A Barometer for Gauging Society's Perverseness
An Interview with Shmuel Trigano
The Jews' situation in France is indicative of the condition of French society. Substantial anti-Semitic violence in recent years underscores several of the country's major problems.
Under the Jospin socialist-led government (in power until 2002), the Jews became the country's scapegoat and safety barrier, being on the receiving end of the main attacks - which targeted French society at large
The French government affirms its determination to combat anti-Semitism while at the same time continuing to feed the anti-Semitic discourse at its origins.
The ongoing anti-Jewish aggression has created a trend toward mental and behavioral ghettoization of the French Jewish community. Many Jews now feel secure only in a Jewish environment. One result of this is an increased enrollment in Jewish day schools.
In a 2003 poll, almost 20% of French Jews said that they intend to leave France.
The Jews as a Tool
"Changes in the Jews' situation in France in recent years underscore many problems in society. The Jews play an indicator role for various reasons. In addition to the long-standing symbolic relevance of Jews in the Christian tradition, Muslims now utilize the symbolic position of the Jews in French society in order to advance their own interests. Furthermore, several political parties also use the Jews as a tool in their battles."
Professor Shmuel Trigano teaches sociology at Paris Nanterre University. In 2002 he founded L'Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life. It has rapidly become a prime source for understanding the position of the Jews in French society.
Trigano remarks: "In the new century two phenomena have come together. The first was a major anti-Semitic wave in French public opinion when the second Palestinian uprising broke out. Israel was painted as a monstrosity, a Nazi state intent on killing children. This anti-Israeli discourse has much deeper roots. The anti-Semitic stereotypes were already present, albeit in the background, during the Oslo process. The Jews were then often accused of having 'too much memory of the Shoah.'
"Around the same time, a new outburst of violent anti-Semitism took place. Its perpetrators were not ethnic French, but French citizens who had come from an Arab immigrant background. There had been similar incidents - although not as many - during the first Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s."
The Suppression of Information
Trigano relates that the anti-Semitic violence went largely unreported by both the press and the public authorities for several months. "Even the Jewish organizations remained silent, probably at the request of the socialist-led left-wing government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. This silence was another factor in why the Jewish community felt abandoned by both the French authorities and the complacent society.
"The situation of the Jews in France was aggravated as various media expressed opinions claiming that the violence and hate was quite understandable in view of events in the Middle East and Israel's policies. This implied that the destiny of French Jews was determined by Israeli policies and French criticism toward it."
Trigano adds: "During the first months of attacks, French Jewry called for help, but nobody listened. This led many French Jews to realize that their place and citizenship in the country was being questioned. They understood that the authorities were willing to sacrifice the Jewish community to maintain social peace. This attitude was reinforced by the pro-Arab policy in the Iraq War.
"Jewish citizens could not understand that violent acts were being committed against them in the name of developments 3,000 kilometers away. Yet they were not entirely surprised by the violence of some Arabs. They considered it, however, outrageous that the French government and society did not condemn it immediately.
"They still remember the words of Hubert Védrine, the former socialist minister of foreign affairs, which have in a number of variants been repeated since by a number of politicians: 'one does not necessarily have to be shocked that young Frenchmen of immigrant origin have compassion for the Palestinians and are very excited because of what is happening.'"
Remembering the Thirties and Algeria
Trigano remarks: "Individual Jews reacted according to experiences from the past. A well-known French Jewish psychoanalyst, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, told me that for her it recalled the 1930s. I was not born then and it seemed to me, at first, an excessive reaction, because the French regime is a democratic one.
"My own associations were with our family's flight from Algeria in June 1962 when we waited for two days in a military airport with only two suitcases. We had closed the door of our home and left, as the public authorities had abandoned us. We had to save ourselves in order not to be killed in the chaos.
"The traumatic feelings have not left French Jews, though the public authorities now try to combat anti-Semitism. Perhaps public awareness of the problem has come too late. In France, self-censorship concerning anti-Semitic discourse has been broken. Once one finds frequent anti-Semitic expressions in public, a democratic government cannot change this in an authoritarian way."
Hate Promotion Continues
"The ideological process of promoting the anti-Jewish hatred, however, continues both among Arab Muslim currents and in extreme left- and right-wing circles. Generally speaking, there is little sympathy in French public opinion for the Jews and Israel.
