One of the criticisms leveled at the numerous Holocaust memorials dotted around Europe is their alleged tendency to, as an American Jewish leader memorably put it to me, “encourage Europeans to commemorate dead Jews, and ignore what’s happening to the living Jews.”
But even that goal appears beyond reach these days. French President Emmanuel Macron inadvertently said as much last week when he pledged, in the wake of the desecration of 107 graves in a Jewish cemetery in the eastern Alsace region, that France would fight anti-Semitism “until our dead can sleep in peace.”
There was, of course, little doubt as to Macron’s essential point: Anti-Semitism in his own country and in the rest of Europe is becoming so intolerable that even the dead are impacted. Still, his choice of words will have reminded many listeners that Europe’s history means its lands are full of dead Jews, most of them in unmarked graves. They may also have been unsettled by the sense of despair lurking within Macron’s comment: We can’t even protect dead Jews anymore, he seemed to be saying.
In fact, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries by far-right elements in France is hardly unknown. During the 1980s, nearly a dozen Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in different parts of the country. Famously, in May 1990, 200,000 people attended a protest demonstration after gravestones at the cemetery in Carpentras, a historic Jewish center in France, were daubed with swastikas by a group of violent neo-Nazis. Most gruesomely, the desecrators exhumed a body from one of the graves and left it on display with a Star of David rammed through the chest.
At the time of the Carpentras outrage, French political leaders and the Jewish community were united in pointing the finger of blame at the late Jean Marie Le Pen, who was then in his heyday as the leader of neo-fascist National Front and enjoying a growing hold on the French public. “Mr. Le Pen, who has frequently insulted France’s 700,000 Jews and 3.4 million Arab immigrants, denied that his party was responsible for the desecration of the graves,” reported The New York Times on May 12, 1990. “ ‘I don’t feel guilty at all,’ he said. ‘I condemn those who did this.’ ”
The same report quoted the observation of the then Chief Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, that a “civilization that does not respect the dead is headed toward destruction of the living.” And so it has come to pass in France since Sitruk spoke those words. Not just the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, but the torture and murder of ordinary, unassuming French Jews like Ilan Halimi, just 23, or Mireille Knoll, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor; terrorist attacks against synagogues, schools and kosher supermarkets in which dozens have been killed or wounded; the steady drumbeat of anti-Semitic rhetoric, much of it camouflaged as “anti-Zionism,” from French Islamists and their sympathizers, along with a dizzying array of extreme left and far right factions.
Barely a year can pass, it seems, without some episode or incident in France that compels its ancient Jewish community to wonder whether they have a future there at all.
Indeed, while it would be impertinent to ask the polite and diplomatically savvy Jewish leaders of France whether they ever get fed up of hearing the same speech of reassurance from successive generations of politicians, one imagines that at least some of them must grit their teeth. It is not that Macron is insincere. It’s that the gravitas of his words—for example, “Jews are and make France; those who attack them, even in their graves, are not worthy of the idea we have of France”—bear little correspondence to the experience of French Jews, for whom anti-Semitic acts of one sort or another are a daily experience.
Even more grave is that among all the hand-wringing, the forces that could make a difference—law-enforcement agencies, social workers, the judiciary—have signally failed to do so. Before this year is out, we will know for sure whether there will be a criminal trial for the murder, in April 2017, of Sarah Halimi—a 65-year-old Jewish woman who was beaten to death in her own home by a young intruder, Kobili Traore, who bellowed anti-Semitic abuse at his victim during the ordeal. At present, the indications from France are that Traore will escape the charge of first-degree murder aggravated by anti-Semitism because, on the night of Halimi’s murder, he smoked cannabis in a quantity that left him, according to prosecutors and psychiatrists, without any “discernment” (in effect, irresponsible by dint of temporary insanity.) Instead of answering for his crimes and going to prison, Traore, who appeared at a court hearing earlier this month where he apologized for the murder, may find himself in the more benevolent environment of a psychiatric hospital.
And French Jews will again ask the same questions of their civilization.
The way to break this pattern—in France and more broadly across Europe—is to toughen the legal sanctions for hate crimes against Jews and other minorities. As the president of a republican democracy, Macron cannot, of course, influence the final decision in the Sarah Halimi case. But if Halimi’s family and her memory are denied justice, it is within his power to implement the lessons of that outcome. He might even start, taking Traore’s own defense as a point of departure, with a legal reform that would enable the prosecution of racist and anti-Semitic offenders irrespective of whether or not they ingested cannabis before committing their crimes.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.