July 14, France’s Independence Day, commemorates the outbreak of the Great Revolution in 1789 with its unforgettable watchwords, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. This year, however, the festivities were overshadowed by the ugly spectacle the previous day of a mob of pro-Palestinian protesters seeking to forcibly attack two synagogues in central Paris.
The worst incident happened outside the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue on Rue de la Roquette in the 11th arrondissement, a district with a large Jewish population. The protesters — mainly French citizens of North African Arab origin and left-wing Trotskyites — shouted chilling anti-Semitic slogans like “Death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right.” Inside the synagogue, close to 200 worshipers had to barricade themselves against a mob (many wearing kaffiyehs) armed with bats and chairs seized from local cafes. They pushed their way past the five French policemen assigned to guard the synagogue. What saved the congregants from a potential pogrom was the presence of a number of Jewish community security guards, Jewish Defense League and Betar members who fought the crowd until police reinforcements arrived to lift the siege, which had lasted for more than an hour.
This clash was by no means an isolated event. The previous day (July 12) in Belleville, an eastern suburb of Paris, chants of “Itbach al-Yahud” (“Slaughter the Jews”) could clearly be heard at a pro-Hamas demonstration. The day before that, a firebomb was thrown at a packed synagogue in Aulnay-sous-Bois in the northeastern suburbs of Paris during Friday night services.
There has also been no lack of physical assaults on individual Jews in the past two weeks. One such incident took place in broad daylight near the Gare du Nord railway station, when a young Arab man pepper-sprayed a 17-year-old Jewish girl, while shouting anti-Semitic abuse: “Dirty Jewess, inshallah [God willing], you will die.”
In the wake of the assaults on several Parisian synagogues, the French interior minister quickly ordered the police to “redouble their vigilance.” For now he has banned demonstrations that might further threaten public order. French President Francois Hollande, in his traditional Bastille Day interview, also condemned the “excesses,” deploring the recrudescence of anti-Semitism and inadmissible attempts to “import the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into France.” Having discussed this very issue with Hollande at the Elysee Palace only last month, I have no doubt about his sincere determination to combat these outbursts of anti-Semitism and his sensitivity to Israel’s security concerns.
But these and other well-meaning condemnations or legal measures have in the past proved impotent to stem the rising tide of anti-Jewish violence in France. The pattern was already set with the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, and since that time neither the French state nor civil society has been able to put the genie back into the bottle. The catalyst or the pretext may be Israel/Palestine but the hate crimes and violence are directed overwhelmingly against Jewish, not Israeli, targets. Raw Jew-hatred is what underlies these outbursts, and much of the French media (as elsewhere in Europe) are complicit through their constant demonization of Israel. The result of this growing intimidation is a profound sense of disorientation, personal insecurity, and even traumatization within the French Jewish community. The old hairsplitting distinctions between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism now appear hollow or increasingly meaningless. French Jews are all too aware that the Gaza war is merely an excuse for the anti-Semitic mob. After all, Arabs in France have rarely, if ever, demonstrated against the massive atrocities inflicted on their fellow Arabs in Syria or Iraq. Moreover, for over a decade now, anti-Semitic assaults — verbal or physical — have become almost routine on the streets, in schools, or on the metro in Paris.
There are also other profoundly disquieting long-term trends. Since 2000, the population of Jews in France has steadily fallen from a peak of 700,000 to approximately half a million. This demographic erosion is due to rapid assimilation, intermarriage, and economically driven emigration as well as mounting anti-Semitism. Even more troubling is the fact that French Jews live in a country suffering from an acute loss of national self-confidence, a generally morose mood, widespread anxiety over globalization, growing fears of mass unemployment, uncontrolled immigration, high taxes, and a deep distrust of politicians.
The backlash against the European Union is a further symptom of this general atmosphere of cultural pessimism which greatly contributed to the stunning success of the far-right National Front in the recent May elections for the European Parliament. For the first time the National Front emerged as the victor in a major test of its public support. Although its leader, Marine Le Pen, unlike her father — Jean-Marie, who led the National Front from from 1972 to 2011 — has never openly embraced anti-Semitic rhetoric, this success is hardly reassuring for French Jews.
Most worrying of all, French Jews live in the midst of Europe’s largest Muslim Arab community, numbering at least six million immigrants. Radicalized young jihadis like Mohamed Merah, who in 2012 murdered a rabbi and three small Jewish children in cold blood in Toulouse’s Ozar Hatorah school, came from this same poorly integrated community. So, too, did Mehdi Nemmouche, charged with the equally brutal killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels earlier this year. Before that, there was the sadistic murder in 2006 of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi on the outskirts of Paris by a gang called Les Barbares, led by a French West African Muslim, Youssouf Fofana. All of these atrocities had a ruthless, anti-Semitic dimension to them that has cast a giant shadow over the future of French Jewry.