Modern Zionism can be said to have begun in the courtyard of the École Militaire in Paris in 1895. It was there that Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl witnessed the appalling spectacle of the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. A loyal and assimilated Jewish officer, Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason as part of a scheme to cover up the guilt of a non-Jew. His insignia were ripped from his uniform and his sword was broken as he proclaimed, “I am innocent. Long live France.”
But what was most chilling to Herzl was not so much the cruelty of the ceremony as the reaction of the Paris mob that had gathered to watch. Baying for the blood of the innocent man, cries of “Death to the Jews!” rang out in the historic site.
It was at that moment, he later said, that he realized that if Jews were treated thusly in what was widely considered at the time to the best freest and most enlightened city on earth, then they had no future anywhere in Europe. He soon set to work on writing The Jewish State, the book that would give birth to a movement and eventually the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.
This story is brought to mind by what must be considered an equally astonishing spectacle that has been taking place in the City of Light in our own day. In the last month, demonstrators have jammed the streets of Paris protesting the imposition of a fuel tax by the government of French President Emmanuel Macron. With gas already costing a staggering $5.54 a gallon, Macron decided to raise taxes another 25 cents on fuel as part of an effort to combat global warming. But he didn’t count on hundreds of thousands of French citizens being willing to rise up and demand that the tax be rescinded.
Those who took to the streets wore the gilets jaunes, or yellow high-visibility vests that French citizens are required to keep in their cars in case of emergencies. They were angry at Macron, who only a year after being elected president in a landslide victory for his new technocratic centrist movement is already in big trouble. He’s been denounced as the “president of the rich” for his high-handed green policies that is hitting the middle class hard and was forced to rescind the tax.
But Macron’s political woes are only part of this story. While the initial coverage of the protests emphasized the normative populist slogans against Macron, we’re now learning that one of the themes sounded by the protesters is one that should be familiar to students of French and European history: blaming it all on the Jews.
Many of the protesters have been carrying signs and chanting slogans calling Macron the “whore of the Jews” and “the Jews’ puppet.”
What, you may ask, do the Jews have to do with French economic policy? The correct answer is nothing. But to those wearing the yellow vests, Jews are apparently synonymous with the “establishment”—the unseen and anonymous power-brokers they feel are manipulating their lives and destroying their country.
Many of those who are demonstrating are clearly in sympathy with the Front National, the right-wing party founded by notorious anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen and now led by his slightly more respectable daughter, Marine.
But also joining them in the streets are Muslim immigrants from North Africa, whose presence in France the Front National was created to oppose. Among their ranks is French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, another notorious Jew-hater who created the quenelle gesture that is synonymous with French anti-Semitism.
Just as left-wing intellectual elites have joined with Muslim immigrants in many European countries to form a bizarre coalition united only by their hatred for Jews and Israel, so, too, the French populists have brought together disparate strains of anti-Semitism. Neither entirely of the left nor the right, the gilets jaunes have every right to be upset by Macron’s contempt for French workers and farmers. But following tradition, they have adapted myths about powerful Jews controlling the world to explain their troubles.
Scholar Ruth Wisse famously taught that anti-Semitism was the most successful ideology of the 20th century because it adapted to and was used by a variety of disparate movements: fascism, Nazism and communism. In the 21st century, we see that process continues as Islamism, right-wing populism and left-wingers that believe in intersectional theories have embraced Jew-hatred.
In the last week, we have learned that the leaders of the Women’s March—the leading group organizing protests against U.S. President Donald Trump—were spreading conspiracy theories about Jews even in their initial meetings. As Tablet magazine reported, Tamika Mallory, the group’s president spent part of their first gathering devoted to planning talking about Jews controlling the slave trade—a pernicious myth that has been a key talking point for the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, whom Mallory admires.
Just as right-wing populists were prepared to praise the Yellow vests movement as a laudable example of pushback against globalist elites like Macron, the fashionable left has spent much of the last two years applauding Mallory and other Women’s March leaders, such as vicious anti-Zionist Linda Sarsour. But both have been fatally compromised by Jew-hatred.
Anti-Semitism isn’t the preserve of the left or the right, of the elites or the populists. It’s something that all those seeking to manipulate or control the fears of people inevitably employ. And contrary to what critics of Israel always tell us, their complaints about the Jews have nothing to do with what actual Jews are or have done. Anti-Semitism is always about the anti-Semites.
While we can hold onto messianic hopes that someday such sentiments will be eradicated, the persistence of anti-Semitism reminds us of the prescience of Herzl’s insight into the importance of a Jewish state, which gave the Jews the ability to defend themselves—something denied them for 20 centuries. So long as every scoundrel with a cause is willing to use the Jews as a scapegoat, there is no substitute for Israel—or for Zionism itself.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.