The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously said, “Antisemitism isn’t a threat just for Jews, it’s a threat first and foremost to Europe and the freedoms it took centuries to achieve.” The recent social breakdown in France provides yet another example of an age-old historical truth: untreated antisemitism is both a catalyst and warning sign of a broader sickness in society. Antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine – and when unchecked, it’s followed by broad social upheaval, economic destruction, and cultural stagnation – throughout history and today.
Over the last several decades in France, a pattern has played out that is familiar across history.
Antisemitic violence has proliferated in French society, often going unpunished by the judicial system, unaddressed by the political establishment, and unabated by the public. Hate crimes, muggings, terrorism, and intimidation have targeted the small Jewish community. 74% of French Jews were victims of antisemitic acts during their lifetime and 61% of anti-religious acts in France have been directed at Jews.
Although Jews represent less than 1 percent of the French population, 40 percent of all violent hate crimes in France are antisemitic. Due to “political correctness” France has not done nearly enough to combat antisemitism. And like many western nations, France’s antisemitism is not confined to one political camp. It comes mostly from growing hostile Muslim population, but also from the far left and the far right.
The appeasement of vicious antisemitism in France, as Jews have been killed in high-profile terror attacks and hate crimes, has allowed the seeds of social unrest to fester. This tolerance of hatred has resulted in French Jews emigrating in record numbers, ultimately leading to the situation today in France – rioting, lawlessness, and political violence.
Elected leaders must protect France from repeating the mistakes of the past. If they don’t, you can find many other examples in history to see where the country may be headed.
Throughout History, the hate that began with Jews never ended with Jews
For thousands of years, Iraqi Jews constituted one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities. In 1941, a pogrom, known as the Farhud, was carried out on the Jewish population. Hundreds of Jews were murdered, thousands were injured, and looting overtook Jewish businesses. The pogrom began a decade of severe persecution, leading to the ultimate Jewish exodus of Iraq in the early 1950’s after the establishment of a safe homeland for the Jewish people in Israel. What followed was the cultural, societal, and economic downfall of Iraq. The throughline is clear. Iraq persecuted, attacked, and dispossessed their vital Jewish community – leading to a decline in intellectual and cultural diversity, and a tarnished reputation on the international stage – leading to diminished foreign investment, trade, and diplomacy.
Like Iraq, the Soviet Union was home to a significant Jewish community for decades. But under Josef Stalin’s reign, antisemitism became normalized and embraced. Jewish intellectuals, professionals, and political dissidents were targeted by the state. Widespread discrimination, purges, and executions targeted Jews throughout the county. The Soviet Union’s embrace of antisemitism contributed to an overall climate of fear, leading to the stifling of intellectual progress and a weakening of the social fabric of society. Following years of persecution, Jews left the Soviet Union in droves, landing in mainly Israel and the United States. The Soviet Union was left with major brain drain of a productive chunk of their society – and ultimately collapsed within decades.
France’s path forward is not inevitable. To slow its direction towards social breakdown, it should focus on two priorities:
First, Protect liberalism and second, bolster institutions.
At its best, liberalism’s commitment to the principles of equality, human rights, and the rule of law provides a strong foundation for protecting Jewish communities. Ongoing vigilance, robust legislation, and community engagement help ensure the continued safety, security, and well-being of Jewish individuals and communities within these democracies. Liberal democracies grant Jewish communities the right to practice their faith without persecution or fear. When synagogues are targeted, or Jews are attacked for being Jews, liberal democracies use the rule of law to punish perpetrators. When religious targeted crime goes unpunished, the public loses faith in the rule of law, and public confidence in the state erodes.
Around the world, we’re seeing institutions weakened. Media, government, elected leaders, corporations, etc. have all lost the trust of the public. Mission creep corporations becoming political actors and skewed incentives, such as politicians being rewarded for “hot takes” and fundraising ability vs. effectiveness, have eaten away at institutional authority and societal health.
Yuval Levin writes how institutional decay has led to collective societal anomie and division in A Time to Build, stating: “"We trust an institution when we think that it forms the people within it to be trustworthy — so that not only does it perform an important social function, educating children or making laws or any of the many, many goods and services that institutions provide for us, but it also at the same time provides an ethic that shapes the people within it to perform that service in a reliable, responsible way."
Weakened democratic institutions struggle to protect minority rights, including those of Jewish communities. In the absence of reliable institutions, extremist ideologies, including antisemitism, flourish. Weakened educational institutions may fail to provide accurate historical context, perpetuating stereotypes, and biases. Compromised journalistic institutions enable conspiracy theories to thrive and go unchecked. And a crisis of leadership enables antisemitic narratives to exploit societal grievances.
Antisemitism’s destructiveness cannot be overlooked when analyzing a nation’s demise. From social divisions to economic setbacks and cultural losses, antisemitism plays a significant role leading to societal breakdown.
It is essential for France to acknowledge the historical, destructive power of antisemitism, and work to bolster its institutions and confront its internal strife. Only through such efforts can France prevent the recurrence of history's tragic mistakes and forge a path forward for liberalism, western democracy, and pluralism.
The writer is an Israeli-American businessman and philanthropist.
This op-ed is published in partnership with a coalition of organizations that fight antisemitism across the world. Read the previous article by Yoseph Haddad.