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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From Toulouse to the quenelle

Haaretz 12/30/13

The aim of professional sports teams is to dominate the sports sections of newspapers while ensuring the antics of their athletes never make the front-page headlines. When soccer player Nicolas Anelka made the “quenelle” gesture over the weekend in celebration of his goal, he did just the opposite: It made everyone ignore the goal, and fixate on the politics of the moment instead. The debate over the controversial salute crossed the Atlantic Ocean on Monday as Tony Parker, a professional French NBA player, was pictured making the quenelle, too, sometime earlier this year.

Anelka maintains that he has done nothing wrong; that he was only showing solidarity with his friend Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, the French, extremist comic who started the gesture. He claims that it is simply a salute against the establishment.

Amid the uproar, Anelka promised his club not to do it again, but showed nothing but pride for doing it the first time. “The club fully acknowledges that Nicolas’ goal celebration has caused offense in some quarters and has asked Nicolas not to perform the gesture again. Nicolas immediately agreed to adhere to this request,” West Brom said in a statement. What an evasive response. West Brom is either carefully avoiding getting involved, or has no idea of why people are upset at all.

Let’s ignore for a second that Anelka thinks its fine to show solidarity with an eight-times convicted anti-Semite and concentrate on the popular “anti-establishment” gesture itself.

The debate around the quenelle is reminiscent of Tariq Ramadan’s comments around Mohammed Merah’s killings of a rabbi and three children in Toulouse in March 2012. Ramadan said Merah was “imbued neither with the values of Islam, or driven by racism and anti-Semitism,” but merely attacking symbols, “the army and Jews.” Shortly after his remarks, I wrote a blog claiming Ramadan and others were airbrushing anti-Semitism out of the attack, dehumanizing the victims to mere symbols of the state.

The airbrushing of anti-Semitism seems to have been revived with the quenelle. Once again, Jews are being dehumanized into the “establishment.” As it is acceptable to be against the establishment, and since Jews are now synonymous with the establishment, it is fine to be against Jews, as they just stand in for the established order of things. What could be wrong with performing the quenelle at Anne Frank’s House, Auschwitz or at the Jewish school in Toulouse itself if it’s just anti-establishment? This is just poking fun at the powers that be. Who cares if the instrument of this fun is a minority group? By making fun of the Holocaust we merely use it as a tool to show how much we dislike “the man” – no offense is meant to the Jewish community itself.

Dieudonne’s attempt to transform anti-Semitism into anti-authority is so clumsy that any fool could see through it. Dieudonne himself cares little for being convicted of racism and chooses to continue upping the ante with Holocaust deniers. Regardless of whether one thinks that limiting hate speech is correct, this man has made the law into such a mockery that France is looking into ways to ban his show entirely.

Anshel Pfeffer is correct in saying that we need to educate rather than legislate against this problem. Banning things just makes them cool, and making this an act of rebellion will only encourage it to spread. But before we turn to solutions to this disease, let us first be sure to diagnose it properly. The virus is anti-Semitism, the origin of this gesture is an anti-Semite and the mask is so poorly constructed that it is a mark of our own public stupidity that we have to have this debate. The quenelle is meant to mainstream and spread anti-Semitism. With that said, let’s get on with educating why that’s not OK.