PARIS (AFP) — Watching anti-Semitism rise again across Europe, the acclaimed author Joann Sfar doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“When I was growing up in France, hating the Jews was something repugnant; now it’s almost the consensus,” said the French graphic novelist and director of the film “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.”
“Anti-Semitism has become a way of bringing together people who have nothing else in common but can unite” under that banner, said Sfar with bitter irony.
The writer of the bestselling “The Rabbi’s Cat” books decided to tackle his fears head-on with the oldest Jewish weapon of all — humor — in his new satirical novel.
“The Last European Jew” turns on the elderly Desire Abergel, who has had enough of being a Jew and wants to become an anti-Semite like everybody else.
He even goes as far as asking a cosmetic surgeon to remake his lost foreskin.
The colorful cast of characters includes a female English rabbi who specializes in getting divorces for Hasidic lesbians.
There is also a completely unfunny stand-up comedian called Donnemoidufric — which means “give me the cash” in French — who may or may not be based on Dieudonne, a convicted anti-Semite who has a cult following in France.
“I am terrified of boring my readers,” Sfar told AFP.
Having given up long ago “the desire to win them over and convince them. I don’t write as an activist, or to change the world,” he added.
“I love the idea of creating dread and making people laugh at the same time,” admitted the polymath, whose father Andre is famous for prosecuting neo-Nazis.
Laugh at everything
He said his guiding principle was a famous line by the great French humorist and avowed fatalist Pierre Desproges, who said: “You can laugh about anything but not with everybody.”
“Happily there are enough people around today who are still able to laugh at everything and who have absolutely not been taken in,” the 48-year-old added.
That said, he is seeing more and more worrying signs.
“Twenty or 30 years ago the Jewish community was terrified by every anti-Semitic attack and would talk about it, sometimes too much, and would get lots of sympathy,” said Sfar.
“Today it’s the reverse. Jews know very well that when you denounce an anti-Jewish act, it is going to provoke more of them,” he insisted.
He notes that after the 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse by an Islamist gunman who killed four people, “all Jewish schools in France got threatening letters and anonymous calls.”
The Jewish section of the Nice cemetery where Sfar’s own mother is buried was desecrated, he said.
“The Jewish community knows well that every time they dare to denounce anti-Semitism, it is going to be punished,” Sfar despaired.
“Even among people who are close to me, even my friends, there was a deafening silence. I get the feeling that our old allies are now saying to us, ‘Sorry, we have done what we can.'”
All the while, anti-Semitic tropes from the past are making a comeback, he said.
“I am amazed by the enjoyment with which some people now pronounce certain Jewish surnames, the way they love to say Rothschild when they talk about [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s time” working for the merchant bank.
“I have no great sympathy for Macron but I wish he had worked for HSBC,” Sfar joked.
But there are things even he finds difficult to laugh at.
Sfar said he was shocked at the images he saw from the Aalst carnival in Belgium last month where revelers dressed as Nazi SS officers in pigtails or as Orthodox Jewish “ants” with giant fur hats and fake noses carrying the Western Wall.
While the organizers said there was nothing anti-Semitic about the fancy dress, Sfar said it sent chills down his spine.
“What struck me most was the smile of those guys done up as the SS. That smile is the laugh of the pogrom, the laugh that prepares the ground for the massacre,” he said.
“We have got to stop saying that stupidity and a lack of education are excuses for hate,” he insisted.
Sfar said he was profoundly pessimistic about the way things were going.
“There is a moment when the wave of hate becomes inexorable,” he warned.
“We are nowhere near the end of these horrors, it’s going to go on.”