When All Is Said and Done in France...

French Jews will move to Israel.

French Jewish supporters of Israel at a July demonstration in Paris. EREZ LICHTFELD/SIPA via AP.

French Jewish supporters of Israel at a July demonstration in Paris. EREZ LICHTFELD/SIPA via AP.

Oct. 29 2014
About the author

Robert S. Wistrich is professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he heads the Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. He is the author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (2010).

I thank the four respondents to my Mosaic essay for their perceptive remarks. Their comments provide me with a welcome opportunity to clarify parts of my analysis about the Jewish situation in contemporary France.

In “The Ferment that Feeds Anti-Semitism in France,” Michel Gurfinkiel, a well-known specialist in this area, rightly highlights the constantly rising numbers of the French Muslim population—especially in the youth cohort under twenty-four—of whom 27 percent admire or approve of the barbaric Islamic State (IS). This is in itself a frightening statistic. He also notes that although a few French Muslim leaders did condemn recent jihadist brutalities, the rally they organized after the beheading of a French hiker in Algeria found little echo within their own Muslim constituency.

Equally troubling is the escalation of intra-Muslim violence on European soil. Earlier this month, in the center of Hamburg, Salafists savagely attacked a peaceful Kurdish demonstration. Although this act of violence had no Jewish dimension, the Islamist fanaticism that drove it also happens to be the most lethal element in the “new anti-Semitism.” Unfortunately, we can expect more proxy wars of this kind, sometimes wholly unrelated to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, in an already fragile European Union.

I am less persuaded than is Gurfinkiel by the explanatory force of French geographer Christophe Guilluy’s somewhat schematic distinction between an “Elite France” (pro-globalist, pro-Europe, and prospering in the big cities) and a “Peripheral France” made up of losers in the globalization sweepstakes who are utterly neglected by the establishment. There is no doubt that such a polarization does exist in France; indeed, it has been present in various permutations throughout much of modern French history, alongside the partly related anti-Jewish and anti-American trends on the far Right and Left. True, too, this “periphery” is currently a pillar of support for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Yet the ressentiment of the “poor whites,” although not at all dead, strikes me as having lost much of its former potency as an active ingredient in contemporary French anti-Semitism in particular. It does, however, retain some potential for a future populist mobilization against the “Islamicization” of France, should things become more violent in the cities.

In his own response, “How Anti-Semitism Became a Social Movement,” Ben Cohen focuses more directly on the immediate context of 21st-century anti-Semitism and some of its more novel elements. He is quite correct to point out that Western Jews today are no longer subject to racist discrimination in housing, employment, education, or even politics. There are no state-sanctioned pogroms, let alone the totalitarian, Nazi-organized violence that led to the Holocaust. Not only that, but in Western Europe at least, the authorities hardly encourage anti-Jewish manifestations and indeed seem to protect their Jewish communities as best they can, albeit with very mixed results.

Precisely for that reason, I emphasized in my essay the gravity of the failure to palliate, let alone eradicate, the anti-Semitic virus. Outlawing Holocaust denial in France or Germany, for example, has not in the least diminished its appeal. Prohibiting brazenly anti-Semitic comments in general has proved no more effective, especially when such incitement returns through the back door in an anti-Zionist wrapping, which is not merely legal but regarded in many circles as politically “progressive.”

Cohen is again right that the elevation of “Palestinianism” to the level of a global ideology (despite its utter intellectual vacuity), along with the status of iconic victimhood uncritically granted to Palestinian Arabs, has had a devastating effect on the common sense of millions of ordinary people in the West. For four decades I have been warning that the day would surely come when so-called “anti-Zionism” would provide the consensual framework for a “new” form of anti-Semitism demonizing Jews as militarists, racists, “ethnic cleansers,” or even clones of the Third Reich.  The recent Gaza war simply added another dose of high-octane fuel to an already burning fire. The demonic fantasy of a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy invented by European “progressivist” intellectuals, relayed today by the mainstream and social media, and taken into the streets by predominantly Muslim mobs, may yet prove to be beyond containment.

