Palestine solidarity activists have found themselves a new hate figure in the person of Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister of France.
Darmanin announced last week the dissolution of two Palestinian solidarity organizations: the Comité Action Palestine (Palestine Action Committee) and the Collectif Palestine Vaincra (Palestine Will Overcome Collective), on the grounds that both groups promote hatred, violence and discrimination. His decision outraged the vocal pro-Palestinian lobby in France, which warned that those hardline anti-Zionist groups overlooked by the interior minister, such as BDS France, Samidoun and the Association France Palestine Solidarité, would be next in the firing line. At a demonstration in the city of Toulouse to protest the announcement, participants denounced Darmanin for his “authoritarian” stance.
From these activists’ point of view, it’s easy to understand why Darmanin has earned this reputation. Over the last year, as France recorded more than 550 anti-Semitic attacks and outrages, he has used newly passed legislation to go on the offensive against Islamist influence among France’s diverse Muslim communities. At the end of December, Darmanin announced the closure of the Bilal Mosque in Beauvais, a suburb of Paris, “[because of its] unacceptable incitement against Christians, homosexuals and Jews.” Twenty other mosques have been closed under the same legislation for similar reasons.
Then last May, Darmanin ordered police in Paris to ban a Palestinian solidarity march as fighting raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The demonstration was to have been staged in the Barbès district of northern Paris—the same district in which a pro-Palestinian demonstration during the 2014 war in Gaza degenerated into an anti-Semitic riot.
“Serious disturbances to public order were seen in 2014,” explained Darmanin when asked the reason for last May’s ban. He also urged police forces around France to remain “vigilant” in the face of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, in the process making crystal-clear his view that the organizations and individuals who mount these protests are willing to engage in hate speech and violence.
Yet Darmanin’s approach is based on more than just the fear that pro-Palestinian demonstrations result in public-order disturbances—a fear that seems justified when you recall the wave of anti-Semitic violence that accompanied protests in the United States, Europe and around the world in May 2021. It can also be seen as the most concrete example of an important shift in the thinking of the French government.
In various speeches and statements over the last two years, a number of French politicians—from President Emmanuel Macron downwards—have identified anti-Zionist ideology and its extensive dovetailing with anti-Semitic prejudice as a political problem. In part, this is based on domestic considerations, given that in the French context, abject hostility towards Israel blends with anti-Semitic beliefs about Jewish wealth to the point where one goes hand in hand with the other. In the process, however, some French politicians have finally grasped that the most cherished beliefs of anti-Zionists—that Israel is an apartheid state, that Zionism is a form of racism and colonialism, that Israel has no right to exist—feed Jewish hatred.
In a speech to the annual dinner of the French Jewish umbrella organization Crif at the end of February, Prime Minister Jean Castex took explicit aim at these tropes. “How dare anyone speak of apartheid in a state where Arab citizens are represented in the government, in the parliament, in leadership positions and in positions of responsibility, where all citizens, regardless of their religion have understood that their only hope is peace together,” he declared, in a swipe at the recent Amnesty International report that depicted Israel as the reincarnation of the racist regime that ruled South Africa until 1994.
For the two groups dissolved by Darmanin, however, the notion that Israel is an apartheid state is axiomatic to their campaigns. Similarly, anti-Zionism is worn as a mark of pride. “We are anti-Zionists and want the liberation of Palestine,” the Palestine Action Committee stated in a response to Darmanin’s announcement. “Palestine is a land stolen from the Palestinians, and it must be returned to the Palestinians. Since 1948, the Zionists have wanted to annex more land by expelling, imprisoning, massacring the Palestinians.”
There was a time when these assertions were taken seriously by French politicians, but that is less the case now. Indeed, the impatience with anti-Zionist dogma and its socially divisive impact is not only restricted to elected French officials. Last December, Jack Lang—a former minister of education who heads the prestigious Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA: Institute of the Arab World) in Paris—locked horns with a group of anti-Zionist academics and public figures furious that the Institute was hosting a “Jews of the Orient” exhibition opened by Macron in November.
Asserting that the IMA “would betray its intellectual mission” by “normalizing” and “standardizing” cooperation with Israel, the group, which included veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi and Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad, denounced attempts “to present Israel and its regime of settler colonialism and apartheid as a normal state.” But the IMA didn’t fall for this boilerplate anti-Zionist guilt trip, objecting instead to “the virulence in the tone of BDS in the face of an exhibition whose scientific quality has been recognized.”
That anti-Zionism is being stripped of intellectual and moral legitimacy in French circles is a most welcome development. Far from its rosy self-portrait as a human-rights campaign, the pro-Palestinian lobby has been exposed as a practitioner of hate speech and a promoter of violence, glorifying terrorism against Israelis and rationalizing anti-Semitic outrages that target Diaspora Jews as flowing from legitimate Muslim grievances.
Are there any lessons to be drawn in the United States, where here, too, anti-Zionist ideology is manifesting as a threat to the Jewish community’s security? Because the provisions of the First Amendment behoove us to emphasize all speech is protected, we have to redouble our efforts to explain what constitutes hate speech.
The fact that an understanding of anti-Zionism as a hateful ideology has emerged, of all places, in France—which last year excused the murderer of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman, from a criminal trial on the grounds of mental illness supposedly caused by his cannabis habit—might lead some to conclude that this is a kind of atonement for the ordeals faced by French Jews over the last 20 years. Even so, if it persuades politicians in other countries to revise their views on anti-Zionism in the same spirit, then that will count as meaningful progress.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.