The New Anti-Semitism

Jewish role in France


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The conference “Anti-Semitism in France: Past, Present, Future,” held at Yale University on October 5th, came at an opportune time. It followed the July apology by France’s president, Francois Hollande, for his country’s role in the deportation to the Nazi death camps of some 13,000 of its Jewish citizens during World War II, of which hardly more than 800 returned alive. It’s true that the force of this apology was blunted by coming seventy years after the fact, but for the French, who tend to hold to the mantra, “Ce n’est pas ma faute,” it was a groundbreaking event.

The conference was also opportune for me personally. I had just returned from Paris, where I had had a long talk with my French cousin about her experience during the Second World War. At 84, she is the oldest living member of that part of my family that emigrated from Russia to France to escape the pogroms early in the twentieth century. She, her parents, and siblings had survived World War II by hiding with farm families in the countryside. During my recent visit, she opened up on this subject more fully than ever before, explaining that her brother was really her stepbrother, adopted by her parents because his family was deported and eventually killed in Auschwitz. Even now, she said, she and her few Jewish friends were reticent on the topic of their religion.

Her comments made me think of the stories a French friend, who now lives in the United States, told me about growing up in southern France after the War. When attendance was taken on the first day of school each year, the teacher would stop at her name: “Sokolowski? Qu’est-ce que c’est comme nom, ça?” the teacher invariably asked. It was a question that my friend viewed as a code for “There sits the Jew.”

This sort of feeling persisted in France decades after the war. I spent a year teaching in a lycee in northern France in the 1970s, and I recall that when I put my name, Paula Cohen, on the blackboard to introduce myself, a student sitting in the back row flashed a Hebrew letter at me, signaling her kinship. After class, she waited until everyone had left the room before inviting me to her home for Shabbas dinner.

And there remains, as my cousin suggested, unease among Jews in France even today. During my recent visit to Paris I decided to attend services on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and had some trouble locating a synagogue. When I finally found one in the Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter, now a hip Soho-esque district, I was interrogated by a young man standing in front, vigilantly surveying the street. In light of the murder last March in Toulouse of a rabbi, his two young sons, and an 8-year-old girl by an Arab terrorist, security at synagogues throughout France has been ramped up. The young man examined my passport and seemed assuaged by my last name, but my husband, who has a last name not recognizably Jewish, gave him pause. “Were you bar mitzvahed?” he asked. “Yes,” said my husband. “What was your torah portion?” When my husband couldn’t remember, the young man barred him from admission. I was obliged to enter alone.

This was the background I brought with me to the Yale conference on French anti-Semitism. And here are my observations of the proceedings:

The subject matter was treated with regal detachment, at least for most of the day. Indeed, there was a doubling down in the theoretical realm as a result of two things: 1) the speakers were mostly French, a people constitutionally inclined to theorize (a fact that may have bearing on their having been able to rationalize all those great apartments suddenly becoming available in Paris in 1942); and 2) the conference was being held at Yale, the bastion of theoretical approaches to real-world matters, and the initial portal, one might add, of French theory into American academia in the 1970s — a toxic infusion only now beginning to dissipate.

The spirit of Gallic detachment was maintained at the conference until the final, late-afternoon session, when there occurred what one might refer to as “the return of the repressed.” But I will get to that.

The initial papers were mostly scholarly expositions on the role of Jews in French society. Pierre Birnbaum of the University of Paris delivered one entitled “Citizenship, Food, and Anti-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century France.” He noted that saucisson (pork sausage) is central to the plebeian French diet. Meals being, in France especially, a crucial site of fraternization, Jews (and Muslims, it might be said as well) did not have available this source of bonding with their post-Revolutionary peers. In the same session, Maurice Samuels, who heads the newly created Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, discussed the enormous popularity of the early nineteenth-century actress Rachel Felix. Rachel — she was known by her first name only — managed to be both proudly Jewish (her most famous role was in Racine’s Esther, based on the story of Purim) and patriotically French (she was known to recite La Marseillaise at the end of her performances). What would have been a handicap to her as an ordinary citizen appears to have been an enhancement to her on stage. Her Jewishness was connected it seems, to her ability to project a larger-than-life dynamic persona.

