As the global pandemic of anti-Semitism worsens, its impact deepens. According to Paris writer Marc Weitzmann, such is the situation for Jews in France today that many play down, if not conceal, their Jewish identity in public. Weitzmann himself readily admits to not exhibiting outward signs of his Jewishness when circulating in the city.
Having just spent the past four years studying the resurgence of Jew-hatred in France for his new book, Weizmann is keenly aware of the potential, sometimes lethal, danger Jews face in his native country.
“I definitely take precautions,” Weitzmann says in fluent English during a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “For instance, when I’m in the subway or in a bar, I’m careful about what kind of book I carry. If it’s about a Jewish topic, I don’t show the cover too obviously. I wouldn’t wear a Star of David outside, and not just in Paris. Today, you can expose yourself to insults and worse pretty much anywhere in France. I first started having this concern about 15 years ago when things started to change for Jews.”
Last spring, prominent French writer Alain Finkielkraut said he avoided parts of Paris out of fear for his safety due to his Jewish identity and his public support of Israel. A half-year later, in a confrontation captured on a much-seen video, he was accosted in February on a Paris street by a group of Yellow Vests protestors. They abusively screamed anti-Jewish epithets at him before police escorted him to safety.
The Finkielkraut incident, widely covered in French and international media, didn’t surprise Weitzmann, whose latest book, “Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What it Means for Us)” came out in English in March.
“Last fall, a month after my book appeared in French, the Yellow Vests protest movement began and it didn’t take long for its anti-Semitic elements to surface,” says Weitzmann, 60, speaking by phone from the Fumoir bar he frequents near the Louvre. “Anti-Semitic incidents have plagued the Yellow Vests much too regularly to be considered simply anecdotal.”
Weitzmann argues the link between the Yellow Vests movement, initially a protest against the government’s increase in fuel prices, and anti-Semitism is part of a bigger picture. In the book, he says the hostility to Jews — more demonstrative, more violent, more openly expressed in recent years — is grounded largely in two forms of populism: The first is an extreme, violent ethos endemic to Muslim suburban public housing projects; the second a deeply-rooted French nationalistic ultra-conservatism. Add in anti-Jewish tendencies from the far left and the three, each reinforcing the other in their belligerence toward Jews, make for a particularly toxic combination.
“Since the recent rise of international populism, the situation of Jews has become a problem almost everywhere,” Weitzmann says. “That’s because Jews, especially the Diaspora, are seen as an equivalent for cosmopolitism and globalism. This is really the target of the populist movement everywhere. In that sense, the situation of Jews is becoming problematic in a way not seen since the creation of Israel.”
If France has no monopoly on anti-Semitism in all its vile, even homicidal, manifestations, it’s haunted by its checkered record involving Jews. In 1791, France became the first country in western Europe to emancipate its Jews. It also has many dark chapters, including the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish captain in the French army was framed and falsely convicted in 1894 of spying for Germany, resulting from and feeding already pervasive anti-Semitic sentiment. More notoriously, during World War II, France’s fascist Vichy regime actively collaborated with the Nazis in deporting 75,000 Jews to death camps in the 1940s.
Today, given this charged history and the fact that France’s half-million strong Jewish community is the world’s second-largest outside Israel, what happens to French Jews commands interest far beyond its borders. Indeed, foreign media have long reported on anti-Semitism in France.
In fact, Weitzmann’s book sprouted from a series of five 4,000-word reportages he wrote in 2014 for the US-based Jewish online magazine, Tablet.
“The dismissal of anti-Semitic aspects of what was going on in France at the time by both the media and public authorities made me look abroad to publish my series,” says Weitzmann, who’s written for major French newspapers. “I went to Tablet because I felt French media wouldn’t be interested in publishing what I wanted to do. Even outside France, there weren’t many places where I could publish such a lengthy, in-depth look at this subject.”
Weitzmann had long been troubled by anti-Semitism in France, especially two murder cases French authorities initially refused to treat as hate crimes. In 2006, a gang, led by an openly anti-Semitic Muslim, abducted and killed Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Parisian Jew. In 2012, a jihadist gunman opened fire at a Jewish day school in Toulouse, killing three children and a rabbi. However, it was a demonstration in Paris in early 2014 that prompted Weitzmann’s series.
“The situation for Jews in France had actually been bad since the early 2000s,” says Weitzmann. “Synagogues had been attacked in the suburbs and there were several anti-Semitic murders. But in January 2014, something changed. That month, you had this far-right protest march in Paris called Day of Wrath where you heard for the first time since the 1930s, people crying out anti-Semitic slogans in the streets of Paris. Among them was ‘Jew, France is not yours!’ From then on, you had a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents.”
