France's Jews Look into Hatred's Face

The crowd came from all over the city, going down to the cemetery to bury the charred Torah scrolls. The Jews of Marseilles were burying their holy books, destroyed in the fire at the [Or Aviv] Synagogue in Marseilles’ Les Caillols neighborhood, on the night of April 1. It was a haunting parade.

Clément Yana’s throat was tight with emotion: “No one gets through a day like this undamaged.” He is a dentist, president of the Provence branch of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), an important man in his city—a Jewish community leader who supports peace and open doors with other communities.

The first person who called him on the evening of the fire was a Muslim friend, an important man in his community, who said: “Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen here, the mosques are calm, the housing projects are calm.” Yana replied: “But it has happened.” The people of Marseilles are still friends. But deep down, Yana remains torn: “There’s going to be a great debate in the Jewish community. What’s at issue: our place in this country. What France thinks of its Jewish citizens.”

Yana’s is a voice of moderation. You won’t hear him talking about a “Kristallnacht” [the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis made their first major attack on Jews in Germany and Austria, burning synagogues and other Jewish property], as some Jewish leaders have. But he can’t avoid the unhappy issue.

The evening of the burial of the scrolls, Yana was watching television. Roger Cukierman, national president of the CRIF, was debating with Soheib Bencheikh, the grand mufti of Marseilles. The two men ended up arguing about the situation in the Middle East. “They fell into the trap,” Yana says regretfully. “They looked like spokesmen for foreign countries. They played the roles that people try to get us to play, Arabs and Jews alike.”

Jews and Arabs, [take this conflict] out of France. It’s a pernicious process. It’s called “communitarization.” It’s a politization in the movement of the beur [French-born Arabs], where radical secular activists and religious militants agree on a single point: the Palestinian issue. In Jewish communities, the process grows out of deep suffering: the feeling that no one is prepared to listen to what you’re saying. To be the only one thinking what you’re thinking. And to suffer, and to be hated.

Next Sunday, the CRIF is organizing demonstrations against anti-Semitism, “defending the Israeli people” after the recent suicide bombings. “There will be plenty of people there,” Cukierman says. “A lot of Jews. Few non-Jews, I’m afraid.

“If we had decided to address only anti-Semitism, we’d all have agreed, Jews and non-Jews alike. But defending Israel....” Still, Jewish leaders are pressing ahead. “No one else is sympathizing with the Israeli victims,” Yana says. “I don’t want to drop my ties with Israel just to appear acceptable.”

Thus, a community’s solitude deepens. There are many reason: recent anti-Semitic incidents; synagogues attacked in Strasbourg, Marseilles, Lyons; shots fired at a butcher shop in Toulouse; the ineffectiveness of politicians who are wary of the CRIF and its “exaggerations”; the feeling on the part of some Jewish activists that they’ve been taken in by former allies, the beurs—even if some continue to pursue dialogue
with Jews.

“In Toulouse, our Muslim counterparts couldn’t bring themselves to make a single gesture of solidarity,” laments Arié Bensehmoun, president of the Jewish community in Toulouse and a founder of the SOS-Racism protest organization in 1984.

“We got into politics together against [Jean-Marie] Le Pen [the founder of the National Front, France’s far-right, anti-immigrant party—WPR]. But today, the threat is Islamic fundamentalism, and we Jews aren’t the only ones threatened!”

“All wrongdoing is blamed on the Israelis,” protests the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. “Sharon isn’t above blame. It’s fair to speak of his brutality, his blindness. Of course there has to be a Palestinian state. But we can’t pretend terrorism doesn’t exist! Arafat isn’t the little plaster Jesus they make him out to be on TV!”

Finkielkraut has no apologies for his anger. “They were asking me to be a good Jew, and therefore a Palestinian, an unconditional supporter of Yasser Arafat. If I do as I’m told, I’m all right. But if I express any reservations, then I’m a wicked Jew.

“The pro-Palestinians blame Israel for hiding behind the Holocaust. But it’s their side that brings up the Holocaust all the time, starting with Arafat himself when he calls the Israelis Nazis. Their whole game is about reversing the terms of reference.”

Being slagged off like this paralyzes France’s Jews, who are unable to understand such hostility. “When you get down to the bottom of it, we’ve already lost the battle for public opinion,” says an executive of a Jewish radio station. “The only people who’ve called in since the suicide attacks are Jews. The pro-Palestinian argument has convinced the French public.”

That conclusion goes too far. But helped along by Ariel Sharon’s policies, Israel’s opponents have a fair wind behind them. The umbrella organization known as the Coordination of Efforts for a Just Peace in the Middle East—supported by a litany of recording artists and movie stars among others—mingles pacifism with challenges to Israel’s legitimacy. “For my part, I don’t talk about Israeli Nazism,” says Olivia Zemor, the chief organizer. “There is no genocide for now. But tomorrow, who knows what will happen?”

Zemor, a former journalist at the national news agency Agence France-Presse, was an activist for 10 years with Lutte Ouvrière [Workers Struggle, France’s small Trotskyist party]. “One of the things you learn is how to organize,” she says. In the pro-Palestinian demonstrations you find a whole generation of leftist activists, who have maintained their networks and their effectiveness. Some of these people, like Olivia Zemor, are Jewish. They don’t hide their origins, to the detriment of their co-religionists.

And so on Sunday, “the Jews” will hold their demonstration. There will be French flags and Israeli flags. Maybe there will be incidents, maybe not. To their hearts’ content, the demonstrators will shout “Israel” to the Paris sky. They’ll denounce the media, Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, all those the Jewish right-wing loves to hate.

They won’t win over many people. They already know that.