The oldest recorded antisemitic slurs date from Ancient Greece. The Greeks were antisemites, using the same old arguments to condemn Jews because of their purported connection to money (they were generally outlawed from other professions), strange customs, and an obsession with questioning. This latter accusation, both essential and eternal, is deeply rooted in the Hebrew religion, which says that everything, including the existence of God, should be called into question. Thus, wherever there are Jews, there are antisemites.
And I doubt whether antisemitic feeling can be eradicated, as it is so entrenched in Western culture. Moreover, Jews play the vital role of scapegoats during times of crisis. What is truly important today is not to fight antisemitic sentiment, but to combat specific violent acts, which are measurable and controllable. In this regard, there is a strange back-and-forth between France and the United States.
When antisemitism turned ugly in France, between the Dreyfus affair and the Vichy regime, America was seen as a safe haven. My parents tried to emigrate to the U.S. in 1933, but they had no visa and were turned away. They survived in hiding and as part of the French Resistance, while the majority of my family perished in the Nazi camps. Jews were not threatened in America during this period, but a form of antisemitism did exist. After all, admission limits at leading colleges were not removed until the 1960s. Yet, there were no roundups, no expulsions, no attacks. Jews lived in safety, unlike in France. That’s why we must distinguish clearly between prejudices and actions.
Everything changed for the better for French Jews after 1945. The Catholic Church, the intelligentsia, the state, and the army – all traditionally antisemitic in both thought and actions – actually became highly respectful of Jews. The French police, which used to arrest them during the 1930s and 1940s, were now protecting them. That is all we ever expected. What’s more, French law prohibits antisemitic remarks. Once again, what more could we ask for? The hatred imprinted on some people’s hearts is of little interest to us, so long as it never manifests itself. More worrying are the antisemitic attacks that have resurfaced over the last decade under another name, anti-Zionism.
Is anti-Zionism the new face of antisemitism? The French parliament has decided that it is. However, some fine distinction is in order. An attack carried out by an Islamist in the name of Palestine cannot be equated with the state-sponsored, official antisemitism that reigned in France for a century. So, by all means, worry and condemn, but please, draw a distinction! Let me add that all of the 400,000 or so Jews living in France have a degree of affection for Israel. But not all of them are Zionists; not all of them associate the diaspora with the state of Israel; and not all automatically approve of current Israeli policy. In all probability, the 5.5 million American Jews are more Zionist than French Jews, or at least more vocal, judging by the numerous U.S. organizations – which are not actually all Jewish – that support Greater Israel and hold the Palestinians in contempt.
But suddenly, in a major historical reversal, it is more dangerous to be Jewish in the United States than in France, judging by the attacks in Pittsburgh in 2018 and Jersey City in 2019. Unlike in France, these attacks were driven by the most traditional form of antisemitism, unrelated to Palestine and perpetrated by Americans brainwashed by social media.
We may dream that education and expressions of sympathy will push back antisemitic and anti-Zionist thoughts and actions in France and the United States. But resistance will achieve more than dreams: It should be clear that diaspora Jews will never again allow themselves to be cowed by antisemitism. They will not leave France or America. I would also point out that data on Jews emigrating from France to Israel, released by Zionist organizations and published unchecked in the U.S. media, are wrong. Some French Jews move to Israel for religious reasons. But they are not driven there by the recent panic, and an equivalent number return from Israel out of disappointment for economic or personal reasons. The Jewish population is as stable in France as it is in the United States. And in both countries, half of marriages are with non-Jewish partners. As Elie Wiesel used to say, the Nazis failed to eradicate the Jews, but love might eventually do so.
What Jews in France and the United States want more than anything is the police protection that every citizen is entitled to, nothing more, nothing less. We are not asking to be loved or hated, for Jews are just like everyone else. Or, at least they would like to be.
Editorial published in the March 2020 issue of France-Amérique.