The following year, French right wing comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has been convicted several times for anti-Jewish incitement, popularized an arm gesture widely seen as an inverted Nazi salute and intended as an expression of anti-Semitism. Some Yellow Vests protestors have used it at demonstrations, a few of which Dieudonné has attended with right wing, anti-Semitic writer Alain Soral, who recently was sentenced to a year in prison for Holocaust denial.
The idea to expand the Tablet series into a book came from the late American Jewish novelist Philip Roth, who Weitzmann befriended during his frequent sojourns in New York – and to whom he dedicates “Hate” on its first page. After reading Weitzmann’s first two reportages, Roth asked influential literary agent Andrew Wylie to secure a US book deal for Weitzmann. The original plan was for the book to be published in 12 to 18 months.
“At the outset, I wasn’t so sure myself what I was after,” says Weitzmann, who spent three times longer than planned writing the book, interviewing 30 people in the process. “Was something really going on in France, or was I just overreacting to a series of unfortunate coincidences? Was I being rational or was I ceding to that historical anxiety known as ‘Jewish paranoia?’”
His work on the book was quickly overshadowed by major events in France. A week into writing “Hate,” the first in a spate of horrific terrorist attacks shook the country. In January 2015, two brothers, both Islamic radicals, killed 12 people and wounded 11 others after opening fire in the Paris offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. Two days later, a Muslim gunman entered a Jewish grocery in Paris, murdering four Jews while proclaiming himself a member of Islamic State.
Later that year, Muslim terrorists carried out multiple shooting and grenade attacks on the same evening in Paris in different locations, killing 130 people and wounding several hundred. In July 2016, a Tunisian resident of France drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 and wounding many more. Other smaller attacks occurred during that period, some involving Jewish targets.
“While I was writing the book, I was really wondering what the fuck was going on,” says Weitzmann. “What’s this country about? Now I feel that everything that’s happening is like a confirmation of what I wrote.”
He prepared the first draft in English for his American publisher and then wrote a separate version in French for his publisher in France. Each edition is distinct, one for a domestic audience, the other for foreign readers.
The project proved a Pandora’s box for Weitzmann. As he researched French anti-Semitism, it proved depressingly rich, almost overwhelming. This is reflected in the book, which recounts a litany of anti-Semitic episodes, recent and historical, and spotlights a real-life cast of bigots with a virulent hatred for Jews they eagerly propagate. Weitzmann illustrates a hatred driven by age-old conspiracy theories and tropes evoking all-powerful Jews with nefarious motives controlling the world. Jewish support of Israel is part of the mix, especially for anti-Semites in the Muslim community and among the extreme left.
The recent rise in anti-Semitism prompted French president Emmanuel Macron to say earlier this year it’s at its worst level since World War II. According to French Interior Ministry figures, 541 anti-Semitic incidents occurred in France in 2018, an increase of 74 percent over 2017.
Beyond the numbers, certain anti-Semitic crimes – such as two macabre murders – cause greater anguish and outrage due to their particular brutality. Last year, 85-year-Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, who narrowly escaped France’s most infamous round-up of Jews during WWII, was stabbed to death and her body partly burned in her Paris apartment. Police, who arrested two men, called the homicide a hate crime.
In 2017, in the same part of Paris, Sarah Halimi, a 66-year old Orthodox Jewish kindergarten teacher, was beaten viciously in her apartment and then thrown out a window while the assailant screamed verses from the Koran. Police arrested a Muslim neighbor, whose lawyer didn’t deny his client killed Halimi but argued he was mentally unfit to stand trial.
Weitzmann writes that Muslims are behind most of the major physical attacks targeting Jews in France over the past 20 years, but most are not Muslim radicals, making the matter more complicated.
“Until the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, the difficulty was – and still is, to a point – that most of the murderers of Jews were regular Muslims who were simply overcome with rage, and there’s no way to rationally explain that burst of rage,” says Weitzmann.
“That difficulty gave an argument to authorities for dismissing the whole anti-Semitic element as non-existent,” he says. “That has changed since the terror wave because people now feel there’s a connection between terror attacks and the rise in anti-Semitism, even when the targets are not Jewish. Judicial authorities still seem to have a difficulty to understand the complexity of anti-Semitism when it’s linked with blind rage.”
In the book, Weitzmann says certain voices in the French media have a tendency to portray Muslims carrying out homicidal attacks as victims of social discrimination and blame France for not having better integrated them to their new country. They sometimes depict the terrorist rampages almost as romanticized acts of rebellion.
France is home to 6 million Muslims, the largest such community in Europe, from which more jihadists left to fight in Syria since the civil war began in 2011 than any other Western country.
