French Jews and Anti-Semitism

Will a new president's election bring it to an end?

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France is home to an estimated 500,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Europe, and the third largest in the world, after the United States and Israel. In recent years, French Jewry has been widely featured in the international media after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks began in 2000. However, this complex and vibrant community may be standing at a new crossroad after the 2007 election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who proudly claims his Jewish ancestry and voices clear support for Israel. 

Violent Words and Acts

The Jewish community of France is one of the oldest in the Diaspora. It stands as a model of integration, with Jews serving in the highest positions of government, public administration, education, science, and culture. Consequently, the wave of anti-Semitism that followed the second Intifada came as a shock to French Jews. Jews became the target of public opinion: Israel was portrayed as a "Nazi state" in the media and in academic and political circles. French Jews were accused of having "too much memory of the Holocaust." This blend of Israeli politics, Holocaust fatigue, and anti-Semitism crystallized in the shows of Dieudonné, a French-African comic performer who dressed up as a Hasidic Jew and did the Nazi salute while shouting “Heil Hitler!” He has since been convicted and fined for this and other anti-Semitic statements.

french jews and anti-semitismAnti-Semitic incidents were not limited to words. Violence against the Jewish community was carried out in assaults on children, the burning of synagogues, and attacks on school buses. Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Créteil synagogue; posters in the Arab neighborhoods of Marseilles called for a boycott of Jewish-owned stores; a teacher of the Maimonides school in Paris was mugged and her hair set on fire. On a regular basis, swastikas were painted on Jewish buildings and Jews were cursed on the street, in offices, and on playgrounds. These acts were committed primarily by French citizens of Arab immigrant background in the name of political events taking place in a region 2,000 miles away.

French Jews were surprised by the brutality of the anti-Semitism, and even more by the silence of public officials and the laissez-faire attitude of the police. Initially, politicians tried to excuse the perpetrators by claiming these were isolated acts; had nothing to do with anti-Semitism but rather with boredom, unemployment, and social marginality. The police stopped entering difficult suburbs controlled by gangs and would not follow up on complaints made by Jewish citizens. The Jewish community felt so abandoned and discouraged that many victims of anti-Semitic acts gave up on filing a suit or even sharing their stories publicly. The more French Jews tried to have their voice heard, the more they felt isolated and delegitimized.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in New York University's Program in Religious Studies. A writer, editor, translator, and teacher, she earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University in May 2008.