July 17, 2019

Karsenty: Jewish Leadership Unequipped to Tackle Anti-Semitism in France

Philippe Karsenty: Photo by Sandrine Gluck

In 2004, Philippe Karsenty, a French Jew of Moroccan descent, took a break from his work as a stockbroker to self-fund a 10-year venture challenging France 2 Television for what he believed was one of the worse blood libels in modern history. Proponents regarded him as a David fighting Goliath, while his detractors viewed him as a conspiracy theorist.

The case in question is that of Muhammed al-Dura, a major flashpoint at the start of the Second Intifada, which saw an estimated 1,000 Israeli and 3,000 Palestinian lives lost. In 2000, France 2 aired footage that showed 12-year-old al-Dura dying in the arms of his father, allegedly the victim of Israel Defense Forces bullets. At various judicial levels, Karsenty sought to prove, based on an original German investigation, that the act was staged. Karsenty won in France’s appellate court, then a higher court overturned the verdict. He was fined 11,000 Euros for defamation.

While Karsenty made a splash in the media and Israel-advocacy worlds, this small victory, (despite the ultimate trial loss), of raising awareness about alleged French media bias has not fundamentally transformed French media culture toward more balance when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Karsenty believes this serves as incitement against Israel and, by extension, Jews.

“If there is no political counterweight and willingness to tell the truth about Israel in the media, it’s a declining community,” Karsenty said at a Parisian café near the Arc de Triomphe.

“We’re a community that suffers every time something comes to Israel because the media defames Israel and sides with the Arabs, and that’s terrible. We’re losing Jews here. Some are going to Israel. Some are going anywhere else, and some are getting completely lost. They’re assimilating and don’t want to be associated with the ‘criminal state.’ ”

Karsenty continues to advocate for Israel as a private citizen and, to an extent, as the former deputy mayor and a current councilmember of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a well-to-do suburb outside Paris. These days, he directs his anger less at the French media and more at what he considers an impotent Jewish-French and American leadership. He believes Jewish advocacy groups put parochial interests above actual community concerns.

“They need to keep access, and in order to keep access, they forget their mission statement,” he said, reserving his harshest criticism for the American Jewish Committee and its leader, David Harris, who not only shunned Karsenty’s al-Dura efforts but branded Karsenty an “extremist.”

For Karsenty, the real Jewish threat comes from a media hostile to Israel and a political brass that speaks correctly when discussing the need to combat anti-Semitism but doesn’t take enough action to stop it.

More recently, Karsenty served as a media commentator on the destructive fire of the Notre Dame cathedral. Fox News cut him off about an hour into the fire when he questioned the unanimity of the French media outlets that quickly concluded the fire was accidental.

Several incidents in recent years have triggered that perception. France is no longer a safe place for Jews: The 2015 Hyper Cacher supermarket attack that occurred in conjunction with the massacre of staff at the Charlie Hebdo publication; the 2006 murder and kidnapping of Ilan Halimi by  African Muslims; the 2017 murder of Sarah Halimi in her home; and the allegedly anti-Semitic burning of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, in 2018. More recently, anti-Semites affiliated with the “Yellow Vests” movement verbally attacked French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.

After coffee, Karsenty and I walked down the Champs-Elysees, where two weeks earlier, Yellow Vest vandals trashed and looted luxury retail shops. Hugo Boss and Bulgari had to close temporarily. Louis Vuitton was boarded up as a precaution. ATM machines were tampered with and burned. Since November 2018, the Yellow Vest movement has staged protests every Saturday in various locations in Paris.

“Most of the Yellow Vest protesters are French Christian people and see all these high taxes for decades while public services decline. They’re upset,” Karsenty said. He thinks the movement draws as many anti-Semites as are proportionate to France’s population, including those trafficking in old stereotypes about Jews controlling banks and the media. Some have legitimate concerns about economic justice, but anarchists, vandals and opportunists have infiltrated the movement. 

As for the rising right-wing National Rally party under Marine Le Pen, Karsenty is cautious. “Even though I disagree with her on many issues, she hasn’t been caught on anything on Israel or the Jews. Of course, in her party, you have many who are anti-Jewish, but they are the same in other parties,” he said. While Le Pen has not publicly denigrated Israel, she has not come out in support of the Jewish state.

For Karsenty, the real Jewish threat comes from a media hostile to Israel and a political brass that speaks correctly when discussing the need to combat anti-Semitism but doesn’t take enough action to stop it. For example, on the list for elections to the European Union parliament this month is Pascal Durand, a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, who sought to visit convicted Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti, in an Israeli prison. “Even the Israeli ambassador in Paris tweeted and said he was surprised and worried to see him as a candidate on [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s list.”

As for physical safety, it all depends on where Jews live and travel. In metropolitan Paris, Jews should anticipate no trouble when wearing kippahs and religious symbols, although some take precautions. In areas known as the “banlieues,” or suburbs, a growing, low-income Arab and North African Muslim migrant population have spurred a Jewish exodus because of anti-Semitic attitudes and general disregard of Western values.

I joined Karsenty for Friday night services in his neighborhood. No heavily armed guards were visible, and men put on kippahs right before entering the multistoried shul.

Signs inside the synagogue hardly hinted at a community in decline, with advertisements for Hebrew lessons, Jewish educational programs and the self-defense and fighting discipline Krav Maga. Pews were filled with young and old alike. Young, stylish women sang hymns from the balcony. Most of the congregants were of Sephardic (Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian) descent, as they make up the majority of France’s estimated 500,000 Jews.

Karsenty said looks can be deceiving. Even this community is on edge. 

But there’s an unexpected ray of light. French leaders traditionally have forged strong ties with Arab countries at the expense of Israel, in part due to economic reasons tied to oil. With demand for Arab oil lessening and the energy market diversifying, the time may be ripe for effective pro-Israel lobbying in France.

“Even Saudi Arabia and other countries are now getting closer and closer to Israel because technologies are moving away from oil,” Karsenty said. “It can be a game changer.”

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ilan Halimi was abducted in 2016 by North African Muslims and that Marwan Barghouti was the founder of the BDS movement. Omar Barghouti founded the BDS movement. Palestinian 2nd Intifada Leader Marwan Barghouti has been in an Israeli prison since 2002, serving five lifetime sentences for murder.


Orit Arfa is an American-Israeli journalist and author based in Berlin.