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When fighting antisemitism, you can’t pick and choose

A far-left French conundrum: It’s hard to understand how someone could be moved by the cries of a frail, elderly Jewish woman in police custody, yet dismiss the horrors of Oct. 7.

Protesters associated with the far-left group La France Insoumise demonstrate Nice, in the south of France, against governmental reform in 2018. Credit: Frederic Dides/Shutterstock.
Protesters associated with the far-left group La France Insoumise demonstrate Nice, in the south of France, against governmental reform in 2018. Credit: Frederic Dides/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

It was one of those incidents that you never expect will happen to you, but when it does, it changes your life irrevocably.

On June 8, 2023, a Thursday, a 67-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman whose name was reported as “Sarah” was driving to her home in Créteil, a suburb in the southeastern outskirts of Paris. As she drove, a group of traffic cops who were sitting at a nearby gas station noticed that she was speeding. They duly pulled her over.

Clearly flustered and nervous as she sat talking to the police officers, who informed her that she was driving dangerously, Sarah accidentally released the brake on her car, backing into a police motorcycle that was parked behind her. Thinking that she was trying to flee the scene, the cops promptly arrested her and brought her to the police station in Créteil.

Absolutely terrified by this point, Sarah said in a later media interview that she lost consciousness. When she came around, she discovered that she was lying prostrate on the police station floor, handcuffed to a bench. When she realized that her wig, which she had worn since she married at the age of 18, according to the custom of Orthodox Jewish women, had been removed, she panicked.

An amateur video of the incident was shared with the French news website Mediapart, which posted it last week. It shows Sarah’s ordeal to its full, harrowing extent. “I’m a Jew!” Sarah declares with an ear-splitting scream. “I want my wig! My wig! My wig!” she continues, writhing helplessly on the floor as a policeman stands imperiously over her, sandwiching her legs between his feet.

The video also shows a disturbing level of contempt from the police officers. One of them describes Sarah as a feuj, an insulting French slang term for “Jew.” When a male officer finally returns with her wig, an exasperated female officer is then heard telling Sarah: Allez, putain (“Come on, bitch”).

From the police station, Sarah was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital, where her husband came to collect her. A doctor who examined her noted that she had suffered both bruising and psychological trauma. Nevertheless, on March 4, Sarah will go on trial, charged with “endangering the lives of others” due to her allegedly careless driving.

Sarah has herself now gone on the offensive, telling investigators from the General Inspectorate of the police that the removal of her wig represented the “ultimate humiliation” for an observant Jewish woman. She has also filed a complaint against the police, charging them with “sexist, antisemitic” violence towards her. “Créteil police know the city, they know that there is a sizable Jewish community, so they cannot claim to be unaware of what a wig means,” her lawyer, Arie Alimi, told the media.

Sarah’s case is significant for two reasons—one of them uncomplicated, the other far more complicated.

The uncomplicated reason is simply that the behavior of the French police was clearly antisemitic. The video suggests that they rather enjoyed having a vulnerable Jewish woman at their mercy, whom they essentially dehumanized. In a democracy, the police are accountable for their actions, and in this case, one can legitimately ask whether the officers who attended to Sarah at the police station should continue to serve on the force, particularly as they are in regular contact with other members of the Jewish community in Créteil.

The other reason is complicated because it involves overtly political considerations.

It is striking that Sarah’s case has been taken up by important swathes of the French left—a left that is normally at loggerheads with the Jewish community because of its consistent demonization of Israel. Counter-accusations of antisemitism are both frequent and hotly denied, especially in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in Israel, which has triggered a vicious wave of antisemitism in France and other countries, frequently deploying progressive, anti-colonial messaging to camouflage what is—and what has always been—a deeply reactionary and backward form of prejudice.

Yet Sarah’s case has been reported on sympathetically and in detail in many organs of the French left, including LHumanité—the daily paper of the French Communist Party, which once had the unenviable reputation of being the most slavishly pro-Moscow of all the European Communist parties affiliated with the late, unlamented Soviet Union.

Sarah has also won the support of parliamentarians from the far-left group La France Insoumise (or LFI, translated as “France Rising”), which occupies 75 of the 577 seats in the French National Assembly. In a social-media post, Mathilde Panot, who heads LFI’s parliamentary grouping, denounced “the sexist and antisemitic” treatment meted out to Sarah by police officers who had behaved with “dishonor,” and who should now be the subjects of a “rapid investigation and sanctions.”

While Sarah’s case against the police deserves the full backing of her fellow Jews, it behooves us to look critically at her other sources of support. When Panot and three of her LFI comrades turned up at last week’s memorial ceremony in Paris for the 42 French citizens who were among the more than 1,200 people murdered by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, pro-Israel demonstrators on the sidelines barracked them, shouting, “LFI, Hamas thanks you.” Panot’s explanation for her attendance was her desire to call attention to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, whom LFI falsely believes, in common with much of the left globally, are undergoing a “genocide.”

On a human level, it’s hard to understand how someone could be moved (and understandably so) by the cries of a frail, elderly Jewish woman in police custody, yet dismiss the horrors of Oct. 7—the slaughter, the mutilation, the rape of untold young woman at a music festival—as so much “Zionist propaganda.” As long as that remains the case, politicians on the left who intervene only in those incidents of antisemitism are unconnected to Israel will never win the trust of the Jewish community.

Simply put, if you are going to fight antisemitism, you cannot pick and choose which incidents you focus upon on the basis of your ideological convictions. And since the far-left is not, for the foreseeable future, going to accept the contention that its attacks on Zionism and Israel’s legitimacy are forms of antisemitism, one has to probe the political price of acknowledging their support in cases like those of Sarah.

Because if Sarah had been a resident of the West Bank instead of Créteil, and if she had been pulled over by Palestinian Authority officers and then detained, facing treatment even worse than her humiliation by French police officers, LFI and those who share its worldview would have, at best, remained silent. Such hypocrisy would never pass muster on the left when it comes to racism against members of the black community, Muslims or any other minority. But Jews, as we have painfully learned yet again over the last four months, are different.

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