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17 June 2014

Is France Starting to Reckon with Its History of Anti-Semitism?

Veterans and former deportees display flags at a ceremony to remember victims of anti-Semitism

 Did Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, cross a family Rubicon?

On June 7, Marine Le Pen criticized her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen — who founded France’s National Front party in 1972 and headed it until 2011 — for his remarks in a videotaped interview posted on the party’s website about the Algerian-born Jewish singer Patrick Bruel, a vocal opponent of what is often described in France as “the far Right.” Le Pen furiously exclaimed that Bruel would be dealt with “à la prochaine fournée,” or as Canada’s National Post translated Le Pen, “We’ll include him in the next batch.” This is a baker’s expression that usually means momentarily, but can be ominously associated in French with the Nazi crematoriums. 

Marine Le Pen asserted that her father’s vile joke was a political mistake, which he should have averted in view of his very lengthy experience. Indeed, Jean-Marie Le Pen has repeatedly indulged in similar puns in the past, and been found guilty in court of racist and anti-Semitic vitriol. He was even suspended twice as a member of parliament for such offenses. The younger Le Pen has been eager to distance herself from such attitudes since she took over the party leadership three years ago. However, this is the first time she did so in an explicit way. 

Marine Le Pen may feel emboldened by her victory in the Euro-Parliament election last month: the National Front carried 24 out of the 74 seats allotted to France, almost one out of three (albeit only 44% of the registered French voters took part in the election). She is convinced that she has successfully recast FN as a democratic national-populist party, one more in the manner of Charles de Gaulle than of Philippe Pétain. De Gaulle was the head of the French anti-Nazi Resistance and the founder of the Fifth Republic; Petain was the head of the collaborationist Vichy state.

Many observers contend that her criticism was still comparatively mild. A more relevant charge is that she might not be above double entendres with racist and anti-Semitic overtones herself, although in a much more sophisticated way. On March 31, during an interview with anchorman Guillaume Durand at Public Sénat TV, she contended that she was hated by another journalist, Anne-Sophie Lapix, the wife of Publicis chairman Arthur Sadoun. She claimed that the entire Publicis management belonged to an exclusive caste estranged from most French, while her own political mission was to return power to the people. True enough, Marine Le Pen did not actually say that Sadoun and most of Publicis’ managers were Jewish, and her words could be construed to apply to any restricted upper-class group rather than just to a Jewish elite. On the other hand, the Jewish heritage of Publicis, from its founder the late Maurice Bleustein-Blanchet to Maurice Levy, its current CEO, to Sadoun, is an open secret. 

Another troubling detail is that Marine Le Pen keeps describing the present regime of France as a parasitic “System” superimposed on the French nation by alien forces or alien minorities. While such a view stems from both socialist and reactionary 19th century myths (the “Two Hundred Families” — Big Capital — that socialists loved to hate, the “Four Confederate Estates” — Freemasons, Protestants, Jews and Peregrines — lacerated by the reactionary polemicist Charles Maurras), it is essentially a hallmark of Nazi ideology: as Victor Klemperer noted in his 1947 book, The Language of the Third Reich, the democratic Weimar Republic was routinely referred to as “The System” throughout the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945. 

However, the fact remains that Marine Le Pen understands that anti-Semitism is still seen as repulsive by the French public at large, notwithstanding the current rise of anti-Semitism in the country. According to participants in a conference held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) on May 25-28 under the aegis of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism (SICSA), this is true as well of other countries. Including those countries which condone, in the public space, extreme forms of hostility and defamation against Israel, Zionism, the Jewish religion, or the Jewish people. 

The Jerusalem conference — Anti-Judaism, Anti-Semitism, and Delegitimizing Israel — was set up in part as a tribute to Robert Wistrich, 69, the Neuburger professor of European and Jewish history at HUJI and the head of the Vidal Center. Still, Wistrich himself and the many scholars, authors, and statesmen who attended — from Dina Porat (Tel-Aviv University) and Shmuel Trigano (Paris X University) to Manfred Gerstenfeld (JCPA) and Maurice Samuels (Yale), and from Alvin Rosenfeld (Indiana University) and Melanie Phillips (the London Times and BBC) to Bat Ye’or (the historian of dhimmitude) and Matthias Küntzel (Hamburg), and so forth — were less into celebration than exploring new investigation and debate. They all pointed, as will be apparent when their presentations are collated next year in a single book, to the extraordinary resilience of anti-Semitism, seventy years after the Holocaust and well into the 21st century, and its no less extraordinary ability to transmogrify. 

