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict have provoked rivalries between communities in places where there was competition among individuals.

I don't think we can return to real peace of mind among these people so long as images of victims - of attacks here and bombings there - appear daily on television screens. Yet I am persuaded that a faction of American Judaism has fired a radicalism that has fanaticized Israeli settlers, who threaten Israel with civil war. This should lead the United States to modesty and prudence. We can no longer accept that the war against terrorism is pursued by a Bush-Putin-Sharon axis.

To conclude, I believe that beyond all the many disputes in French-American relations, especially since the disaster in Iraq, adding the poison of charges of anti-Semitism is an element of exasperation and obscurantism.

Jean Daniel, co-founder and director of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, was awarded the 2004 Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and the Humanities. This comment was translated from the French by the IHT.

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