But the ensuing papers at the conference dealt with broader political points. The lion’s share addressed what was termed the “new anti-Semitism”: connected to the vexed way in which Arabs and leftist intellectuals perceive the relationship of Jews and Zionism. France, it should be noted, has the largest population of both Jews and Arabs in Europe. It also has shameful legacies connected to both groups: Vichy and the Jewish deportation during the Holocaust, and the colonial occupation in Algeria, the subsequent Algerian War, and the existence of a growing impoverished Arab population.

The late afternoon session of the conference, entitled “After Toulouse: The New Anti-Semitism,” addressed the killing of the rabbi and three children by Arab terrorist, Mohammed Merah, who also killed three French paratroopers of North African and Caribbean descent. It was here that voices began to grow shrill during the Q&A. Patrick Weil, of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and a visiting professor at Yale Law School, argued that the incident was as much racist as anti-Semitic. This was countered by Robert Wistrich, Neuburger Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the head of the University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, who argued that to equate the killing of the paratroopers with the killing of the rabbi and children was wrong.

It became clear, at this point, that two positions had emerged: the position within which the Holocaust and other anti-Semitic atrocities are seen as one instance of many examples of genocidal horror, and the position within which the Holocaust and anti-Semitism are seen as distinct historical and moral entities. One side mocked the idea of comparative victimhood; the other warned that downplaying the uniqueness of the Holocaust could lead to Holocaust denial.

Watching people fight at conferences is fun. It livens things up and gets the blood running. It shows that academics, who appear above the fray, have a real stake in the subject at hand — even if that stake is about saving face or bolstering reputation.

At one point, Weil, voicing his opposition to Wistrich, referred to him as Mr. Wistrich and was caustically corrected:”I am a professor at Hebrew University!” (Wistrich was obviously unaware of Yale’s tradition of referring to its professors as “Mister ” and “Ms.”) At another point, Weil and Carolyn J. Dean of Brown University, who had presented a paper on how deaths under Stalin surpassed those of the Holocaust, whispered and rolled their eyes. They were probably not used to having unapologetic Zionists with academic credentials in their midst. Academics generally list to the left, and, these days, those who side with Israel tend to keep their mouths shut.

The audience seemed energized by the volley of angry words. When you’ve been listening to dry-as-dust papers all day, you wouldn’t mind some fisticuffs. But it strikes me that the conference missed an opportunity to deal with the vexed issue of the new anti-Semitism more directly. Anti-Zionism has, without doubt, been an excuse for and a spur to a new (or perhaps one could say) retrofitted anti-Semitism. But the accusation of anti-Semitism has also been a club to beat down all criticism of Israel. The question becomes: how can one engage in such criticism, when a disagreement over policy can slip into a re-packaging of an age-old hatred. Jews are understandably sensitive to this, and bristly about the double standard with which they feel Israel is often judged. Jews themselves have a hard time criticizing Israel in a climate that may be generally inhospitable to Jews. In France, the sense that Jews are under scrutiny and, in some cases, attack, is especially unsettling given the country’s history. Bernard-Henri Lévy, heralded as a “new philosopher” in France some thirty years ago when he questioned the dogma of the Left, is now a vigorous decrier of the new anti-Semitism. (See his recent exposition on the subject in The Huffington Post🙂

I wish this topic had been addressed at the Yale conference, and that there had been, in addition, some first-hand participation from the barricades—such as a survivor of the Holocaust, a former Vichy official, a member of the French Resistance, a French Muslim, a French Jewish Zionist, and a French anti-Zionist activist. Unfortunately, Primo Levi and Edward Said are no longer with us.

As it was, one had to make do with raised voices on whether anti-Semitism and racism should be conjoined or kept apart; on the value and dangers of Holocaust exceptionalism; and on the comparative horrors of Stalinist mass murders and Nazi genocide. Then, everyone recessed for wine and cheese on the second floor of Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center. 18 October 2012


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.