Swastikas on gravestones and pictures of Holocaust survivors. A Jew shot with an air-rifle outside a Paris synagogue. A prominent Jewish public figure called “a dirty Jew.” A memorial tree for a Jewish man murdered in a brutal, antisemitic attack demonstrably chopped down before a remembrance service for him.
These are just some of the vicious, vitriolic, antisemitic attacks that have taken place in France in recent days, generating real concern over the rising anti-Jewish sentiment in the country of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
So what has prompted this rash of attacks?
Recent social turmoil in France and the febrile atmosphere generated by the so-called “yellow vest” movement has been identified as one of the phenomena that has stirred up antisemitic sentiment.
Although the movement started out as a protest against fuel tax hikes, it has morphed into a protest movement against the socioeconomic condition of the working and middle class with a highly populist strain of anti-“elite” rhetoric and beliefs.
At the same time, the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment, alive in significant portions of France’s large Muslim population, has been an engine for antisemitic attacks in the country for the last two decades.
It appears that the combination of these two phenomena, and a snowball effect in which one antisemite is emboldened by the antisemitic attack of another, is behind the recent outbreak of attacks.
Yonathan Arfi, vice president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, says that significant elements within the “yellow vests” movement have identified French Jews as part of the “elite establishment” that is doing them down and oppressing ordinary, working French citizens.
Even though French Jews are largely in the same economic circumstances as many in the middle and lower-middle class, they are associated with the establishment and blamed for the perceived wrongs done to other French citizens.
Anti-capitalist sentiment has become a notable feature of the “yellow vest” protests, which quickly morphs into anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices.
“Yellow vest” protesters have latched on to the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron used to work in the Rothschild & Cie Banque and used this to accuse him of being part of a global Jewish conspiracy.
Macron has been described as the “whore of the Jews,” a “puppet” of the Jews, and “president of the rich,” by “yellow vest” protesters, among other choice descriptions.
Arfi notes that the “yellow vest” movement is comprised of disparate political groups and ideologies – including both the far-left, which has an anti-capitalist focus, to the far-right whose agenda is “regain” control of government. He says both these groups and their agendas can quickly morph into antisemitism.
Ariel Kandel, originally from France and the director of the Qualita organization for French immigrants in Israel, ascribes the antisemitism within the “yellow vest” movement as a case of classic antisemitic beliefs becoming manifest once again in modern society.
“Everything comes back to the Jews: ‘They have money, they have power, they are Zionists,’ and even though they having nothing to do with the issues in France, when there are problems, Jews get blamed,” said Kandel. “It’s sad to see the return of medieval attitudes in which Jews are reflexively blamed for a country’s problems.”
Kandel opined that the recent wave of attacks is part of a snowball effect in which one antisemitic attack leads others to cast off inhibitions about the illegitimacy of antisemitism, thereby heightening such rhetoric and leading to ever more serious incidents and attacks.
Arfi notes that although antisemitic incidents in the “yellow vest” movement have become a serious phenomenon, Muslim antisemitism is still one of the central causes of antisemitism in the country and has been ever since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in Israel in 2000.
He points out that before this time, antisemitic incidents in France every year numbered in the dozens, but since then have numbered in the hundreds as a result of Muslim anger with Israeli policies and the expression of this anger against French Jews.
He says, however, that it is very hard to know the precise origin of the attacks given that the authorities do not release data on the identities of the perpetrators.
Regardless of the precise breakdown of antisemitic attacks by social grouping, France is clearly in the throes of a worrying assault on its Jewish community and its place in the republic.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have spoken out against the phenomenon and the rallies on Tuesday night demonstrate that large swaths of the population still stand against antisemitism.
But antisemitism in various forms and guises has also become more legitimate in the eyes of many who feel so liberated from its stigmas as to repeat ancient libels and slanders against their fellow citizens.
As Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog put it on Tuesday, the antisemitism virus has returned once again to the heart of Europe.