Visiting southern France last month, I walked into a boycott Israel demonstration in Perpignan. There were chants and placards and people handing out information sheets. There was nothing shocking about it, but there was something that alarmed me.
When I politely declined any information and kept walking, I was followed by a demonstrator who repeatedly asked why I wasn’t interested enough to get informed. I felt like saying I am a Jewish guy on holiday in France, with two daughters living in Israel, so please just let me be. But where would that have led? I just kept walking and my persistent pursuer eventually gave up as I crossed the street to get away from him and the others who, for the record, were European French, not Muslim émigrés.
There was nothing unique about this demonstration. There were, maybe, 100 people. But seeing it in real time in France made me think of what’s happening in other European countries, and in so much of the world.
Demonization of Israel is not new, but it is more globally pronounced; and France is considered to be ground zero for untempered and unfiltered animosity towards Jews and Israel. There is no pretence in France that this is just about the politics of Israel and not about Jews in general.
The boycott Israel rally I inadvertently encountered was held during one of those recent ugly and frightening weeks in Israel, and you would have to think the timing was no accident. We live at a time when Israeli stabbing deaths are cheered on social media, while Palestinian deaths are mourned and martyred.
Watching the news in France that week was disheartening. Reporters were showing the violence through the minds and hearts of Palestinians as a one-way street of loss and fear. There was no attempt to show everyday Israelis. What French news showed were heavily armed, helmeted and masked Israeli soldiers.
In France, the media coverage is unequivocal. Israelis bad, Palestinians good, period! There is no nuance. There is no attempt to say Jews can be victims too.
Watching the coverage was isolating, and there was a certain psychological powerlessness about it. As much as I wanted those images and depictions to be different, I knew they wouldn’t be. It was like a headache or a toothache that won’t go away. It was a bad dream, except it wasn’t.
It is the daily reality for French Jews, a reality that was well documented in the August edition of Vanity Fair. “Paris is Burning” is the story of Sammy Ghozlan, a former Paris area police commissioner affectionately known as the “Sephardic Columbo.” Ghozlan, 72, was one of the 7,000 French Jews who made aliyah in 2014. More than 10,000 more will have moved to Israel by the end of 2015.
France still has the third largest Jewish population in the world, and Ghozlan laments there is not a bar mitzvah boy in France who has not lived through anti-Semitism from birth. He traces the upsurge in France to the second intifada in 2000.
In 2014, there were 851 attacks on Jews, synagogues and Jewish businesses in France. Ghozlan was the police official who established a special bureau to report attacks on Jews and Jewish property.
While the attackers are often French Muslims of North African origin, Ghozlan says left wing and communist politicians, and small town mayors, are also overtly anti-Israel. He says they name streets after terrorists and adds they and the media create an atmosphere where Jews and Israel become “detestable” to the general public.
Ghozlan explains how the French army protects synagogues, Jewish schools and community centres, and how children are taunted on their way to and from school. How cars owned by Jews are frequently torched, and how stores and businesses are defaced with hateful graffiti.
It is reminiscent of 1930s Germany, except the French government is actually protecting Jews. However, the need for armed protection demonstrates how threatened French Jews are. And let’s not forget France is just one of many countries where wearing a kippah in public invites open harassment.
Israel, either its politics or its existence, has become the lightning rod for this contemporary wave of anti-Semitism. How and when will it stop spreading is the question.
No time soon is the sad answer.