Anti-Semitism in France


In memory of Mireille Knoll, Sara Halimi, Philippe Braham, Francois-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, Aryeh Sandler (6 years old), Gabriel Sandler (3 years old), Miriam Monsonego (8 years old),  Ilan Halimi, Sebastien Selam murdered in France just because they were Jews.

I have been reading, writing, and speaking about anti-Semitism in France for the last thirty-eight years ever since a terrorist bomb exploded in Paris on October 3, 1980 outside the Union Liberale Israelite or Rue Copernic synagogue killing four and wounding forty-six pedestrians.

Barely two years later on August 1982, the Abu Nidal Organization attacked the Jo Goldenberg restaurant in Paris’ Jewish quarter claiming six victims. During that same summer, Tsahal was fighting a war in Lebanon launched after the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador in London while the Mossad was conducting a covert operation in Europe hunting down those believed responsible for the 1972 Olympic Munich massacre.

At the time, I was a Reconstructionist rabbinical student in Philadelphia pursuing parallel graduate studies in French Literature. I had decided that after ordination I would work for a Reform synagogue in Paris. I began to study the history of French anti-Semitism and learned from one of my professors, Robert Weiner, that when the French Republic was in danger, as was the case during the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy, Jews were often its first victims.

A terrorist bomb exploded in Paris on October 3, 1980 outside the Rue Copernic synagogue killing four and wounding forty-six pedestrians.

But this was the anti-Semitism of the anti-revolutionary tradition of France supported by the Catholic church, the army, and extreme right-wing politicians. The anti-Jewish terrorist bombings and killings of the 1980s were of a different nature in that they were related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and perpetrated by non Europeans of Palestinian or Arab descent.

The Jewish community nevertheless continued to face domestic anti-Semitism : regular cemetery desecrations (particularly in eastern France), racist graffiti, the rise in power of the French National Front (FN) led by Jean Marie Le Pen (whose party won 11% of the vote in the 1984 European elections), and the growing respectability of Holocaust deniers like Robert Faurisson.

On May 8 1990, one of the most horrific anti-Semitic incidents took place : thirty tombs in the historic Jewish cemetery of Carpentras were desecrated and the body of a Jewish man was exhumed and mutilated. Outraged, French citizens took to the streets leading to the Bastille creating one of the largest marches against anti-Semitism in French history. At first, the blame was placed at the door of Jean Marie Le Pen and the FN until it was later found that the real culprits were Neo-Nazi skin heads.

Following that impressive march of tens of thousands of Frenchmen, the Jewish community felt supported by its political leadership and fellow citizens. Francois Mitterand became the first president to ever march in such a demonstration.

Anti-racist organizations like the LICRA (International League against Racism and anti-Semitism) and SOS Racisme succeeded in mobilizing public opinion in uniting together in the battle against both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (anti-Muslim incidents were also on the rise). Jews and Muslims citizens became natural allies in what was viewed as a common struggle to preserve the Republican value of fraternité.

However, with the dawning of the 21st century, another form of anti-Semitism emerged in France and it unfurled with unusual violence.

The perpetrators were neither terrorists from the Middle East nor French Neo-Nazis but French-born Muslims. Indeed, in October 2000, less than one month after the outbreak of the Second Intifada or Al -Aqsa Intifida , more than seventy anti-Semitic incidents were reported in ten days all around the country: graffiti, verbal insults, physical attacks, the launching of molotov cocktails, and the arson of two synagogues.

These young disenfranchised Muslims originating for the most part from crime-ridden suburbs of cities such as Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse were venting their anger at French society by attacking Jews. Acting under the influence of radical Islamist ideology and identifying with the Palestinians, their actions were perceived as a legitimate social revolt and when in fact they were expressing a vicious hatred of the Jewish people and Israel.

Caught by surprise, French society was not able to properly identify this new form of anti-Semitism for the latter had always been associated with the extreme right and the Vichy regime . (More than ten years later Manuel Valls become the first politician to give it a name : islamo-fascisme). Furthermore, the Socialist government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin did not know how to properly respond for it did not want to risk stigmatizing an already vulnerable Muslim population…

So the violent attacks against the Jews were simply described as “incivilities”, the work of hooligans. The anti-Semitic aspects of the crimes were underplayed. This in turn opened the door for severe critiques from the government of Israel. Rabbi Michael Melchior, then Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs condemned France as “the Western country with the worst record on anti-Semitism “ to which the French Minister of the Interior Daniel Vaillant retorted : “we should not import the Middle East conflict to France”. Many French citizens of non-Jewish and non-Muslim background concluded that as long as Muslims and Jews were fighting between themselves they had nothing to worry about.

In 2002, an important book edited by George Bensoussan (using the pseudonym of Emmanuel Brenner) was published : Les Territoires Perdus de la Republique.  It provided an insightful analysis of what was actually happening in the schools of the Republic. The testimonies of teachers and principals evoked  rampant racism, sexism, and especially anti-Semitism on the part of Muslim Arab students whose families originated from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco). Unfortunately, this work did not receive enough media attention and was criticized by a number of intellectuals on the left.

Indeed a number of personalities on French left considering that France having not atoned for the sins of the colonization of Algeria and the rest of the Mahgreb, should not criticize the behavior of its Muslim citizens.