While I agree with Ben Cohen that Europe in 2014 is certainly not 1933 Berlin, or a replay of Vichy France, what is so shocking is that only 70 years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has once again been “normalized.” Indeed, in its anti-Israel form it has become virtually ubiquitous. No one can deny the reality of contemporary Jewish empowerment in Israel (and the United States), but at the same time one needs to realize that this, too, has added a further layer of toxicity to the hatred of Jews.


George Weigel sees the revival of anti-Semitism in the context of a “deracinated” Europe that has lost all of its moral and cultural moorings. Today’s de-Christianized Europe, he writes in “Who Can Save Europe’s Jews? Only Its Christians,” has been unhinged by the “atheistic humanism” of thinkers like Comte, Marx, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and other would-be gravediggers of the Judeo-Christian Creator-God. Once the Hebrew Bible was thrown on the scrapheap, its place taken by hollow materialism and a vulgar cultural relativism, the way became open to every post-modern idiocy, including the alliance of today’s secularist left with Islamic anti-Semites.

Weigel’s hope is that European Christianity, led by the Catholic Church, can effect a return to the core moral values that might yet halt the slide toward irredeemable decadence. I confess that the chances of this happening in contemporary Europe seem slim to me. It is true that many Christians have made a major effort to come to grips with the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism (unlike most of their Muslim counterparts with regard to Islamic anti-Semitism). Successive popes since John Paul II have led the way in this respect. But many Christian clerics, Protestants perhaps more than Catholics, have been very guarded indeed in their response to aggressive anti-Israel incitement, whether in Europe or beyond. They have also been astonishingly cautious in the face of the current ethnic cleansing of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East by rampaging jihadists. If it is so difficult for Catholic and Protestant churches to denounce Muslim persecution and terror even against Christian minorities, how likely is it that they will defend harassed Jewish communities in Europe?

Then there is the crucial but thorny question of Israel and the Palestinians. Although Israel is the only country in the entire Middle East where the Christian population has actually grown, and where the rights of that population are fully respected, many European and Arab Christians prefer to reproach the Jews for the suffering of Christians rather than their Islamic persecutors. Very few European Catholics seem to be protesting against this gross libel—a silence all the more striking since there are millions of Christians, mainly evangelicals, especially in the United States but also increasingly in Africa, Asia, and even Latin America, who are pro-Israel and sympathetic toward the Jewish people.

This brings me back to the Jews of France and to the response of Neil Rogachevsky, “The Unwritten Rule.” Like him, I have also encountered well-placed and upwardly mobile French Jews who may acknowledge the current “national malaise” but refuse to believe it will ultimately affect them; who are altogether disconnected from the hardships experienced by Jews and non-Jews alike at the street level; who basically deny that anti-Semitism even exists in France; or who think it is merely a passing trend that will disappear as soon as economic conditions improve. We have been there before, many times in Jewish history, and sadly it appears that some Jews will never learn.

Rogachevsky’s comments also confirm my own impressions of the intense distress of Jews who still live today in poorer places like Sarcelles or Barbès and have to face the looming abyss of a run-down economy, a dysfunctional political system, a morally disoriented society, and the daily harassment of young Muslims and blacks, often intoxicated by a nihilistic culture of hatred. But the so-called “losers” trapped in this no-exit situation are not the only Jews who are drawn by the prospect of aliyah to Israel. From my own observations I can testify that growing numbers of highly-educated and well-trained professionals, as well as energetic and idealistic Jewish students, are looking to the Jewish state as the answer to their own predicament.

For some, this is a natural progression from a traditionalist, Sephardi-style attachment to Judaism, or the direct result of already ardent ties with Israel itself. For others, Israel as a dynamic start-up nation seems to offer better opportunities than are to be found in the increasingly stagnant, top-heavy, and mismanaged French economy. Beyond that, though, there are also the deeper elements of Jewish belonging, identity, and fate.

For many French Jews, Israel is not just another land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It is the repository—and the ultimate destination—of more than 3,000 years of Jewish history, culture, national hopes, religious identification, and messianic longings. Many already have relatives and friends living in Israel. Some long ago bought apartments or made financial investments as a kind of insurance policy in case of bad times.

Anti-Semitism, as so often in Jewish history, may well be the immediate trigger for change. But much more is involved than that. There is also the haunting, enigmatic, and perhaps indefinable matter of Jewish destiny.

More about: Anti-Semitism, European Jewry, France