A French court acquitted the Jewish historian Georges Bensoussan of hate speech charges over his assertion that Arabs receive anti-Semitism with their “mothers’ milk.”
The 17th Criminal Tribunal of Paris acquitted Bensoussan on Tuesday, the AFP news agency reported, ending a polarizing trial that observers regarded as a significant test case for determining the boundaries of academic freedom amid growing inter-ethnic tensions.
Bensoussan, a scholar of the Holocaust and one of the world’s leading historians of Jewish communities in Arab territories, was put on trial in December after a Muslim lobby group and a French human rights organization that was founded by Jews in the 1920s initiated a criminal lawsuit against him for a statement made during a 2012 interview.
Bensoussan used the two fateful words during a radio interview in 2015. Citing the work of an Algerian sociologist, he asserted that “in Arab families in France and beyond, everybody knows but will not say that anti-Semitism is transmitted with mother’s milk.”
Bensoussan later insisted he meant this as a metaphor for culturally transmitted bias. Nevertheless, his words prompted both the Collective Against Islamophobia in France and the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, or LICRA, independently to initiate a criminal trial against him for allegedly inciting racial hatred.
The reference to mother’s milk was in a paraphrased quote that Bensoussan attributed to Smain Laacher, a non-Jewish French filmmaker whose family came from North Africa. In reality, Laacher had said in an interview that for many Arab families, anti-Semitism is in “the air that one breathes.”
Leading French scholars dismissed the lawsuits against Bensoussan as an attempt at “intimidation.”
In their ruling, the tribunal said the plaintiffs failed to substantiate the hate speech charges and concluded that Bensoussan merely “misspoke” in quoting Laacher without intention to incite hatred, AFP reported.
The trial pitted anti-racism activists against one another, including within LICRA. One of France’s most revered thinkers, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, resigned from its honorary board in protest over what French media called “l’Affaire Bensoussan.”
Long frustrated over what they regard as politically correct censorship, right-leaning French Jews reacted with outrage over Bensoussan’s prosecution.
Former Le Monde reporter Yves Mamou called the prosecution “a Jihad against the truth” and “France’s new Dreyfus Trial” in reference to the wrongful conviction for treason in 1894 of a Jewish army captain.