Will good intentions be enough in French anti-Semitism effort?

Incidents of violent anti-Semitism jumped 40 percent worldwide over the past 18 months; France, once again, led the pack with 164 recorded incidents in 2014, up from 141 the previous year.

April 20, 2015 02:17
Netanyahu Hollande

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Francois Hollande speak at the Grand Synagogue in Paris.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Friday announced the beginning of a massive national effort to combat his country’s rising levels of anti-Semitism and immediately began garnering the plaudits of Jews worldwide.

While there is no question that the leadership of the Fifth Republic are earnest in their desire to eradicate this scourge that has plagued Europe for centuries, it is less clear whether they will be able to translate this aspiration into concrete gains that will make for a secure long term future for Francophone Jewry.

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Incidents of violent anti-Semitism jumped 40 percent worldwide over the past 18 months; France, once again, led the pack with 164 recorded incidents in 2014, up from 141 the previous year.

This includes the January shooting of four shoppers at a kosher market in Paris in January, as well as incidents of arson, rape, verbal abuse and other forms of physical aggression.

The €100 million plan includes regular monitoring of racism and anti-Semitism in order to generate data; protect Jewish and Muslim houses of worship and communal institutions; and push back against discrimination.

Criminal actions with racist motives will be punished more harshly, while hate speech will be prosecutable under criminal rather than civil law. Internet hate also will get a closer look.

“The strategy focuses on the same four elements of [the] ADL’s efforts against anti-Semitism: public awareness campaigns, legal reforms, addressing cyber-hate and sponsoring anti-bias education programs in schools,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement.

While educational efforts promote state secularism and the strengthening of legal provisions allow for harsher prosecution of the perpetrators of hate crimes, there are some who believe that even such well-intentioned efforts will have little bearing upon the root causes of the problem even as they potentially ameliorate its symptoms.

In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Prof. Robert Wistrich, the head of Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, said that while he believes France has made good-faith efforts in the past, unless Europeans face up to the treatment of Israel in the media and the link between Muslim immigrant populations and anti-Semitism, all the efforts being made are “no more than tinkering with the surface of things.”

“You have the denial, for instance, that there is any relationship between so-called criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism but, in fact, most of what goes by the name of criticism of Israel is feeding on a daily basis the growing demonization of the Jewish state, which in turn spills over I would say almost with mathematical inevitability into some form of dislike, hostility or even loathing of Jews,” he explained.

“Governments treat the whole Muslim issue as taboo.

They won’t touch it. They will rarely ever admit that there is such a thing as Muslim anti-Semitism, for political reasons they won’t admit it.

So we have this kind of paralyzing political correctness.

It’s very difficult to even take the first step in the right direction and that’s not going to happen.”

In a survey conducted by the ADL last year, the Middle East and North Africa were determined to harbor the highest concentration of anti-Semitic sentiment globally, with 74 percent of respondents agreeing with a list negative stereotypes about Jews. With migration from North Africa to Europe, such sentiments have not been left behind.

By the same token, many of the attacks on Jews in France and across the Continent are committed by members of Middle Eastern immigrant communities such as recent shootings at Brussels’ Jewish Museum, Denmark’s Central Synagogue and Paris’s Hyper Cacher grocery.

There is also a strong correlation between unrest in the Middle East and spikes in violence against Jews, most notably during Israel’s wars in Gaza in 2009 and 2014.

While recent research indicates that violence against French Muslims is also on the rise, there is no indication that it is anywhere near the levels suffered by Jews. In a summary of his plan posted on Twitter, Valls mentioned the protection of both groups’ institutions in the same sentence, not making any differentiation between the two, indicating a possible unwillingness to acknowledge that the suffering of one stems from the actions of the other.

“To fight a disease you have to name causes, and generally in Western Europe most of the anti-Semitic attacks are from young Muslim people,” explained Joel Rubinfeld of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism.

There is a need to identify those responsible for anti-Semitism “and they are coming from two main ares: the Left and far Left and the Muslim community,” he added.

Rubinfeld believes that current manifestations of anti-Semitism are inextricably linked to the trend of attacking Jews as a stand in for the state of Israel and unless Valls’s plan contains tools for dealing with this form of anti-Semitism it will not be well equipped to solve the problem.

That isn’t to say that criticism of Israel, even extreme criticism is invalid, Rubinfeld said, but added that there must be an awareness of when it crosses a red line and becomes demonization.

According to Michael Whine, the UK’s independent member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and an official at the Community Security Trust, a Jewish anti-Semitism watchdog group, the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism is bound up with the French “failure to impose its secular attitudes onto a community that is very disaffected.”

“There is a widespread disaffection for the government and French society by those committing these acts and [the solution is] not just a short-term action that a government might take. There are deep-seated issues that governments have to tackle, as well,” he explained.

“It’s a long-term problem and they have to address it with more than cosmetic bandages.”

At the end of the day, it is likely that no matter how admirable Valls’s intentions, without a concerted effort to acknowledge the roots of the problem and tackle the social issues whose most visible manifestation is anti-Semitic violence, little progress will be made.

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