The events of May 1968 and the Jews

Many American universities are currently at the forefront of the antisemitic trend that is focused on Israel.

April 26, 2018 22:04
4 minute read.
Emmanuel Macron holocaust

Emmanuel Macron, candidate for the 2017 presidential election, looks at some of the 2,500 photographs of young Jews deported from France during WWII, as he visits the Shoah Memorial in Paris, France, April 30, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Fifty years ago huge demonstrations and strikes took place in France. An estimated 11 million people participated in the strikes.

At the height of these developments, the country came to a near standstill. This period was referred to as the “Events of May,” even though the first event, an occupation of a building at the Nanterre branch of Paris University, occurred in March 1968. During the crisis, then-French president Charles de Gaulle even asked the military whether the army would be willing to intervene if the situation turned into a revolution.

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Living in Paris at the time, I went several evenings to Boulevard Montmartre, a main street. On the corner of a side street, I watched the Boulevard where many young people were shouting. There were probably far more hooligans among them than students. Opposite them, a few meters away, stood the special French police, the CRS. The youth shouted: “CRS, SS.”

After some time, the CRS were fed up and marched toward the protesters, who fled. I moved away from the battlefield and walked up the side street. Tear gas wafted from the underground Metro stations.

Among the leaders of the student uprising were a number of Jews. The best known was Daniel Cohn Bendit, nicknamed “Danny the Red.” Scholar Yair Auron claims that personal experiences or those of parents in the Holocaust accounted for the move to the radical Left of a number of Jewish youngsters in France. The parents of quite a few had emigrated from Eastern Europe.

Auron quotes a well-known joke about the leaders of the Trotskyite Communist Revolutionary League which played an important role in the strike. “Why did they not speak Yiddish among them when their movement’s politburo met? Because one of them was a Sefardi Jew.”

At the time, Jewish radical leftists were not yet consistently anti-Israel as is the case today. They were rather ambivalent about the Jewish state, especially when it was in peril of being wiped out.

Here also the Holocaust experience, as well as the fear of another one, played a role.

The last experience as a student leader ended in 1967 after four years as chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students. At that time, international Jewish organizations still looked upon Jewish students with near-benign neglect. This changed after 1968, partly as a result of the “Events of May.” In 2001, the UN World Conference against Racism took place in Durban, South Africa. It was accompanied by a major NGO conference.

These gatherings turned into an anti-Israel hate-fest. Jewish students were then in the forefront, defending Israel against the gathering of antisemites.

THE FAILED May 1968 “revolution” did not have a huge immediate impact. It would take many people, including myself, decades to understand how important the “Events of May” had been, together with other occurrences which brought major changes to Western society at large.

One of the main results of societal change was the breakdown of authority. It affected governments, church leaders, student administrations, teachers and parents. The “Events of May” were one of the major components which led to this change. The impact of decolonization was another important one among many.

In the United States, the Students for Democratic Society, or SDS, was an important influence in the mid-1960’s. The expression “I am a human being: Do not fold, spindle or mutilate” dates from that period. The unpopular Vietnam War also contributed to many societal changes.

In 1969, the Woodstock Festival came to symbolize this changed reality.

The greater openness of society was initially good for minorities, including the Jews. Their voices could now be heard more than in the past. This was true especially at the end of the 1990s. It enabled an important new round of Holocaust restitution in Europe, accompanied by the revelation of much additional data about those who had collaborated in Europe with the German Nazis. Switzerland was a prime example.

Partly due to the emergence of social media, these changes overshot what was desirable.

Greater freedom also means an increase in incitement. In the US, hate speech is widespread, as Article 1 of the Constitution makes the country a near-paradise for hate-mongers.

This is very relevant for Jews. Many American universities are currently at the forefront of the antisemitic trend that is focused on Israel.

Jewish life is at its best in democratic societies where the rule of law is dominant. This is less and less the case in Europe. Fifty years after the “Events of May,” backpedaling on some civil liberties has become a necessity for the survival of liberal democracies. In Europe, massive immigration, which includes many who do not want to integrate, makes this even more necessary.

Fifty years after the “Events of May” major strikes are again taking place in France. This time by railway workers who are against reducing their prerogatives. These changes by the government, which are part of a broader plan, are necessary to make France’s economy healthy again. In just 50 years, the wheel has come around full circle – from demanding change to opposing it.

The writer is emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ‘Journal for the Study of Antisemitism’ and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s International Leadership Award.

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