Weitzmann opens “Hate” with the harrowing Ilan Halimi case, starting with the deliberate singling out of a Jewish victim. He paints a vivid portrait of Youssouf Fofana, the son of Muslim immigrants from Africa and the leader of the Gang of Barbarians, which during the three weeks it held Halimi in captivity, tortured and ultimately murdered him.
In 2009, two defense lawyers for Fofana’s accomplices (who had told investigators of their leader’s obsessive anti-Jewish hatred), dismissed the anti-Semitic scourge in the case and in the country at large.
“Only people with political motivations would try to sell the opinion that anti-Semitism is eating away at French society,” they co-wrote in Le Monde, which Weitzmann cites in the book. “Such a plague, as we all know, is fortunately enough, almost non-existent in France.”
In several places in “Hate,” Weitzmann addresses how French authorities often avoid ascribing anti-Semitic motives to cases despite evidence to the contrary.
“Part of the media thrill with the Ilan Halimi murder found its source in a fascination with the prospect of a new rising tide of anti-Semitism in France,” Weitzmann writes. “Yet editorialists and public authorities alike exerted a fantastic amount of energy denying this enticing storyline was in fact true.
“Police investigators had insisted from day one on the thoroughly villainous nature of the crime – ‘villainous’ as opposed to ideological,” he writes. “The official statement the investigating magistrate gave, against all evidence, in the days following Ilan Halimi’s death went even further: ‘There isn’t a single element,’ he said, ‘allowing us to attach to this murder an anti-Semitic purpose or an anti-Semitic act.’”
Weitzmann sees improvement in how French authorities responded to recent anti-Semitic crimes, but with unwelcome results.
“Since 2016, the authorities have begun to take the measure of the problem,” he says. “The new problem is that the more they support the Jews and claim to fight anti-Semitism publicly, the more anti-Semitism there is. As soon as the government seems to be backing Jews, to support them from anti-Semitism, some people see it as proof of a double standard in favor of Jews. It’s seen as proof the Jews are privileged in the way they are specially protected by the government. It’s a complicated situation.”
Well-intentioned cabinet ministers condemning the latest anti-Jewish attack is not enough.
“When you see the Interior Minister appearing in front of cameras, with tears in his eyes, saying anti-Semitism is bad and shouldn’t happen in a country like France, speaking as if his mother had just died, you just don’t understand,” says Weitzmann. “Where does the anti-Semitism come from? Why is it so important? What’s the real problem with anti-Semitism? No one can explain what’s specific about it, why it’s not simply racism but rather the mother of every hate. If you can’t answer those questions, you’re doomed to recite solemn words that nobody understands. It becomes a moralistic teaching that’s boring and no one cares about it.”
The French edition of the book has had a mixed reception.
“It’s ranged from calculated indifference and rampant hostility to embarrassment and enthusiasm,” says Weitzmann. “While some people have written that the book is captivating, leftist newspapers, such as Libération and Nouvel Observateur, have refused to talk about it. Some left-wing journalists accused me of lumping together Muslims and Islamists. And right-wing media, such as Le Figaro, reviewed the book but accused me of grouping together identitarians [alt-right nationalists], Islamists and anti-Semites.”
“Hate” is Weitzmann’s 11th book, following three non-fiction books and seven novels. He has spent much of his career in journalism and, in addition to his writing, he currently hosts a weekly radio show focusing on topical cultural issues. He has written extensively for French media, and spent considerable time in the United States, Israel and Brazil.
Born in Paris, Weitzmann grew up in a highly-assimilated home in Reims and Besançon in the northeast and east of France, with no Jewish education and far from any distinctly Jewish environment. His parents belonged to the French communist party, disconnected from their Jewish identity, about which they shared nothing with their children. As a result, Weitzmann had scant Jewish self-awareness in his youth.
At several points in the book, he veers from the situation in France to his upbringing and wrestling with his Jewish identity. He describes having a religious circumcision and a bar mitzvah at age 30, despite being fully secular.
“I felt the need to reconnect with history,” says Weitzmann. “The fact I was in psychoanalysis at the time played a part. What passed from my parents to me in terms of Jewishness occurred despite their will and through a series of inner conflicts affecting almost every aspect of my life, which led me to a shrink. The rest, including the circumcision and the bar mitzvah, followed. I admit it may sound hugely paradoxical, if not plain crazy, because I’m not religious at all. But crazy sometimes may be a healthy way to regain some sort of sanity.”
As the atavistic hatred of Jews surges in the 21st century, metastasizing with the times, in France and elsewhere, the situation seems to echo the French proverb “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
Weizmann’s view of the future for Jews in France – many of whom have already left for Israel and Canada in recent years due to anti-Semitism – gives little cause for optimism.
“History teaches us that Jews need liberal societies to prosper,” he says. “When populism is back, when identity politics are on the rise, the future of Jews is always at stake.”