Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

France/ Critical mass

Jews, immigrants and demographics : the true story of the present antisemitic crisis.General Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth French Republic, once wrote that " the sword is the world’s axis ". Georges Bouthoul, the French sociologist of war, did not agree. In his opinion, the craddle, rather than the sword or the gun, was the true axis of the world : history was shaped by demographics rather than by battles.

Demographics, indeed, may account for much of the recent achievements  and much of the current trials of French Jews. There were about 350 000 Jews in metropolitan France in  1939. By 1945, one third of them had perished (a comparatively low rate by Holocaust’s standards). Postwar late arrivals from Eastern Europe and refugee influx from Islamic countries in the 50’s and 60’s brought about a new, younger, community of 700 000 souls or so – or even one million, if one is to include the outer fringe of very assimilated Jews, (the " marranos ", so to say). A critical mass was thus reached, allowing for Jewish books, kosher food, Jewish education,  Orthodox revival,  Reform or Conservative congregations, youth activities, Zionism. French Jews were poised for a Golden Age.

The Jewish critical mass effect was to clash, however, with a parallel critical mass effect, the rapid rise of a huge immigrant Islamic community, ten or twelve  times as strong as the Jewish community in nembrers (estimates range from 6 to 8 million souls). In a perfect, ideal, world, both groups could live together and integrate together into the larger French society. In the real world,  Jews tended to sympathize for a while with the Muslims as fellow immigrants, and Muslims, as immigrants from countries where unreconstructed  antisemitism is the norm, tended to reject Jews as Jews and Zionists, with the significant exception of the Kabyle, or Berber-speaking, immigrant community from Algeria.

October 2000 was the turning point. Muslim youths in France, the Kabyles excepted,  launched their own intifada to emulate their Palestinian brethren and to assert their political weight. French society at large was tetanized. Traditional native antisemitism, linked to either the Far Right or the Far Left, was reawakened by Muslim antisemitism. Violence, including arson of synagogues and schools, rose dramatically. Harassment of Jewish kids and Jewish teachers at school became commonplace. The Reverend Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic preacher who singled out liberal Jewish intellectuals – supporters of the Geneva  accord, actually –  as dangerous " Jewish nationalists " was turned into a media icon. But  what really bothered French Jews was the national elite’s strange reluctance to admit there was something wrong going on. It took one year for the press to report seriously about these matters. It took much more time for the government to respond.

One year ago, one third of the Jewish population of France was reported to consider emigration, either to Israel or to North America. Six months ago, another poll said almost one half (46 %) was ready to go. It should not come as a surprise. As I remarked earlier, most French Jews today are refugees and survivors – or the children of refugees and survivors. The Ashkenazi element is haunted by Holocaust memories and the Sefardi element by even closer memories of their expulsion from Muslim lands. Both groups know – by personal experience or from their parents oral history – that things can deteriorate very quickly. And that it is is wiser to leave as long as you can leave.

There have been recently some sobering developments.  The French political class, especially on the Right, has finally recognized antisemitism as a real problem ;  for the past two years, President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy have taken steps to curb it. Moreover, large parts of French society,  including such truly moderate Muslims as the Kabyles, are slowly awakening to the fact that militant Islam is not going to stop with the Jews and is in fact willing to remold the country in its own, non-pluralistic and non-democratic way.  The attempt to ban the Islamic veil from public space, certainly not as a religious symbol, but rather as a totalitarian emblem,  is another sign of growing awareness about these matters.

France will maybe remain forever the classic Dreyfus Case country. As you may remember,  Captain Dreyfus was first seen as a villain by almost everybody. Eventually, numbers of French citizens, including Army officers with little sympathy for Jews, rose to his side to get him cleared from any charge. The initial French response to an unprecedented upsurge of antisemitism in the first years of the 21st century was rather poor. But then, many Frenchmen have got second thoughts and begun to fight evil for real. What was essential in the days of Dreyfus, one century ago, was the courage and straightforwardness of the French Jews themselves. What is required now, first and foremost, is the courage and straightforwardness and clarity of analysis and purpose of all European Jews.

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