Trapped by History: France and Its Jews

By Bell, David A. | World Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Trapped by History: France and Its Jews


Bell, David A., World Affairs


On February 13, 2006, in a grove of trees behind a suburban rail station fifteen miles south of Paris, a 23-year-old French Jew of Moroccan descent named Ilan Halimi was found tied to a tree, barely alive. Kidnappers had left him there naked, handcuffed, hooded, and gagged, after having cut off pieces of his fingers and his ears, stabbed him repeatedly, and burned much of his body. He died before reaching a hospital. The police soon arrested more than twenty youths belonging to a gang called "the Barbarians," led by a 25-year-old Muslim immigrant from the Ivory Coast named Youssouf Fofana. They had targeted Halimi, and demanded a ransom of over $600,000 (which his family found impossible to raise), because of a vague belief that all Jews are rich. In the time since his arrest, Fofana has shown no remorse and has adopted the language of Islamic extremism. On trial in April of this year, he declared that "Allah will be victorious," and gave his name as "African Barbarian Army Revolt Salafist" (Salafism is a strain of Islamic thought grounded in a literal interpretation of the Koran).

To those who see the story of French Jewry as predominantly tragic, the killing of Ilan Halimi foreshadows a dark new chapter. They note that it is only the most horrific of hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks that have taken place in France over the past decade, ranging from simple vandalism and graffiti to the attempted destruction of synagogues to murder. France, they argue, is fundamentally unsafe for Jews. Michel Gurfinkiel, editor of the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles, recently claimed that "things are getting worse and worse" for French Jews, and that "we are witnessing a terrifying chain of events."

Ironically, these events have taken place just when anti-Semitism among French Christians has declined to its lowest point in modern history. As the sociologist Michel Wieviorka has observed, opinion polls repeatedly show less hostility to Jews in France than at any time in the past, and less than in most other European countries. While the aged Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National, continues to engage in deliberate provocations vis-a-vis Jews (most recently calling the Nazi occupation of France "not especially inhumane"), his party generally devotes much less attention to them than to France's rapidly expanding Muslim population. And with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, the most philo-Semitic government in French history came to power. Sarkozy himself has one-quarter Jewish ancestry, and a Jewish daughter-in-law. He has improved France's legendarily troubled relations with Israel, and repeatedly expressed admiration for France's Jewish community. He has also gone further than any other French leader in expressing repentance for Vichy France's persecution of the Jews during World War II. In 2008 he even suggested that all French schoolchildren learn the story of--and each "adopt" one of--the 11,000 French Jewish children deported by Vichy to the death camps.

Given this context, it is tempting to see little connection between the new anti-Semitic violence and the long-term history of French Jewry. Perhaps acts such as the killing of Ilan Halimi reflect nothing more than the rage of young, underprivileged, frustrated, and misguided Muslims all over Europe. Significantly, the violence seems motivated less by resentment of French Jews, than by anger at Israel. The number of incidents spiked dramatically during the intifadas, again with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and yet again this past winter with the invasion of Gaza. Given that France has both the largest Muslim and the largest Jewish populations in Europe (5 to 6 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews), the recent violence may represent what Michel Gurfinkiel calls an "importation of the Palestinian conflict into France."

Yet there do exist deep continuities between the history of the Jews in France and the current wave of violence. …

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