French Anti-Semitism Reaches Tipping Point

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With a 74 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, anti-Jewish and anti- Israel sentiments are seemingly everywhere in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced in February that 541 anti- Semitic incidents took place in 2018 in France, up from 311 in 2017. One of the most publicized and disturbing attacks of the year was the brutal murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was stabbed 11 times and then set on fire in her apartment. The murder was declared an anti-Semitic hate crime.

In the first weeks of 2019, two teenagers were arrested after they allegedly fired shots at a synagogue with an air rifle in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, 96 tombs were desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, the word “Juden,” which means “Jews” in German, was scrawled across a bagel shop in Paris, and swastikas were drawn on public portrait of former French politician and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that France is now experiencing a “resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II.”

Arié Bensemhoun, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan European Leadership Network (ELNET) France, said that though there are talks about “new anti-Semitism,” nothing is new about the attacks, stereotypes and language used against Jews in France.

“The situation is much more complex because from all sides of the society you will find people that have a problem with the system, that would like to defeat the system, and when you want to defeat the system [they think] your first target should be the Jews.”

The anti-Semitism currently taking over in France is a re-emergence of longstanding anti-Semitic tropes and false stereotypes involving Jews, money and their desire to control the world.

Bensemhoun knows people who were beaten in the streets and targeted with insults because of their Jewish heritage. When he was president of the Jewish community in Toulouse, France, he met with tens of hundreds of people who faced anti-Semitism and heard about thousands of acts against Jews over the span of 15 years, he said.

Julie Hazan, 35, who was born and raised in Marseille and is now the resource development director of ELNET New York, said she has friends in France terrified to send their children to Jewish schools.

“But they still do it,” said Hazan, whose entire family still lives in Marseille, which has the second-largest Jewish population in France outside Paris. “They are resilient. They are used to it. They know they can always go to Israel if they have to, but otherwise they are going to go on with their lives.”

“Anti-Semitism is there; it’s a fact, but we live with it,” she added. “For us it’s ancient.”

While the rise in anti- Semitic incidents in France began more than a decade ago, a tipping point came in February, following the vandalism of 80 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in the Alsace region of France. It prompted thousands of people to join rallies in Paris and across the country in public opposition to anti-Semitism.

The next day, Macron announced that he would crack down on the “scourge” of anti-Semitism. At a dinner attended by leaders of the Jewish community in Paris, he criticized a “resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II.”

He also said France will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, adding that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism.”

Macron added that the problem has garnered “too much indignation, too many words, not enough results.”

Bensemhoun called for more action by the French government, saying, “The [government] understands that they should do more, and it’s clear that we are in a critical time.”

He added, “We are coming from a time of denial, and it’s time to see the reality and fight it.”

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