France Must Reckon With Its Anti-Semitism Problem

Synagogue Is Besieged With Calls of 'Death to the Jews'

Violent Streets: Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris have descended into violence.
Getty Images
Violent Streets: Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris have descended into violence.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published July 17, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When a crowd of people took the Bastille, the hulking prison in eastern Paris symbolizing the power of the monarchy, on July 14, 1789, they launched the French Revolution. This explains why popular demonstrations on behalf of the revolutionary ideals of 1789 — liberty, equality and fraternity — most often conclude at the towering column on the site where the prison had formerly stood.

On the eve of this year’s Bastille Day, the neighborhood hosted a different kind of siege. Was it a re-enactment of the taking of the prison? Or was there a holiday sale at a local department store? Unhappily, it was neither; instead, a crowd stormed the Synagogue Don Isaac Abravanel on the Rue de la Roquette. Rather than framing the flare of fireworks and the singing of “La Marseillaise,” Paris became the stage for clouds of tear gas and for the chanting of “Death to the Jews.”

Let us forgive those observers who assumed that, rather than attending the celebration of the universal values of 1789, they had witnessed the commemoration of their demise.

The confrontation outside the synagogue was, depending on one’s perspective, either the logical climax or a lamentable sideshow to a protest march that had begun at nearby Place de la République a few hours earlier. According to police estimates, the demonstration numbered about 7,000 participants — many were young women with head veils. They had taken to the gray and damp streets to announce their solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza, as well as to denounce Israel’s military strikes. Walking behind a lead banner that declared “Full Support for the Struggle of the Palestinians,” the demonstrators were peaceful, if partisan. The air resonated with the choruses of “We are all Palestinians” — a tragic riff on the 1968 slogan “We are all German Jews” — as well as “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).As for chants condemning Hamas for the hundreds of rockets it had lobbed into Israel before the government finally responded, there were none. Nor, for that matter, have there been any demonstrations offering total support to the brutalized people of Syria, whose government has massacred untold thousands of children and women.

But violence, ultimately, was not wanting. When the marchers reached the Bastille, about 200 young men peeled off and surged along the narrow streets toward the Abravanel synagogue. Named after the Portuguese philosopher who tried to prevent the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain, the synagogue was host that same day to a special prayer service dedicated to peace in the Middle East. But instead, the war in the Middle East came to Paris. The rampaging youths, many shouting “Death to the Jews,” swarmed outside the barred gates of the synagogue. Inside, congregants and guests — numbers range from 200 to 400 — quite suddenly found themselves prisoners.

Only several hours later — a period that saw repeated confrontations between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and members of the Jewish Defense League — did the CRS (the riot police) arrive, permitting those sheltering inside the synagogue to leave.

Official denunciations of the violence were as rapid as they were predictable. During the traditional July 14 interview, President François Hollande condemned the near-riot: “One cannot make use of anti-Semitism because there’s a conflict between Israel and Palestine.” An odd phrase: Are there, after all, other and more legitimate uses of anti-Semitism? Hollande sought to clarify: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be imported.” Prime Minister Manuel Valls echoed Hollande’s declaration: “France will never tolerate the importation onto its soil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

These sentiments are noble, but empty. This conflict was exported to France years ago: We need look no further than the 1990s and the wave of terrorist bombings in Paris, no closer than 2012 and Mohamed Merah’s reign of terror in Toulouse, to remind ourselves of this regrettable fact. Far from being a net importer of Middle East violence, France has in fact begun to balance this dreary deficit by becoming Europe’s most important exporter of Islamist violence. French officials estimate that several hundred French citizens have gone to Syria to fight alongside radical Islamic groups.

The question for France is not how to prevent the “importation” of the Middle East to its soil, but instead how to discourage that importation from taking root. The head of CRIF, the umbrella organization for Jewish institutions in France, Roger Cukierman, has demanded that the government outlaw pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Yet such efforts, as the government’s crackdown on the openly anti-Semitic comic Dieudonné last year revealed, are not only legally dubious, but also politically nearsighted. In a recent interview, the new chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, insisted that Jews still have a future in France. But such a future remains desirable only if the French Republic remains fully committed to its increasingly embattled republican ideals.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University, 2013).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.