Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article about the differences in reaction between the French and American authorities towards outbursts of antisemitism was first published in INN.
ANTISEMITISM: A FRENCH PRESIDENT FOR THE U.S?
If a senior French politician had been President of the United States, how would he have reacted to the outburst of antisemitism? Where does this seemingly absurd question come from? Recently a fake campaign began promoting the ineligible Barack Obama as President of France. It started as a joke to point out how unimpressive the current presidential candidates are. By March 8 the campaign had gained about 50 000 supporters.
Answering this hypothetical question provides some perspective on American versus French attitudes toward antisemitism. When the second intifada started in autumn 2000, there was an increase of antisemitism in Europe. In France in particular there was a huge outburst, including many violent incidents. French sociologist, Shmuel Trigano said that there were convincing indications that the Jewish community was asked by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to keep quiet and not “throw oil on the flames.”1 Police often classified antisemitic incidents as “hooliganism” to hide that the crimes committed were specifically against Jews.
Only in June 2002 the truth became official. Then, the later right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy became Minister of the Interior. He admitted to the antisemitism and tried to find ways to combat it.2 French right-wing President Jacques Chirac, however, kept denying the antisemitism.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told at the time “After the many violent antisemitic incidents in France over the last few years, the SWC put out a warning saying that Jews traveling there, who looked Jewish, should be aware that they were at risk…Our public statements let to a meeting with President Jacques Chirac in May 2003…The French president told us that there was no antisemitism in France; it was some young hooligans who had attacked Jews. We replied that many French Jews – particularly in the Parisian suburbs and provinces – had told us different stories, and that there was substantial antisemitism in France.”
Hier continued, “It was a tough conversation, and in the end we agreed to disagree on all the major points. President Chirac said he would fight whole-heartedly to prevent antisemitism in France, but that it was not there. After we left the Elysée Palace, we went to a reception at the home of Baron de Rothschild. Two of our group missed the buys and took a cab. They wore skullcaps, and were right outside Baron de Rothschild’s home when a few people started insulting them, saying things like, ‘Get out of France, you Jews.’ That was an ‘eloquent’ answer to Chirac’s vain claim that there was no antisemitism in France.”3
Israel Singer, then chairman of the executive committee of the World Jewish Congress, offered another perspective on Chirac’s views on antisemitism. He recalled how a few years earlier Chirac had told him Jews are the cause of anti-Semitism in France and everywhere else.4 The basic truth should be emphasized here once again: that antisemitism is caused by antisemites and not by Jews. Only toward the end of 2003 – three years after the beginning of its massive outburst — did Chirac finally turn around and say that France had to combat antisemitism.
Some prominent deniers of antisemitism persevered however. In February 2004 former French center right Prime Minister Raymond Barre and former socialist EU Commission President Jacques Delors denied on television that there was antisemitism, specifically including Muslims and French schools – two of the main focuses of complaints from the Jewish community – in their statement.5
Early this January began the first wave of an outburst of bomb threats against American Jewish institutions, as well as a number of other antisemitic incidents. It took President Trump a few weeks to condemn them, amid some cryptic remarks that “sometimes it’s the reverse to make people – or to make others – look bad,”6 – yet condemn them he did. He said on 21 February, “The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out prejudice and evil.”7
This comparison shows that Trump is far more positive toward the Jews than a selection of past French leaders from the right and left. It also proves also that American Jewish organizations have far more clout than the ones in France, which is the European country with most Jews at about half a million.8
Furthermore solidarity with Jews is far bigger in the U.S than in France. Vice-President Mike Pence visited Missouri after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery and said, “We condemn this vile act of vandalism and those who perpetuate it in the strongest possible terms.”9 It was also impressive that all 100 senators sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey urging them to assist local law enforcement agencies in protecting Hebrew schools, Jewish community centers and synagogues as well as helping prosecute those who threaten or vandalize those institutions.10
In France at the beginning of this century, important acts of solidarity took far longer to occur and never even approached the current levels in the United States.
2 Greer Fay Cashman, Katsav’s France visit a ‘surprising’ success,” Jerusalem Post, February 22, 2004.
3 Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Marvin Hier, “Building a Major Organization from Scratch, American Jewry’s Challenge: Addressing the New Century, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). Pgs 187-188.
5 Eytan Ellenberg, “‘Négationisme’ à la television publique française,” Guysen Israel News, 17 February 2004. (French)