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Ominous clouds over French Jewry

A plaque in Paris at a garden in memory of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew who was kidnapped and murdered in 2006. Credit: Poulpy via Wikimedia Commons.
A plaque in Paris at a garden in memory of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew who was kidnapped and murdered in 2006. Credit: Poulpy via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s an article that’s more than 10 years old now, but I still maintain that anyone who wants to get an insight into the dynamics of anti-Semitism in France would do well to consult “France’s Scarlet Letter,” published by the journalist Marie Brenner in the June 2003 edition of Vanity Fair.

In that superlative piece, which had at its core a profile of Sammy Ghozlan, the Jewish ex-cop who started his own agency to monitor and expose anti-Semitic incidents, Brenner provided fascinating insight into the class divisions that streak the French Jewish community. Among her cast of characters there was the working class, Algerian-born Ghozlan, who spent his career fighting criminals in the bleak outskirts of Paris; there was the aristocrat David de Rothschild, a banker with a haute-bourgeoislifestyle who gave Brenner the impression that Jews would do well not to “throw oil on the fire” of anti-Semitism that was starting to engulf the poor Sephardic communities in the suburbs; and there was Roger Cukierman, a former chairman of the Rothschild bank and the president of CRIF, the representative body of French Jewry, who, Brenner said, “had the sharpest insights into the anti-Semitic problem, but was cautious by nature.”

Towards the end of the piece, Brenner recounted a conversation with Cukierman in which he “snapped” that Ghozlan played a “totally negative function… Whatever the subject, he jumps on it to get his own publicity.” Part of the problem for Cukierman was Ghozlan’s tendency, based on his family’s experiences as a Jews in Muslim Algeria, to regard Jews under threat as compelled to choose between le cercueil ou la valise (the coffin or the suitcase). Moreover, in Brenner’s judgement, “Cukierman put the highest premium on respectability and did not want to be considered pro-Zionist.”

Today, as back then, Cukierman remains a respectable, sober figure, but his view of the situation in France has changed so radically that, were Brenner to return to the subject of French anti-Semitism now, she would end up with a dramatically different article.

Here’s why. Cukierman recently addressed a rally in the Paris suburb of Creteil, called to protest the brutal assault on a young Jewish couple whose home was invaded by three anti-Semitic thugs. Appallingly, the female was raped, the male was held hostage, and their debit cards were used at a local ATM to drain their bank accounts—because, as the assailants told them, “Jews have money.”

French Jews were outraged, not the least because the atrocity in Creteil brought back painful memories of the 2006 kidnapping, torture and excruciating death of Ilan Halimi, the young Jewish salesman abducted by a vicious gang that also chose its target on the grounds that “Jews have money.” At the Creteil rally, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that the fight against anti-Semitism was as a consequence a “national cause,” but the import of that remark paled in comparison to what Cukierman said.

“Jews will leave in large numbers and France will fall into the hands of either Shari’a Law or the Front National,” Cukierman declared to applause. I almost fell off my chair when I read those words, for here was a resolutely establishment figure, who has led CRIF since 2001, publicly saying that French Jews are sandwiched between the creeping radicalization of the Muslim community, now almost 10 percent of the population, and the right-wing extremism of the Front National, a party with indubitably fascist origins even if its new leader, Marine Le Pen, wants us to believe that it is kinder and gentler these days.

I relate all this not to argue that Ghozlan was right and Cukierman wrong, more than a decade ago. For one thing, I had the honor of interviewing Cukierman back in May, and he was forthright and honest about the dangers that French Jews face.

But more importantly, he has done the serious work of persuading French leaders that anti-Semitism is a civilizational threat to France. It wasn’t always that way; as Marie Brenner reported, in 2003 Cukierman wrote an open letter to then President Jacques Chirac bemoaning the fact that the “leaders of the country like to play down anti-Jewish acts. They prefer to see these as ordinary violence. We are deluged with statistics designed to show that an attack against a synagogue is an act of violence and not anti-Semitism.” As the recent comments against anti-Semitism of Cazeneuve, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and President Francois Hollande all demonstrate, that is manifestly no longer the case.

The harsh truth—and this is something that has major implications for the debate about whether Jews should leave France en masse, a decision that could well trigger similar exoduses elsewhere in Europe—is that there is a limit to what governments can do. When I met with Cukierman in May, I also had the opportunity to speak with one of his young aides, Yonatan Arfi. Arfi made the pivotal point that, whereas anti-Semitism was once regarded as a “vertical” problem, and therefore one that could be dealt with effectively by government agencies, these days it’s “horizontal” and requires advocates to engage in the tricky work of unraveling the myths, slanders, and social norms that constitute anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in our time.

Cukierman is now insinuating that we are losing this battle. A similar point has been made by Professor Robert Wistrich, the world’s unrivaled authority on anti-Semitism, in a recent article in which he posited that we are witnessing “the beginning of the end of French Jewry.”

“In France, as in much of Europe,” Wistrich wrote, “the freedom to live one’s identity as a Jew has become not only much more limited but also much more perilous.” The coming months will be decisive in determining whether the stark choice between Shari’a, fascism, or aliyah to Israel is upon French Jewry. I still dare to hope that a fourth option—integrated, successful Diaspora Jewish communities who proudly identify with Israel without fear—hasn’t entirely disappeared.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for 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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