By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
It was an electrifying moment: in a voice crackling with anger and pain, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls denounced the rise of anti-Semitism in France before the country’s National Assembly on Jan. 13, pointedly observing, “We haven’t shown enough outrage.”
Valls was speaking following the funerals of seven of the victims of the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in France, in which a total of 17 people, including four Jews trapped in a siege at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in eastern Paris, were murdered in cold blood.
Though his speech covered a wide range of issues, and included an emotional plea to recognize that France is “at war with jihadism and terrorism… not against Islam and Muslims,” Valls was determined to highlight the threat posed by anti-Semitism, declaring, “I say to the people in general who perhaps have not reacted sufficiently up to now, and to our Jewish compatriots, that this time [anti-Semitism] cannot be accepted.”
The address brought to mind the impassioned “J’Accuse” letter, penned by the great French writer Emile Zola in 1898, in response to the anti-Semitism displayed by the French government during the infamous trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish military officer who was convicted and publicly humiliated on fabricated charges of treason. In that letter, Zola spoke with disgust “of the hunting for the ‘dirty Jews,’ which dishonors our time.”
The echoes of Zola’s words were unmistakable when Valls asked with anger, “How can we accept that cries of ‘death to the Jews’ can be heard on the streets?”
In his speech, Valls was explicit that the “first question that has to be dealt with clearly is the struggle against anti-Semitism.”
“History has taught us that the awakening of antisemitism is the symptom of a crisis for democracy and of a crisis for the Republic. That is why we must respond with force,” Valls said. Recalling a series of anti-Semitic outrages in France in recent years, such as the abduction, torture, and murder of the young Parisian Jew Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murder of three children and a rabbi by an Islamist gunman at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and the rape of a young Jewish woman during an anti-Semitic assault on a Jewish home in the Paris suburb of Creteil in December 2014, Valls asserted that these and other incidents “did not not produce the national outrage that our Jewish compatriots expected.”
“How can we accept that in France, where the Jews were emancipated two centuries ago, but which was also where they were martyred [during the Nazi Holocaust] 70 years ago, that cries of ‘death to the Jews’ can be heard on the streets?” Valls asked, the indignation in his voice steadily rising. “How can we accept that French people can be murdered for being Jews? How can we accept that compatriots, or a Tunisian citizen whose father sent him to France so that he would be safe, is killed when he goes out to buy his bread for Shabbat?”
Valls observed that there “is a historical anti-Semitism that goes back centuries.” But, he added, “there is also a new anti-Semitism that is born in our neighborhoods, coming through the internet, satellite dishes, against the backdrop of loathing of the State of Israel, which advocates hatred of the Jews and all the Jews.”
The French prime minister implored, “It has to be spelled out—the right words must be used to fight this unacceptable anti-Semitism.”
Valls emphasized an additional point that he has made repeatedly over the last few days: that a France shorn of its Jewish community would no longer be France. “This is the message we have to communicate loud and clear,” he said. “How can we accept that in certain schools and colleges the Holocaust can’t be taught? How can we accept that when a child is asked, ‘who is your enemy,’ the response is ‘the Jew?’ When the Jews of France are attacked, France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked. Let us never forget that.”
The speech was also an opportunity for Valls to directly confront Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala, the anti-Semitic French provocateur infamous for devising the “quenelle,” an inverted Nazi salute, as well as for his frequent mocking of the Holocaust. On Jan. 13, French authorities confirmed that Dieudonné, along with 53 other defendants, had been arrested for offenses including hate speech, anti-Semitism, and glorifying terrorism.
Refusing to mention the self-styled comedian by name, Valls spoke of “the indignity of a serial hater having a full house on Saturday night, when the country was mourning for what happened [at the Hyper Cacher supermarket] in Porte de Vincennes.” As the National Assembly rose in a standing ovation for the prime minister, Valls thundered, “Let us never pass over these matters in silence, and let justice be implacable with those who preach hate. And I say that emphatically here at the National Assembly.”
Valls ended his speech by examining the difference between blasphemy and hate speech, a particularly pregnant theme in France in the wake of the massacre carried out at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “When a young man or woman, a citizen, has doubts and approaches me or the Minister of Education with the question: ‘But I don’t understand, how come you want to silence this comedian, and you put the Charlie Hebdo journalists up on a pedestal,’ there is a fundamental difference,” he remarked. “There is a fundamental difference between the freedom to be insolent—blasphemy is not a crime and never will be—and anti-Semitism, racism, excusing terrorism, and Holocaust denial, which are crimes that the courts must punish with ever greater severity.”
Just as striking as the raw emotion which characterized the prime minister’s address was the lack of media attention, certainly in the English language, given to his comments about anti-Semitism and the future of French Jews. Leading outlets, among them the BBC, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail, and the English-language broadcaster France 24 either made no mention of the sections of Valls’s speech that dealt with anti-Semitism or buried them deep in their reports.
That’s an indication, perhaps, that the lack of outrage which so incensed the French prime minister will continue for as long as journalists and reporters fail to acknowledge that hatred of Jews lies at the core of Islamist ideology, just as it did among the nationalists and xenophobes whom Emile Zola confronted more than a century ago.
This story was first published by The Algemeiner. Ben Cohen’s exclusive JNS.org column will return next week.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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