NORMANDY – I am and have been a Francophile. I love Paris, I love the French Alps, and I love the French countryside. I love French art and its incredible museums.
Most of all, I love the history of the United States in France and have twice visited the beaches of Normandy in just the past four weeks alone to commemorate the American heroism of D-Day, 75 years ago this month.
On Facebook and Instagram, hundreds of thousands of people followed my trips to the great battlefields of the Second World War in France, and it was my privilege to bring stories of the indescribable heroism of America’s soldiers to the masses.
To President Emmanuel Macron’s credit, at the D-Day 75 commemorations at the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach, he acknowledged the French debt: “We know what we owe to you veterans: our freedom. On behalf of my nation I just want to say: thank you.”
That is the best of France. But then there is a darker side, a shameful history of antisemitism, especially during the Second World War when the French sent 80,000 Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz. The collaborationist Vichy regime was headed by Marshal Pétain, a war hero turned national disgrace who became Hitler’s enthusiastic stooge and regularly wrote him groveling letters, even as he did his bidding to slaughter the Jews.
Modern antisemitism, historically speaking, also has a French connection. The foundational works of modern and racial Jew-hatred – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Édouard Drumont’s La France juive, and Charles Maurras’s L’Action française – were first published and distributed not in Moscow or Berlin, but in Europe’s “City of Light.”
RECENTLY, THOUGH, France has taken an important step to turn its history of antisemitism around.
The European Court of Justice is mulling a move to repeal the labeling of all Jewish-made products from the ancient biblical lands of Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights. According to EU regulations enacted in 2015, products emanating from Jewish businesses in these areas are labeled in the way that cigarettes are, except less for legitimate medical reasons than for illegitimate “ethical” ones. Recently, though, the Psagot winery near Jerusalem joined the US-based Lawfare Project in bringing the unfair labeling law before a Parisian court, which referred the case to the ECJ in Luxembourg.
Considering it punishes only Jewish “offenders,” the labeling-law is antisemitic. Why else would goji berries from Chinese-occupied Tibet or olive oil from Turkish-occupied Cyprus get such an obvious pass?
Moreover, calling for social and educational initiatives in Ramallah can be legitimately defined as “supporting Palestinians.” Meticulously advancing the financial ruin of Jews near Jerusalem, on the other hand, cannot.
I was in Paris when I heard of the story. I love to walk the city, visiting its countless historical sites. Although, with our yarmulkes and tzitzit, my family and I look unmistakably Jewish, by and large – with some exceptions of people who will give us menacing stares and some who will even spit – we are treated warmly by all the people we meet. Most Parisians exemplify the acceptance shown to Jews by leading French figures, from Émile Zola to Manuel Valls.
When you wear a yarmulke in France, Jews come over to you in whispers to tell you (a) they’re Jewish, as if you are in a secret society of illuminati, and (b) it’s a bad idea to wear a kippah openly. You keep on getting advice to take off your kippah lest you get attacked. Reading Marc Weitzmann’s newly released and masterful work, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France – from which much of the research for this article was drawn – I knew I couldn’t blame these Jews for their fear and discretion.
France has a problem with antisemitism. In 2018, there were 541 attacks against Jews, up 74% from the previous year. Worse, it’s a state that hates to admit it.
This time around, Macron has a chance to take a real step toward reversing the rise of antisemitism. And repealing the label law would be his boldest and most meaningful move yet.
Just four months ago, after nearly 100 Jewish tombstones got the “swastika treatment” in southeast France, Macron came before a Jewish communal conference to declare a war against the rising tide of Jew-hatred, as well as to concede – at last – that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of antisemitism.”
He said these things because they had finally become undeniable. Finally, because for most of the past two decades, as social siege-engines have cornered the Jews of France, local authorities have forgone an aggressive policy of decrying antisemitism for a slothful one of denying it.
When a synagogue was burned down amid a rush of Islamist demonstrations in the early 2000s, French, justice officials, politicians and journalists maintained “a virtual blackout on more than 500 cases of antisemitic violence” directed by Muslims at Jews, according to Shmuel Trigano, a prominent scholar on the subject.
Then, in 2006, when Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cellular clerk was abducted, held for 24 days, tortured, stabbed, doused with gasoline, burned alive and killed, the French toed the same line. They did so even after those who hatched the plot confessed to selecting their victim on the basis of his Jewishness (and, by extension, stores of gold). In avoiding the real one, minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy would use the term “antisemitism by amalgam.” There wasn’t a philosopher in France who knew what that meant. Then again, it let him buck the subject; in other words, it worked.
The worst part of this entire story is that nearly 50 “uninvolved” locals – including many Christians – knew of Halimi’s whereabouts. The doorman of the building even gave Halimi’s captors the keys to a boiler room used as their makeshift black site. Even as his disappearance became the most talked-about story in France, however, not one of these neighbors so much as picked up a phone to anonymously tip off police. Beyond betraying a shocking tolerance for evil, this illustrates just how plainly expected antisemitism had become in French daily life. It was as if authorities were blind to a problem everyone in France could see.
Fast-forward 10 years and nothing would change. In 2016, Sarah Halimi (a distant cousin of Ilan’s) was beaten and thrown out her window by a 27-year-old neighbor who noticed the mezuzah on her door. Just the sight of the sacred Jewish door-ornament ignited within him – to quote the official psychiatric report – a “frantic outburst of hate.” Despite the fact that he admitted to targeting her out of hate and for being a Jew, the murder has still not been classified as antisemitic.
The accused murderer, for that matter, has yet to stand before a court of law. Though cleared of mental illness, Kobili Traoré is still considered “unfit for trial” because, at the time of the murder, he was – get this – in a state of “acute delirium” from smoking marijuana. That killing under the influence (of a light drug, at that) can hold as a defense in French litigation makes a mockery of the nation that gave the world its first modern code of law.
Then, just over a year ago, 85-year-old Holocaust-survivor Mireille Knoll was stabbed 11 times in her apartment before being “partly burned.” The authorities classified the murder as being motivated by “membership, real or supposed, of the victim of a particular religion.”
They just couldn’t say the word.
France’s inability to face its antisemitism seems to have been pulled out of Parisian absurdist theater (whose own Jew-hating founder, Jean Genet, once lionized Palestinian suicide bombers as “blowing up in thousands of pieces of laughter...” obtaining what he called “the joy of the hero...” as they blew apart mothers and children).
Of course, all of this occurred before the Macron crackdown. Since his announcement, however, little has so far improved.
Just three weeks ago, for example, a group of French students were caught toppling yet more tombstones in Bordeaux’s only Jewish cemetery (they were caught, in a fit of cosmic karma, after one of them got hit by a tumbling Jewish grave). They targeted the city’s only Jewish cemetery and did so in the wake of similar attacks against Jewish cemeteries across France. Still, local police reported that “at face value, this had nothing to do with antisemitism.”
That anecdote aside, four months have passed and we have yet to see Macron act meaningfully against antisemitism. With the Psagot winery’s quest for equality and justice, however, he now has an opportunity to chart a path for his nation and make good on his historic promise.
Regardless of what the EU court concludes, Macron should remove the antisemitic label-law against products from Judea and Samaria.
If he does not, he will continue to witness a mass exodus of Jews from France and lose the goodwill of people like me who wish to love the beauty and culture of France, but who are increasingly disgusted by the country’s refusal to purge the Jew-hatred from within.The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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