France / 05-04-2012
After Toulouse: Combatting Antisemitism in France
by Dr. Tsilla Hershco
Executive Summary: France's formal, coercive, educational, and correctional measures against antisemitism should not be underestimated, and have largely borne fruit. Yet the country's unbalanced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as reflected occasionally in government condemnations of Israel's legitimate measures of self-defense and in media coverage of the conflict, has created an altogether too comfortable environment for the resurgence of antisemitic violence in France, including the recent attack in Toulouse.
The premeditated massacre of four Jewish French citizens (including three children) by a French Islamic extremist in Toulouse spotlights the threat to France and all of Europe of global jihadism, and is a continuation of a long history of acts of violence committed by radical Muslims against Jews in France. Since the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000, there has been a substantial increase in acts of aggression perpetrated (mainly) by young French Muslims of North African origin against members of the Jewish community and Jewish institutions. At the core of this complex reality, lie four major factors: social, economic, political, and ideological.
Academics and journalists have pointed out social and economic factors behind the antisemitic violence: the lack of integration of thousands of young Muslims into French society, discrimination, unemployment, poor housing conditions, and inferior schooling and education – all of which have resulted in growing feelings of bitterness, alienation and frustration towards the French Republic.
This was well evident during the riots in the suburbs of Paris in November 2005, when thousands of cars, public institutions, and properties were set on fire followed by severe clashes with the police. The violence of Muslims against Jews was explained as resentment and outrage directed against a segment of the population that is perceived as politically, economically, and socially well-integrated into mainstream French society. Other explanations focused on hatred towards the State of Israel and empathy towards the Palestinians as triggers for the violent acts by Muslims against French Jewry, which is perceived as highly supportive of Israel.
Initially, following the outburst of antisemitic violence in September 2000, the French government did not seem to grasp the magnitude of the problem, in spite of the frequent and numerous protests and warnings by Jewish community leaders. However, with the escalating antisemitic acts of violence, the French government gradually became aware of their strategic threat to law and order within the country and declared that antisemitic acts were acts against the French Republic, a contradiction to the republic’s basic values. In addition, France realized that such antisemitic violence was a stain on France’s global image.
Consequently, subsequent French governments endorsed more severe penalties and law enforcement measures against antisemitic assailants and implemented tightened security measures to protect Jewish institutions. They also advanced educational programs about the Holocaust and adopted a law against Holocaust denial. Another way of coping with the problem was to reinforce the 1905 republican law of "laïcité" (secularism), meaning the absence of religious interference in government affairs, and vice-versa. Thus, a new law, passed in March 2004, banned conspicuous religious symbols, such as the Jewish Magen David, Christian crosses and Muslim headscarves in French public schools. Another law, introduced in 2010, banned the wearing of the burqa in public.
French authorities have also promoted policies of affirmative action designed to better integrate the Muslim population into French society. They have been careful not to stigmatize the Muslim population and thus create further impediments to its integration. Indeed it should be stressed that most of France's Muslim population (estimated to be 4 to 6 million) does not participate in antisemitic aggressions against Jews. Furthermore, Jewish and Muslim communities in France have a permanent, ongoing dialogue between them and have even united on issues of common religious concern such as ritual slaughter.
These French efforts to curb antisemitic violence seemed to have borne fruit, with a reported sharp drop in the number of antisemitic acts after 2005. Nonetheless the rate of antisemitic acts of violence still remained significantly higher than before September 2000. In fact, one of the most shocking acts of antisemitic aggression was committed in January-February 2006, when a gang of French Muslims kidnapped, tortured and murdered the 23-year-old French Jew Ilan Halimi. During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, antisemitic incidents spiked, but in 2010-11 they again declined.
However, the issue of Muslim attacks on Jews cannot be regarded solely through the prism of local affairs in France. Rather, one must take a broader view of the causes and environment for such attacks.
The global rise of extreme Islam, which preaches holy war against nonbelievers, is another dimension that explains antisemitic aggression in France. Due to French law, which separates state and religion, the practice of Islam in France is largely funded by contributions from extremist Muslim elements. Thus, Muslims in France are often exposed to the preaching of radical imams who incite hatred and jihad.
Furthermore, Muslims in France, as elsewhere, are exposed to poisonous antisemitic incitement through multiple television channels and Internet websites. French security authorities have been fully aware of this phenomenon, which constitutes a tangible security threat. For instance, in 2004 French authorities reacted by banning the broadcasts of the Hizballah TV network Al-Manar and by expelling radical imams from France.
Nevertheless, French government attention to Arab and Islamic antisemitic broadcasts and media has been sporadic and selective. France, for example, has constantly refrained from overtly criticizing the Palestinian Authority for its use, on numerous occasions, of antisemitic propaganda.
It can additionally be argued that an important trigger of antisemitic violence against Jews in France is the French media's unbalanced presentation of events in the Middle East and French government policies very critical of Israel. This was evident mainly during the Second Intifada and other crises such as the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006 or Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. It was manifested, as well, during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to France in July 2001 (when a demonstration against Sharon, in which he was called an assassin, turned into a violent outburst of ruthless antisemitic violence). Harsh, unfettered and unbalanced criticism of Israel fed an environment which spawned antisemitic violence in France.
In this context, it is worthwhile to cite the observations made in February 2005 by Roger Cukieman, the former president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (the CRIF): "At this point I must express the malaise that I feel. Malaise in the face of what appears to me to be an incompatibility between France’s foreign policy and its internal struggle against antisemitism…. We read in the Rufin Report, ordered by the Minister of Interior: 'It is not conceivable today to fight effectively in France against antisemitism, with the new forms that it has taken on, without doing all that can be done to seek to bring a greater balance in the appreciation of the situation in the Middle East among the general public….'"
A special study conducted by the European Jewish Congress in November 2006 further details the increase of antisemitic violence during the Second Lebanon War in the European Union countries, including the increase in France. The extensive study demonstrates the correlation between one-sided media coverage of the war, which emphasized the suffering inflicted by Israel on the Lebanese, and the antisemitic and anti-Israel discourse.
Thus, France's formal, coercive, educational, and correctional measures, combined with the French Jewish community’s initiatives of "rapprochement" with moderate Muslims in France, are all indispensable measures against antisemitism in France, and should not be underestimated. Yet, the country's unbalanced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as reflected occasionally in government condemnations of Israel's legitimate measures of self-defense and in media coverage of the conflict, has created an all-together-too-comfortable environment for the resurgence of antisemitic violence in France.
As part of its efforts to combat antisemitism in France, the French government must seek to foster a more moderate, balanced discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Dr. Tsilla Hershco is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and specializes in Franco-Israeli relations.
BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.