From the Dreyfus Affair to Hyper Casher – France has come full circle

A version of this appeared in Ha’aretz 1/15/15

Some 120 years after the Dreyfus affair, French Prime Minster Manuel Valls is putting the very fate of the French Republic in the hands of Jews and their willingness to stay in France. Amid the tragedy and political posturing from Israeli politicians, it seems that France has come full circle from an event that sparked modern Zionism.

In 1894, the promise of emancipation as the answer to the Jewish Question was proven false as Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason on the basis of trumped up charges. The whole affair led Herzl to the conclusion that assimilation into Europe would not solve anti-Semitism and inspired him to write Der Judenstaat, which became the seminal text of modern political Zionism.

Flash forward to today, the prime minister of France is now putting the fate of the republic on the courage of Jews to stay the course within French society. Acknowledging this transition is essential to understanding why the Israeli call for French aliyah was so anachronistic to the new anti-Semitism that the Jews of France, and of Europe in general, are now confronting.

The old anti-Semitism that led up to the destruction of a third of all global Jewry was based on the rejection of the concept of the European Jew. Jews were never accepted as equal citizens, be they German Jews, Austrian Jews, Polish Jews or French Jews. When the fascists rose to power, they picked on the eternal otherness of the Jew to demonstrate that these were a people apart, different and despised. The alienation and dehumanization of the Jew was a direct rejection of the Jewish place in the nation state.

Following the warning signs of the 1900s up until the Holocaust itself, it became evident that having one’s own nation state was the only solution to the racism and hatred that had led to genocide of mindboggling proportions.

The recent and sadly frequent deadly attacks on the Jews of France have not been because they are French Jews. The jihadists who killed the school children in Toulouse or the hostages in the kosher supermarket in Paris did not target them to make a point about how the republic should be Jew-free. They were targeted as they were Jews, Jews who happened to be in France.

The new anti-Semitism has turned every Star of David into a bull’s-eye for racists who have problems with what is happening in Israel, or so many of the perpetrators of these attacks have claimed. The Jews murdered in Toulouse and in the kosher supermarket were not the main targets of the overall attacks in either case. Their deaths did not start the rampages but they were the last targets in both.

When it came to Toulouse, as wells as the anti-Semitic remarks by French comic Dieudonne, some commentators have attempted to airbrush the anti-Semitism. They claimed that the targeting of Jews equaled the targeting of the establishment. Such claims rob the victims of these hate crimes of their very identity.

What these commentators get wrong is that Jews are still being targeted because they are Jews. What has changed is that they are not being targeted as French Jews or Flemish Jews, but Jews who reside there. It is no surprise that whether in Mumbai, Brussels or France, it is the symbols of Jewish communal life that have been targeted. It is not because attackers are saying that Jews in India or France have no place, but that Jews are targets the world over as they are Jews who are the subject of the worst of the conspiracy theories in the Islamist fantasies. It is not a local hate, but a global one.

Unlike the anti-Semitism of old, the solution is not an abandonment of one’s home. The state is not rejecting Jews; in fact, it is trying to protect them, at least in the case of France. The fact that thousands of police are deployed to protect Jewish schools doesn’t detract from the terrifying reality in the aftermath of the attacks. There are deep systemic problems that need both physical and educational solutions if multiculturalism and pluralism are to win out. But we should not kid ourselves that the violence against Jews today is the same as it was in the 1930s.

This new reality explains why Israeli politicians’ call for French aliyah is so hurtful to France and its Jews. The correct response to the attacks came from President Reuven Rivlin, who should have been the dignitary representing Israel at the Paris unity march instead of politicians jockeying for votes. Rivlin stated that aliyah should be “born out of a positive Jewish identity, out of Zionism, and not because of anti-Semitism.”

The new anti-Semitism that European Jews are experts on need new responses from Israel rather than the offensive knee-jerk denial of the Diaspora.

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