In 2005, Rabbi Michael Serfaty created The Amitié Judéo-Musulmane, to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue (Photograph: AJMF)

Nevertheless, French Jewish leaders, government officials, and anti-racist associations searched for ways of combating this new anti-Semitism. It was agreed that it had be fought on many levels : political, educational, cultural, and judicial. A number of proposals were made : increasing financial investment in the decaying suburbs, creating job training programs, training imams in France so as to promote a modern tolerant Republican Islam of France, closing underground Salafist mosques, funding more police intelligence, closing down racist websites, banning racist organizations, deconstructing prejudices in the public schools, increasing the police force and patrolling in problem neighborhoods, stiffening the penalties for incitement to racial hatred.  In addition, important educational projects were undertaken on by SOS Racisme and the Union of Jewish Students in the public schools. The Amitié Judéo-Musulmane , created by Rabbi Michael Serfaty in 2005,  organized bus tours throughout France to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

Heated debates, however, took place in the French Assemblée nationale about the dangers of a repressive legislation limiting personal freedoms, for example the right to free speech. Here the case of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the stand-up comedian, actor and political activist deserves special attention. Dieudonné had built an important following encouraged by his regular attacks on the Jewish community, the State of Israel and the commemoration of the Shoah. His comments about the Jewish and Zionist lobby controlling the world were well received. When he mocked a Jewish journalist saying that it was a shame that he was not sent to the gas chambers, the then Interior Minister Manuel Valls charged that Dieudonné was “no longer a comedian “ but clearly acting as an anti-Semite. His shows and performances therefore had to be banned.

And yet in spite of all of the good intentions of the French government and civil society’s the numbers of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the years 2000 continued to remain high, seven times higher than those reported in the 1990s.(1)

One of the most dramatic of these incidents of was the kidnapping and torture of Ilan Halimi. The gang of barbarians responsible for this heinous crime were  motivated by the belief that all Jews were rich and asked for an important ransome which Ilan’s family of modest socio-economic background did not have…

Given the increased dissemination of Islamist and Jihadist ideologies coupled with the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan growing number of young French Muslims were preparing new terrorist attacks in France. One of them, Mohammed Merah, embarked on a ten-day shooting spree in March of 2012 murdering three French soldiers (two of them Muslim) then a rabbi and three children at a Jewish day school in Toulouse.

Unlike the aftermath of the Rue Copernic bombing in 1980, and the Carpentras cemetery desecration in 1990, the Jews of France began to feel terribly alone in the fight against anti-Semitism towards the end of 2000.

Thousands of French Jews were emigrating to Israel. (Between 2012 and 2014 alone almost 20,000 made aliyah). Others left France for the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.(2) Still others began to desert the neighborhoods where they had been exposed to everyday harassment and danger in order relocate to safer ones. In the Department of Seine-Saint Denis (93) around Paris, for example, entire Jewish neighborhoods have begun to disappear. Other neighborhoods like the 17th arrondissement of Paris have seen an influx of “refugees from anti-Semitism” making it the largest Jewish neighborhood of continental Europe with more than 30,000 Jews.

The delegitimisation of the State of Israel and the support of boycotting the Jewish State have also became another source of worry for the French Jewish community. This movement has been especially promoted by supporters of the far left who consider criticism of Muslims for their anti-Jewish prejudice as an example of Islamophobia.

During the year 2015, Paris became the theatre of two deadly acts of terrorism :  in January there was the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, several policemen, and four Jewish customers at a kosher supermarket and in November a series of coordinated attacks at a concert hall and at several restaurants whichh resulted in 130 deaths and 350 wounded.

After the November attacks, the Jewish community sensed that something had changed in the attitude of the average Frenchman. Unlike the attacks in January which targeted only journalists, police, and Jews,  this time French citizens of all backgrounds were indiscriminately gunned down or murdered by exploding bombs hidden in belts.

The French tricolored flag outside the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris, France.

When the government of Francois Hollande decided to mobilize French soldiers around synagogues and other Jewish institutions, the number of attacks against the Jews decreased. But France is unable to keep a soldier in front a synagogue forever, it is unable to have a policeman behind every Jew.

And just over the past year, two elderly Jewish women were not able to be protected from their respective Muslim neighbors.

Sara Halimi was beaten and thrown out of her window on April 4, 2017.  The media refused to report the incident because it took place on the eve of the Presidential elections… Then it took the justice system over ten months to recognize the anti-Semitic character of the crime. Less than a year later Mireille Knoll, a survivor of the Shoah was brutally stabbed and burned after her apartment was torched by her assailant.

How many more brutal deaths of France’s Jews will it take for French citizenry to mobilize itself on a massive level and recognize that anti-Semitism is not just a problem for the Jews but a serious problem facing all of France?

Today (April 22nd) as I complete this article, Philippe Val former editor of Charlie Hebdo published a manifesto signed by more than 250 individuals including former prime ministers, elected officials, intellectuals, and artists from all walks of life to denounce in the strongest of words the murderous anti-Semitism that has been spreading throughout France and calling upon the French Muslim leadership to seriously address this problem. According to Val, Muslim anti-Semitism is not only a threat to peace and liberty in France and elsewhere, it is also a dangerous threat to the integrity of Islam.(3)


(1) See reports issued by the SPCJ, the Service for the Protection of the Jewish community created in the aftermath of the Rue Copernic bombing. (

(2) According to a poll of French Jews conducted by the IFOP (French Institute of Public Opinion) in January 2016 forty percent of them said that they were considering emigrating to Israel.


One thought on “Anti-Semitism in France

  1. Rachel
    6 May, 2018 at 17:40

    Such an important and well written article. People need to understand what is happening in France and work to stop this so that Jews do not have to continue to flee from other countries too.

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