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‘The system has failed:’ Antisemitism flourishes in France

A growing proportion of French society doesn’t agree that the problems faced by Jews are their problems as well, according to a recent survey.

French Israelis light memorial candles as they gather at Paris Square in Jerusalem in a demonstration against antisemitism in France following the murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Jewish woman in Paris, March 28, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
French Israelis light memorial candles as they gather at Paris Square in Jerusalem in a demonstration against antisemitism in France following the murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Jewish woman in Paris, March 28, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

Five years ago, an 85-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, Mireille Knoll, was brutally murdered in her apartment in Paris by two intruders, one of whom was a neighbor she had known since his childhood.

Knoll’s murder marked the second time in less than a year that an elderly French Jewish woman living on her own was slain for the sole crime of being a Jew. In April 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old widow, was murdered after an intruder—as in the case of Knoll, a neighbor in the public housing block in which she lived—broke into her apartment, beat her savagely and then ejected her from a third-floor window, bellowing Islamist and antisemitic slogans throughout her ordeal.

The attempt to bring Halimi’s killer, Kobili Traoré, to justice descended into an insulting farce after France’s top appeals court disqualified him from a trial in April 2021, arguing that his intake of cannabis on the night of the murder had rendered him temporarily insane and therefore not responsible for his actions—a decision that led Crif, the normally restrained body that represents French Jews, to declare that “now in our country, we can torture and kill Jews with impunity.” But later that year, in November, the trial of Knoll’s two killers—her neighbor Yacine Mihoub and his accomplice Alex Carrimbacus—did arrive at the correct outcome. Mihoub received a life sentence, Carrimbacus received 15 years, and Zoulikha Kellaf, Mihoub’s mother, received three years for having cleaned the knife that was used to stab Knoll 11 times before her body was set alight.

It would be comforting to report that these two atrocities, along with the cruel denial of basic justice to the Halimi family, led to an outpouring of sympathy in France for the country’s Jewish community, along with a determination to stamp out violent antisemitism. Instead, it’s been more of the same; centrist politicians expressing outrage, hate crimes and antisemitic violence continuing at a similar pace, and an enthusiasm for expressing antisemitic tropes on the part of the far-right, the far-left and the Islamist groups who have nestled among France’s various Muslim communities. Since Knoll’s death, at least two more Jews have been killed in suspicious circumstances—31-year-old Jérémy Cohen, who was hit by a tram as he fled a gang that attacked him in the Paris suburb of Bobigny apparently after spotting his kippah, and 89-year-old René Hadjaj, pushed from the 17th floor of his apartment building in Lyon, again by a neighbor whom he reportedly knew well. Yet there has scarcely been any urgency on the part of the authorities to investigate and bring the offenders to justice. Additionally, antisemitic memes have flourished in the same period, fueled by the social protests in France sparked by the gilet jaunes (“yellow vests”) movement, along with conspiracy theories about the origins of and responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, a survey carried out by the polling organization Ipsos on behalf of Crif brought further sobering news. The disturbing headline is that younger people are more amenable to antisemitic ideology than their elders. A full 42% of respondents under 35 adhere to six or more antisemitic prejudices, while 16% of the same age group believe that the mass exodus of French Jews would be “a good thing for France.”

Yonathan Arfi, the head of Crif, would like to see more emphasis on the positive contributions of Jews to French society and culture since “looking positively at the Jewish experience in France is also a way of fighting antisemitism.”

These trends in France are visible elsewhere in Europe. For example, a survey conducted in the Netherlands in January revealed that 23% of Millennial and Gen Z respondents believe that the Holocaust is either a fabrication or that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis has been greatly exaggerated. All this suggests—as Yonathan Arfi, the head of Crif, pointed out in an interview with the French magazine Le Point—that the “system has failed.”

“We were convinced for a long time that antisemitism would gradually die out, but we realize today that time is now against us,” he said. “One of the explanations is that antisemitism has mutated and is taking on new forms in the face of which our traditional tools are clearly no longer relevant.”

Importantly, Arfi acknowledged the painful truth that educating younger generations about the Holocaust does not vaccinate them against antisemitism. “We thought for a long time that it was by teaching the memory of the Holocaust that we would fight antisemitism,” he observed. “I think that of course remains a fundamental element, but it is no longer a sufficient element. Today, there are discourses of hostility towards the Jews which are nourished precisely by this work of memory. Some, for example, no longer hesitate to say that we talk too much about the Shoah.”

Part of the problem, according to Arfi, is that the curriculum in French schools places the accent on Jewish victimhood from the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s to the Shoah a half-century later. He would like to see more emphasis on the positive contributions of Jews to French society and culture since “looking positively at the Jewish experience in France is also a way of fighting antisemitism.”

Certainly, a more rounded view of French Jewish history would be welcome, particularly as the Ipsos survey highlighted the woeful ignorance about Judaism in the country at large, with less than 30% of respondents displaying some basic knowledge of Jewish life in the form of dietary rules, Sabbath observance and so on. But there is a deeper problem; the system that has failed is the same system still doing the educating. If young people are convinced that the history they are being taught is essentially an invention, and if this view is reinforced in their social circles and on social media, then there is very little that politicians or the state or their teachers can do. Hence, the constant spectacle of politicians from the moderate left to the center-right bemoaning the upsurge in antisemitism, but unable to meaningfully challenge it—in France, in Germany and around the continent.

In an interview with the London-based Jewish Chronicle last November, Keren Knoll, Mireille Knoll’s granddaughter, noted that more Jews than ever wanted to leave France. She then argued that “antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem, it’s everyone’s problem. Extreme fanatics are everyone’s problem and until we address it like that, the problem won’t be solved.”

However, what the Ipsos survey indicates is that a growing proportion of French society doesn’t agree that the problems faced by Jews are their problems as well. There really are no easy answers here, which partly explains why Jewish activists, particularly in Israel and America, are constantly urging Jews to leave France while expressing irritated amazement that any of them would want to remain.

To my mind, we should not be echoing the antisemitic view that there is no place for Jews in France, even when our motives for saying so are grounded in feelings of solidarity. Those French Jews who want to move to Israel deserve encouragement and material support, but those who wish to stay have a basic human right as French citizens to do just that. That realization has to be the basis for any new initiative to confront this stubborn hatred.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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