"By now the authorities have realized what is happening. Yet one can only be surprised by the artificial crisis provoked when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called for the emigration of French Jews to Israel. The French government and media reaction were violent and disproportionate. It came after Chirac's speech in Chambon sur Lignon, when he condemned both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as well as after a major condemnation of an imaginary anti-Semitic attack in the Paris suburban railway invented by a mythomaniac non-Jewish woman.
"It showed once again that the condemnation of anti-Semitism can work in tandem with France's anti-Israeli policy. This was demonstrated also when France pushed the European Union to vote against Israel in the General Assembly of the United Nations, on the issue of the security barrier. This can only further encourage fundamentalist Muslim aggression against the Jews. It also can only exacerbate the public's anti-Israel animosity, and give them some kind of indirect political justification for what is happening."
Moving toward State Anti-Zionism?
When asked whether France is an anti-Semitic society, Trigano answers: "Until July 2004, when the French government created the scandal about Sharon's speech, I would have answered this question in the negative. I would have added that the answer should rather be that there is anti-Semitism in France. Nowadays I am more perplexed and worried. We risk moving toward state anti-Zionism.
"The great majority of the French media present the same biased information about Israel and anti-Semitism to such an extent that the public opinion considers this the reality. Our efforts to correct this have had little success. This information has directly influenced incitement against the Jews and the resulting aggression among immigrant youth and others. This is still going on.
"It in turn inspires negative attitudes toward the Jews unless they distance themselves from Israel. In the last few months the leading Jewish community organizations, including the CRIF and the Consistoire, have started doing this. This is a bad sign and a symptom of a very negative reality.
"The state-owned media also communicate biased information. There are several far going examples of this. The news director of Radio France Internationale (RFI) has declared that Israel is "a racist state." This explains why this government-owned station, which continuously broadcasts worldwide news, has such a heavy ideological anti-Israeli bias. France Culture, another government media, has subsidized a movie of a Jewish anti-Zionist about the separation 'wall.'
"The Ministry of Culture, the Foreign Ministry and the National Cinema Center, a Francophone fund for audiovisual production and the television stations France 2 and TV5, have financed a movie by the Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah. "The Ports of the Sun" was shown on the Arte Television channel and in cinemas. It was widely acclaimed and portrays the Israelis in 1948 as Nazis.
"Arte has specialized in the production of disparaging movies about the Jews and Israel. Most Jewish opinion leaders are not invited to media discussions. The media discourse is hateful to the Jews. What is shown and said hurts their most precious values. Their protests are not listened to but rather lead to accusations that they are pro-Sharon, which means in the prevailing atmosphere, pro-apartheid.
"The crisis of July 2004 has shown that there is a perfect harmony between the position of the French Foreign Ministry, the discourse of the French Press Agency (AFP) and the attitude of the major newspapers. This uniform thought is extremely worrying. It is difficult to understand how the government can affirm its determination to combat anti-Semitism while at the same time feeding the anti-Semitic discourse at its origins."
The Socialist Party's Attitude
Trigano mentions that he is often asked to what extent it was relevant that there was a socialist coalition government at the time the anti-Jewish aggression rapidly increased: "It is my impression that a large part of the French socialist party does not support Israel. Jewish socialists have felt the need to create the Leon Blum circle - named after France's first Jewish prime minister - which is an indicator of what is happening in their party.
"This group, which also has non-Jewish members, tries to explain the history of Judaism and Zionism to their party colleagues, and draws their attention to the dangers of anti-Semitism. Its members include Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential candidate - with hardly any chance - in the next presidential elections. Another is François Zimeray who was very active in the European parliament to promote the investigation of the European Union's support for Palestinian terrorism.
"The socialist party decided not to include Zimeray in its list of candidates for the June 2004 European elections. There has been much discussion as to whether this was a punishment for his pro-Israeli position. Some say that it was in order to make room for another Jewish candidate, Henri Weber - who is close to the party's number two, Laurent Fabius. The truth is not known, yet there is enough additional proof indicating the socialist party's lack of sensitivity toward Israel."
Trigano says that there are convincing indications that the Jewish community was asked by the Jospin Government not to give much publicity to the increased anti-Jewish aggression in order not to 'put oil on the flames.' The then socialist minister of the interior, Daniel Vaillant, reacted similarly on other occasions not related to Jews.
"In 2002, the deputy mayor of the southern French town Beziers was murdered by a Muslim. The official story was that the killer was a madman. Recently, the city's mayor accused Vaillant of having forced his version upon the municipality. He said that after the murder, Vaillant came to Beziers and presented the madman story as 'an official truth.' Later, it became known that the French intelligence services had discovered that the murderer was linked to Al-Qaeda.