Irwin Cotler — who, as emeritus professor of law at McGill University and a former attorney general of Canada, played a prominent role in the so called “human rights revolution” of the past thirty years, the drive to recognize human rights not only as an ethical imperative but as a political and judiciary imperative as well — bluntly admitted the whole movement’s limitations and failures. More often than not, he said, human rights and related issues, like the prevention of racism, anti-Semitism, and genocide, have been turned into mantras and emptied of any real content. Or, even more perversely, turned into instruments to promote the ills they were supposed to cure. 

The United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, in 2001, which coagulated into an anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic meltdown, was appalling, but far from an isolated example. Shimon Samuels from the Simon Wiesenthal Center focused on UNESCO’s compliance with the Palestinian Authority’s “identity theft”:  the rewriting of Biblical and post-Biblical archeology and history in the Holy Land as Canaanite rather than Israelite and “Palestinian” rather than Jewish. (According to which, the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy and most historically identified landmark, is supposed to be the “Al-Buraq Wall.”) Dina Porat and R. Amy Elman of Kalamazoo College described how the European Union first feigned a commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, and then stubbornly declined to define anti-Semitism in an effective way. Other participants noted that international organizations, NGOs, and governments may concentrate on Holocaust history and memorial programs while ignoring or minimizing important aspects of current anti-Semitism when they seem to run against political correctness or political convenience. Or that they frequently juxtapose Holocaust pieties with charges that Israel may be perpetrating Holocaust-like, or apartheid-like, crimes against the Palestinians. 

Most experts at the Jerusalem conference agreed that the Islamic world is today the epicenter of anti-Semitism. Many Islamic governments and religious organizations do not just condone anti-Semitism, but actively promote it, both for domestic consumption and abroad; Islamic anti-Semitism is thus spreading through mass emigration to Europe, North America, Latin America, and other places; and the anti-Semitic culture of many Muslim immigrant communities is in turn reactivating and fueling a dormant or not-so-dormant Western anti-Semitism. Raphael Israeli from HUJI observed that anti-Semitism is in fact so extensive in the Muslim world that in his opinion an increasingly large number of Muslims are starting to see it as one of their culture’s most incapacitating diseases. 

For all that, non-Islamic anti-Semitism is undergoing a revival. There is, beyond anti-Zionism, a growing hostility directed at Jews and at Jewish traditions (from kosher food to circumcision) as such in liberal, progressive, or left-wing circles, notably in academia. Many secular Jews tend to associate with such trends, a tradition which, according to Wistrich, traces back at least to Karl Kraus and other assimilated Mittel-Europa intellectuals. The churches, who are indeed to be praised for breaking away from classic Christian anti-Semitism after 1945, are not immune to “the Devil’s return”; while rightwing Catholics indulge in Holocaust revisionism, more mainstream Catholics, Protestants and Catholics are immersing themselves into what Giovanni Matteo Quer from the University of Trento called “a new replacement theology” where Palestinians are depicted as the new Israel or even as the true Israel. 

There are also intriguing new geopolitical dimensions. What about anti-Semitism in many European Union countries? And what about the former USSR? Sarah Fainberg from INSS/Tel Aviv University commented on the ambivalent “Jewish card” played by an assertive Russia under Vladimir Putin. Samuel Barnai from HUJI explored the wildly anti-Semitic (and explicitly neo-Nazi) background of many ideologues behind the Putin regime. 

But to return to the very first point: anti-Semitism may be surging again, and this is indeed very bad news; nevertheless, it is still largely seen — and for good reason — as a foul and stained thing, so much so that present-day anti-Semites see no better way to attack Jews than to equate them to the worst and most resolute anti-Semites ever — the Nazis. Accordingly, the best way to fight anti-Semitism is probably to stay uncompromisingly accurate and true about the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, rather than diluting it in more global and less defined “narratives” such as racism, intolerance, reaction, class wars, cultural wars, liberation wars, civilizational clashes, and so on. Such was at least the opinion of most participants at the Jerusalem conference.

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