Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article on May 1968 originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post and re-posted here with the author’s consent.
The Events of May 1968 and the Jews
Fifty years ago huge demonstrations and strikes took place in France. An estimated eleven million people participated in the strikes. At the height of these developments the country came to a near standstill. This period was referred to as the “Events of May”, even though the first event, an occupation of a building at the Nanterre branch of Paris University, occurred in March 1968. During the crisis French President Charles de Gaulle even asked the military whether the army would be willing to intervene if the situation turned into a revolution.
Living in Paris at the time, I several evenings went to Boulevard Montmartre, a main street. On the corner of a side street I watched the Boulevard where many young people were shouting. There were probably far more hooligans among them than students. Opposite them, a few meters away stood the special French police, the CRS. The youth shouted: “CRS – SS.”
After some time, the CRS were fed up and marched toward the protestors who fled. I moved away from the battlefield and walked up the side street. Tear gas, heavier than air, wafted from the underground Metro stations.
Among the leaders of the student uprising were a number of Jews. The best known was Daniel Cohn Bednit, nicknamed “Danni the Red.” Scholar Yair Auron claims that personal or parental experiences in the Holocaust accounted for the move to the radical left of a number of Jewish youngsters in France. The parents of quite a few had imigrated from Eastern Europe. Auron quotes a well-known joke about the leaders of the Trotskyite Communist Revolutionary League which played an important role in the strike. Why did they not speak Yiddish among them when their movement’s politbureau met: because one of them was a Sefardi Jew. At the time Jewish radical leftists were not yet consistently anti-Israel as is the case today. They were rather ambivalent about the Jewish state, especially when it was in peril of being wiped out. Here also the Holocaust experience as well as the fear of another one played a role.1
The last position of my lengthy experience as a student leader was four years as the Chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students ending in 1967. At that time international Jewish organizations still looked upon Jewish students with near-benign neglect. This changed after 1968, partly as a result of the “Events of May.” In 2001, the UN World Conference against Racism took place in Durban, South Africa. It was accompanied by a major NGO conference. These gatherings turned into an anti-Israel hate-fest. Jewish students were then in the forefront defending Israel against the gathering of antisemites.
The failed May 1968 “revolution” did not have a huge immediate impact. It would take many people, including myself, decades to understand how important the “Events of May” had been, together with other occurrences which brought major changes to Western society at large.
One of the main results of societal change was the breakdown of authority. It affected governments, church leaders, student administrations, teachers and parents. The “Events of May” were one of the major components which led to this change. The impact of decolonization was another important one among many others.
In the United States, the organization, Students for Democratic Society, was an important influence in the mid-1960’s. The expression “I am a human being: Do not fold, spindle or mutilate” dates from that period. The unpopular Vietnam War also contributed to much societal changes. In 1969, the Woodstock Festival came to symbolize this changed reality.
The greater openness of society was initially good for minorities, including the Jews. Their voices could now be heard more than in the past. This was true especially at the end of the 1990’s. It enabled an important new round of Holocaust restitution in Europe accompanied by the revelation of many additional data about those who had collaborated in Europe with the German Nazis. Switzerland was a prime example.
Partly due to the emergence of social media these changes overshot what was desirable. Greater freedom also means an increase in incitement. In the U.S, hate speech is widespread as the first article of the constitution makes the country a near-paradise for hate mongers. This is very relevant for Jews. Many American universities are currently at the forefront of the antisemitic trend focusing on Israel.
Jewish life is at its best in democratic societies where the rule of law is dominant. This is less and less the case in Europe. Fifty years after the “Events of May” backpedaling on some civil liberties has become a necessity for the survival of liberal democracies. In Europe, massive immigration, which includes many who do not want to integrate, makes this even more necessary.
Fifty years after the “Events of May” major strikes are again taking place in France. This time by railway employees workers who are against reducing their prerogatives. These changes by the Government, which are part of a broader plan, are necessary to make France’s economy healthy again. In just fifty years the wheel has come around full circle: from favoring change to opposing it.
1 Yair Auron, Tikkun Olam: The Phenomemon of Jewish Radicals in France during the 1960s and ‘70s, (Institute of the World Jewish Congress: Policy Forum No. 19), 2000.