By Thibault Muzergues, December 20, 2023
“Men ist azoy wie Gott in Frankreich”, a Yiddish proverb popular throughout much of the 19-century, hinted that Jews were as “happy as God in France.”
Like most of Europe, France has lived through antisemitic waves, from the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) to the Vichy government’s antisemitic laws of 1940-1941 and its collaboration in the Shoah in 1943-1944. But, despite the gravity of these episodes that insert themselves in the wider history of European antisemitism, French Jews have generally thrived throughout the country’s modern history. Today, France houses about half a million Jews, the largest Jewish diaspora in the world apart from the United States.
Despite repeated calls by Israel’s government to have French Jews move to the Promised Land, emigration has been limited. Even after horrific terrorist attacks targeted at the Jewish community in Toulouse in 2012 or Paris in 2016, France’s Jews do not seem to want to leave the country – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are as happy as God. Much like the rest of Europe and other Western nations, France is facing a new wave of antisemitism that had gone relatively unnoticed until the aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, 2023.
The numbers speak for themselves: on November 14, France’s Ministry of Interior announced that it had recorded no less than 1,518 antisemitic offenses since the start of Hamas’s war on Israel, ranging from antisemitic graffiti or insults in the streets and physical attacks. French civil society responded with a successful march against antisemitism on November 12 that gathered more than 182,000 people from across the country but the phenomenon is worrying, even more so as it is part of a wider trend in Western societies.
The persistence of anti-Jewish discourse has been embodied by different fringe personalities since World War II, including most recently by holocaust denier Alain Soral. This more “classic” antisemitism stems from the extreme-right, but it is also pushing its way out of the fringes by building links with some Muslim communities in Europe (whether immigrant or settled for several generations) and with the far-left, parts of which has espoused the Palestinian cause not only as a so-called anti-colonialist imperative, but also as a way to take down a symbol of cosmopolitan capitalism.
It was therefore interesting to notice that those absent from the march against antisemitism were not from the right or even the far-right, but rather the far-left, as many leaders of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing party France Insoumise decided to stay home after refusing to condemn Hamas or its November 7 attack. This is not an isolated case: in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn, whose tenure as leader of the Labour Party in the late 2010s was marred by incidents of open antisemitism, recently refused to answer Piers Morgan’s question on whether Hamas was a terrorist organization.
This is not to say that all left-of-center (or even far-left) groups in Europe cultivate antisemitism – the war in Gaza is dividing them, and not all parties end up on the same side of the barricade. After some hesitation, Germany’s Die Linke clearly condemned Hamas’s attack as terrorist and its leaders have shown solidarity with Israel, despite internal protest from party members. But the spread of discourse bordering on outright discrimination among the left is worrying, not only because it corresponds to a real doctrine in the far-left that assimilates Jews with power and therefore domination (something that was already present in some of Marx’s writings), but also because this elite antisemitism is empowered by popular resentment from parts of the Muslim population in Western Europe.
The coalescence of de-colonialist ideology on the left of the political spectrum and of a widely shared anti-Israel (though not always antisemitic) feeling inside European Muslim communities (what French philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls Islamo-leftism) has led to this resurgence of antisemitism.
This is of course not to say that every critique from the left against Israel is antisemitic, or illegitimate – but critique is not the same as hatred against a people, or the genocidal intent expressed in the slogan “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”. People who live in diverse Western nations need to confront the fact that Israeli behavior will be criticized inside their own societies precisely because they are diverse and house populations who feel a natural solidarity with the Palestinians. But this should not serve as a pretext for Western leaders to fail to confront the rise of antisemitism on the left, while also confronting blind Islamophobia in portions of the right. These two factions, an antisemitic left and a Islamophobic right, are fueling each other and risk polarizing not only individual communities, but populations at large.
The West’s enemies are aware of this growing divide, and will not hesitate to cultivate division to destabilize our democracies. In October, French authorities discovered that two people who had been painting the Star of David on people’s homes (bringing back memories of pogroms and the Shoah) had actually been paid to do it by a Russian-speaking oligarch from Moldova. In the meantime, the news story about the spray painting was being pushed on social media by a Russian digital news platform (Recent Reliable News or RRN) that has already been linked in the past with diverse digital manipulation campaigns in France and in Europe.
That antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe – and more widely in the West – is undeniable. It isn’t the spread of a new idea so much as the re-invention of old antisemitic doctrines popularized through demographic shifts and generational change (often influenced via university campus life). But the fact that the new antisemitism is a regurgitation of the old antisemitism doesn’t make it less dangerous for the security of the West, on either the domestic or foreign front.
Our governments need to urgently tackle antisemitism. We need to see firm condemnations from government leaders and specific actions to punish anyone that explicitly call for the genocide of the Jews or that commits other illegal acts of harassment and discrimination.
Thibault Muzergues is a French political analyst specialized in European and Mediterranean affairs.