"Nicholas Sarkozy, who succeeded Vaillant as minister, belongs to the UMP right-wing party. Addressing criticism concerning his visit to the USA, he said in parliament earlier this year that he was well received by the American Jews. He added that his socialist predecessor could never have achieved this in view of his policies toward the anti-Semites. Sarkozy told the truth. At the same time, this was another example of the use of the Jews' situation in political life. Also many other politicians instrumentalize the Jews in their ideological and political communications."
France's Scapegoat and Safety Barrier
"The official version propagated by the Jospin Government can be summarized as saying that if Jews were attacked, this was not anti-Semitism, but a reflection of a social problem. The socialist policy aimed to obscure, with this mechanism, the terrorist menace against France. It resulted in the Jews seeing themselves as the country's scapegoat and safety barrier - as they had received the main blows, which targeted French society at large.
"The Socialist Party wanted to minimize the importance of the anti-Semitic acts because they believed that in this way they could maintain social peace. They did not care about aggression against the Jews and the burning of synagogues.
"The socialists were preparing for the 2002 elections and had to show their achievements. Giving publicity to the anti-Semitic violence was inconvenient. It has become known that the police reports on these incidents for the Ministry of the Interior were often incomplete.
"The mechanism to suppress police information about anti-Semitic acts is simple. In France, a complaint to a police office may be written only by hand by the policeman on duty in a register called 'main courante.' This inscription is not an official act and does not lead to prosecution. The police commissary decides what is considered an incident and its nature. Facts from the register are often not reported to the Interior Ministry, as the commissary does not want to inform that there is increasing insecurity in his area of responsibility. Thus, there are administrative problems both in the ministry and the police stations.
"In addition, there was an official policy to minimize the problems. This means that there is major government responsibility for obscuring the true nature of the anti-Semitic attacks. One policy approach is to relate the incidents as a conflict between communities, due to 'the aggressive and inhuman policies of Israel.' This supposes that the Jews are co-responsible for aggressions of which they are victims. If one speaks about anti-Semitic aggression, someone must be guilty, as he has made a victim. If one speaks of an inter-communal conflict, this means there is tension between two groups, leading to aggression from both sides. Jews, however, have never burned mosques or attacked Muslims."
A Perverted Discourse
"This discourse is part of a larger perverted one concerning the Jews, which has become standard in France. The public attacks against Israel during 2001-2003 came from all layers of society, as if it were an official truth. One can only wonder how it was possible in French democracy that all major currents in society propagated similar ideas. It was frightening to turn on a television or to read a newspaper and see the same ideological discourse of disinformation about Israel.
"The majority of viewers have no other sources of information and cannot discern between truth, manipulation and lies. They see selective images and hear handpicked Israelis, usually very critical of their own government, express their opinions. Those with different views on Israel are considered outsiders and troublemakers. For a long time, people like myself who affirmed that there was anti-Semitism in France were considered a problem because we deviated from public opinion. It was psychologically difficult to live with that.
"What does such a reality tell about French society? I do not believe in a conspiracy. There is no commander or organization behind the multiple attacks on Israel. Yet the assaults create the feeling of a near totalitarian society regarding Israel and the Jews. There were no public protestations when the French peasant leader José Bové claimed that the Mossad had initiated the anti-Semitic aggressions to hide what was going on in Palestine. One can only explain this as an ideological mass phenomenon."
Trigano says that he slowly started to realize that the extreme power of the media represents a major danger for Western democracy. "Their attitude toward Israel and the Jews over the last few years has shown that they can pervert analysis, debate and criticism. We are dependent on a class of journalists with consensus political views. They read and co-opt each other's opinions, without accountability to anybody. Freedom and democracy, however, can not coexist if truth and facts are obscured."
Acting against the Defamation
When the attacks continued, Jews created several associations to break the Jewish isolation. They started to fight the delegitimation of the Jews and Israel's existence. Trigano's Observatoire published two analyses of how the official French Press Agency (AFP) functions.
"We showed that French correspondents in Israel rewrote Arafat's speeches to avoid what seemed politically incorrect. When he attacked the Jews, they wrote Israelis. When Arafat said horrible things they put dots instead of quoting him. They did this to present him as a liberator and almost a secular saint.
