November 16, 2018

Why I Stopped Hating France

A few months ago, in the aftermath of violent attacks against Jews in France, I stood with other activists in front of the French consulate in Los Angeles accusing the country of being anti-Semitic and yelling, “Shame on France.” Today, after spending a week in France with the American Jewish Congress and meeting with government officials, Jewish activists and intellectuals, I feel like yelling, “Shame on me.”

This is not to minimize the problem that Jews face in France, or to pretend that anti-Semitism does not exist. Rather, my shame comes from the juvenile oversimplification of calling a country of 60 million anti-Semitic, as has been fashionable lately among a large segment of the American Jewish community.

I can understand our inclination to paint a whole country with one brush, especially France. First, stereotyping makes life easier; we can generalize and move on with our lives. Second, anti-Semitism has a real history in France, which makes us especially sensitive to anything bad that happens there against Jews.

That said, it is intellectually sloppy and counterproductive to lash out against a whole country by branding it anti-Semitic. One problem is that it’s not accurate; another is that it’s not actionable.

Let’s go to the heart of the issue: violence against Jews and Jewish institutions. Our fact-finding mission showed that these incidents were connected to three specific factors, each deserving of specific action:

1. Media Bias Against Israel

The attacks against Jews peaked in April (400-800 incidents, depending on whose numbers you believe), which was the month when the European press was beating up Israel for the alleged “massacre” in Jenin. This anti-Israel bias is endemic to most of Europe and will not go away any time soon. But the issue, as always, is how best to respond, and telling the truth is a good start. We met a media personality from Channel Two in Paris who has just published a detailed report linking disinformation in Agence France Press, the sole national news agency, with violence against Jews. The report is dry, factual and very effective.

2. Law Enforcement

Any history professor will tell you that the French have never been known for their passion for law enforcement, regardless of who the perpetrators are. However, the new government has demonstrated a much stronger commitment to enforcing and strengthening the laws. In the last couple of months, attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions have been virtually nil. It was encouraging to meet a Jewish member of the French National Assembly, Deputy Pierre Lellouche, who has just introduced a new law to increase the penalties for racist and anti-Semitic incidents.

3. Muslim Demographics

Most of the violence against Jews was perpetrated by Muslim youths in the suburbs, incited by the virulent anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred in the mosques, and the pro-Palestinian tilt of the French media. Muslims now account for 8-10 percent of the population, and in the segment 18 and under, that number is almost 35 percent. Many Muslims have built their own parallel society, and do not integrate as easily as other immigrant groups. This is a ticking time bomb for all of France, not just for the Jews. The general consensus from the people we met is that the French government must do a better job of encouraging integration, while continuing with its tougher approach to law enforcement.

So yes, the Jews have many problems in France, but the issue is more complex than the sexy sound bite that “the French are anti-Semitic.” The point is that when we stereotype, we tend to get either cynical and do nothing, or we get overly emotional and scream and yell and call for boycotts. The issue is not whether anti-Semitism exists or not. Of course it does, and it always will. But the genius of the Jewish way has always been to analyze, understand and then react by being smarter, not louder.

If the French Jews play it smart, this delicious truth will come out: that French Jews make great citizens. They are major contributors to the economy, the culture, the spirit and the beauty of France. They are loyal to France without being disloyal to Israel. Conveying this truth will do more for the Jews in France than any demonstration accusing the French of being anti-Semitic.

That is why the French Jews must stay and continue to fight the good fight. The truth is on their side. We need them more than ever to shine that truth throughout all of Europe. In time, more and more people in France will see how important the Jews are to that country.

And for those who don’t, well, shame on them.