By Gerard Leval
In recent weeks, many news articles have appeared in leading newspapers suggesting a dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in France. While these articles may be accurate in terms of describing a certain growth in anti-Semitic activities in France, they certainly do not tell the whole story – a story as complicated as the history of France itself.
Recall that, in a famous conversation, Henry Kissinger once asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai: “What do think of the French Revolution?” The ever-cautious Zhou is said to have responded: “It is too early to tell.”
A review of French history would suggest that Zhou’s caution was well placed. Indeed, recent events in France suggest that France is still today embroiled in the ideological combat that was triggered by the revolution of 1789.
The Great Revolution that destroyed France’s existing social and political order was above all a struggle between reactionary forces imbued with a desire to maintain an existing social structure and to repress Enlightenment philosophy and those of a rising middle class energized by new ideas and notions of openness and tolerance.
The struggle for the soul of France reached its nadir during the early 1940s, when fascist forces took over the government and brought about one of the most shameful episodes in French history. A central focus in that tragic chapter was, of course, the deportation and murder of more than 75,000 Jews.
Today, France remains locked in a seesawing battle to determine its essence, including the nature of its relationship to its Jewish community. Is France the enlightened nation that was the first European nation to grant full legal equality to its Jews and to open its doors and give boundless opportunity to Jews fleeing Eastern European oppression? Or is it the late 19th century nation that initially supported its reactionary military establishment and extreme right-wing political parties?
The answer is that it is too early to tell.
Burgeoning French anti-Semitism is part of the continuing struggle between the tolerant, welcoming France and the conservative, close-minded country that yearns for an old-fashioned, agrarian and homogeneous society. However, added to this traditional struggle is a new and troublesome factor: the presence of a growing immigrant community that does not seem engaged in the old struggle; a community that is effectively unwilling to join either component of the age-old dichotomous social and ideological
conflict because it does not even consider itself part of the struggle.
As if France did not have enough difficulty in trying to resolve its historic revolutionary battle, it is now confronted with this potentially even more toxic problem, the strange alliance that has been forged between the old, intolerant forces and the new, immigrant intolerance and radicalization. This new marriage of convenience is very dangerous for France and it is particularly dangerous for the French Jewish community.
Despite all this, it is not time for Jews to write off France. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic even while also being very vigilant. In particular, it can be found in the effort of the French government to seek an injunction against the anti-Jewish comic Dieudonne and in President Hollande’s moving address to the Israeli Knesset, pledging solidarity with France’s Jews and the state of Israel. It can also be found in France’s new Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ unqualified public commitment to combat anti-Semitism in all of its forms.
Leaving France for new homes in Israel, the United States or elsewhere may provide a short-term solution to the current situation facing Jews in France, but it could also end a relationship that has, in so many ways been very beneficial for both the Jewish community and France.
Just as France itself must not let the revolutionary struggle for an enlightened society filled with culture and tolerance fail by permitting bigots on all sides of the political and social spectrum to prevail, so, too, the French Jewish community should not abandon a nation that has over the course of two centuries created important opportunities for its development.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Arent Fox LLP. An active member of the Jewish and French communities of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, he is a frequent writer and lecturer on topics related to French-Jewish history.