"Catherine Leuchter has demonstrated that one often can read only that Israelis have been aggressed after a media report about reprisals against the Palestinians.1 The authors leave it to the end of their article to explain that the Israeli operations are a reaction to a terrorist act. By that time, the reader has already been imbued with the image of Israeli violence and the Palestinian dead. He is misled as to where it all started."
Trigano thinks that French democracy is in danger. "The phenomenon of the anti-Jewish attacks must affect the destiny of the society where these Jews live. I wrote a book on this entitled The Resignation of the Republic - Jews and Muslims in France.2 I believe that the anti-Semitic crisis has been a laboratory for French society. It demonstrates the major problems of trying to integrate a large immigrant population at a time when French society is in an identity crisis, partly due to European unification.
"France has two choices. One is to understand much better the profound message that what is happening to its Jews is a warning sign for itself. The other is to let the Jews sort out their problems themselves. However, this choice would be a fundamental mistake because the Jews have been attacked as a substitute for French society at large. The Muslim militants comprehended that the Jews were the weak link of France, and thus the preferred target. Moreover they are the most powerful symbol in French society.
"This was also understood by other internal enemies of France, including those on the extreme left who want to eliminate the French nation-state - as well as by the extreme right-wing movements. The atmosphere of condemnation of Israel morally authorizes the anti-Semitism.
"Few people understand that these problems are covered up by additional fallacies. One such fallacy says that if Sharon only made peace, the West would not be threatened anymore. France's profound problems, however, are not the result of Middle East turmoil. This crisis has given French extremists the opportunity they were looking for. When Israel was denounced by public opinion, they used this as an opening trying to become a political force."
Collaboration among Israel's Enemies
Trigano says that there are many indications of collaboration between the extreme left, the extreme right and the Muslim fundamentalists in France. "As far as the latter are concerned, there is no clear separation between official representatives and extremists. The representative organization of the Muslim community in France, the Union des Organizations Islamiques de France (UOIF), is de facto the official counterpart of the government, as it has received a majority in the French Council of Muslim religion. (CFCM)
"The UOIF is close to the Muslim Brothers, an extremist group which originated in the 1920s in Egypt. The prominent Muslim intellectual, Tarik Ramadan, is a grandson of Hassan El Banna, their founder. He lives in Switzerland and has become the charismatic leader of French Muslim youth. Earlier in 2004 he launched a major anti-Semitic attack against several French Jewish intellectuals, whom he accused of being tribalist.
"Radical Muslim fundamentalists collaborate with the extreme left. The Trotskyites and the Greens made many demonstrations against Israel possible. There, shouts of 'death to the Jews' were heard while Hamas-adherents marched through Paris dressed as martyrs.
"The MRAP, which is in the orbit of the Communist Party and strongly pro-Muslim, claims to be a movement against racism and anti-Semitism for peace. One of its key figures, Mouloud Aounit, is close to Tarik Ramadan and very hostile to Israel. In July 2003 the MRAP invented a non-existing conspiracy of the Zionist extreme right, the Christian extreme right and the Nazis, against the Muslims, with the aim of accusing the Jewish community of racism.
"Behind the scenes, the extreme right contributes to the disinformation campaign of the extreme left. This right favors the Islamists for both Machiavellian and spiritual reasons. They have been historically close to Arab nationalist movements and the PLO."
The Jews' Reactions
One consequence of the multiple aggressions against the Jews is the increasing creation of a Jewish mental and behavioral ghetto. They feel marginalized and withdraw from the broader society to be among Jewish friends. Trigano says that he frequently hears Jews say things like: "We don't go to dinner with our non-Jewish friends anymore, nor do we see them." He explains that at many dinners in town, people talk aggressively about Israel and, thus, about Jews - who then feel the need to defend Israel's position in view of the excessive criticism. They are then accused of being supporters of Sharon and violence. In light of this, Jews decide to avoid such discussions and meetings.
"Another phenomenon in recent years is the increasing number of pupils and teachers in Jewish schools, as they feel insecure in public schools. The Jewish school is for many no longer a free choice. Attending it for security reasons is another indicator of ghettoization. Joining a Jewish body has always been a voluntary decision. However, if one has to belong out of insecurity, this means that the French public square is no longer safe for Jews.
"Once again, the situation of the Jews is indicative of the mood of general French society. There is a more moderate trend toward joining private schools in French society at large. This development is also linked to problems with youth from the immigrant communities, including attacks on professors and other violence in public schools. Many private schools are officially Christian, but religious classes are optional. This makes them attractive also to more assimilated Jews.
"Youth from the immigrant community also have prevented, in many schools, the teaching of the Shoah. The multiple problems Jews encounter in French schools have been described in a book called, The Lost Territories of the Republic.3 It was written by a number of authors under the pen name of Emmanuel Brenner. Several anti-Zionist Jews - among them, Dominique Vidal, editor of the Monde Diplomatique - have disclosed the name of the main author, George Bensoussan. Brenner is a rare name in France and I am convinced that the book would not have had the same impact had it been written under the main author's very Jewish-sounding name."
Jews Delegitimized in Advance
Trigano explains: "In contemporary French society, the views of the Jews are delegitimized in advance. The opinions of pro-Jewish, pro-Israeli intellectuals are shunted aside by intellectual opponents as resulting from their ethnic origins. They feel they do not have to argue with such debaters about the validity of their arguments. The best you can often expect is, 'Yes, we understand that as a Jew, you defend Israel.' The Jews now exclude themselves from the intellectual discourse by seeking out non-Jews to express their positions in public so that these are not automatically rejected.
"The French intelligentsia which is largely critical of Israel has done nothing to prevent or protest the genocide in Rwanda. One can count on the fingers of one hand non-Jewish intellectuals who publicly support the Jewish cause. Among the best known is Eric Marty of Paris 7 University, who has published one of the first courageous articles denouncing anti-Semitism. The fact that he was not Jewish made his testimony authentic."
When asked, Trigano says that he has no personal problems at the university or with his students. "But I have heard absurd rumors that some of my students believe that I am the head of the Zionist lobby, very rich and powerful, while some of my colleagues think that I am a 'case for study.' This, of course, I am never told in person, nor am I treated disrespectfully. These people aren't even aware that they have an anti-Semitic attitude.
"At the university I remain silent about Israel and Jews, as the overall atmosphere has been almost intolerable. Anti-Semitic slogans have been on the walls for a long time. One hears the Islamo-leftist student unions aggressive propaganda against Israel and the Jewish community everywhere.
"Some French Jews show a different reaction. In a study by the sociologist Eric Cohen, in 2003, among 550,000 Jews in France, 100,000 indicated that they intended to leave the country. Whether they will do so is another matter. Whenever I lecture for a Jewish organization, people always ask me afterwards: 'Should we depart?' Their wanting to leave France indicates a perturbed identity there."
People discuss potential destinations such as Israel, Canada or the United States. Trigano relates the story of a family member: "I have a cousin who has never been to Israel. Recently, he asked me: 'How do I go about buying an apartment in Israel?' I asked him where. He had no idea, as he does not know the country. His attitude is an interesting indicator of French Jewish reality as he has no concrete relation with Israel, doesn't speak a word of Hebrew and is only vaguely traditional."
What is Wrong with Europe
Trigano concludes by quoting what he said two years ago: "Everyone understands that the present situation is, above all, very French in its meaning and reality, even if it results from outside events. It reflects the difficulties encountered by French society and politics confronted with the sociological impact of mass immigration on their structures and routine as well as the dismantling of the nation state due to the process of European unification."
Now he adds: "The attitude toward the Jews and Israel has increasingly become an indicator for what is wrong with Europe. The process of European unification questions the validity of the nation state in a period where the collective identity is already in crisis. The integration problems of the mass immigration aggravate this further. It is too early to understand what the combined consequences of these factors may be.
"The concept of the European Union might have been valid for the elimination of customs barriers. Europe, however, has no common cultural or political identity. Nor does it have common values. Its capital in Brussels is only an administrative and bureaucratic center. The crisis in European identity is likely to have further unforeseen and profound consequences for both the Jews and Israel. It is clear however, that anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism have been for the last three years powerful factors of collective identification for Europe. The Jews are at the heart of the European syndrome. These problematic developments have to be followed closely in order to rapidly analyze and expose them."
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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1. Le conflit israélo-palestinien. Les média français sont-ils objectifs? L'Observatoire du monde juif. [French]
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2. Shmuel Trigano, La démission de la République, Juifs et Musulmans en France (Paris, PUF, 2003). [French]
3. Emmanuel Brenner, Les Territoires perdus de la République (Paris: Mille et Une Nuits, 2002). [French]
Shmuel Trigano is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor of Sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre. He is Director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, editor of Pardes, a journal of Jewish studies, and author of numerous books, especially on Jewish philosophy and Jewish political thought. Several of these deal with the topics mentioned in this interview. Trigano is the founder of L'Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life.
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