Inside Story'Every Palestinian has a score to settle with Israel'

In France, a celebrity flame war about Israel highlights shifting attitudes

Young Palestinian woman – a Hamas advocate – enjoys an outpouring of sympathy following a wealthy Jewish TV star’s rebuke of her remarks supporting the Oct. 7 massacre

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rima Hassan, founder of the Refugees Camps Observatory (Observatoire des Camps de Réfugies - OCR), in Paris, France, November 14, 2019. (Dominique Faget / AFP)
Rima Hassan, founder of the Refugees Camps Observatory (Observatoire des Camps de Réfugies - OCR), in Paris, France, November 14, 2019. (Dominique Faget / AFP)

Two French celebrities’ online row over the Israel-Hamas war has taken an unusual turn, attracting extensive media coverage that highlighted how that conflict relates to broader trends reshaping French society.

The exchange began Sunday when the prominent French-Jewish television presenter Arthur, 57, accused the France edition of Forbes magazine of “glorifying antisemitism” by honoring a young activist who defended Hamas’s October 7 onslaught and allegedly called for Israel’s erasure.

The activist, the French-Palestinian lawyer Rima Hassan, whom Forbes added recently to its prestigious top women of 2023 list, hit back at Arthur, whose real name is Jacques Essebag, calling him a sexist “boomer” and the latest mainstream media figure to come out as a “Zionist.” On Wednesday, Hassan, who has denied allegations that she is antisemitic, announced plans to sue Arthur for defamation.

The row involving Hassan, who in a November 29 interview justified Hamas’ October 7 onslaught and denied Israel’s right to defend itself, was one of countless hostile exchanges in recent weeks on social media about the conflict.

In the filmed interview with Le Crayon, Hassan said it was “true” that Hamas’s October 7 onslaught was a “legitimate action” and that it was “false” that Israel has a right to defend itself, or that a two-state solution is possible.

A smiling Hassan said this while wearing a keffiyeh around her shoulders and holding a cup of tea during the true-or-false format interview.

On October 7, some 3,000 Hamas terrorists raided Israeli towns and cities, murdering some 1,200 people and wounding thousands more in an orgy of violence that included rape, torture and mutilation. Hamas also abducted more than 250 people, 136 of whom are still being held hostage.

Israel launched a ground offensive against Gaza, where some 26,000 people have died, according to local authorities. The unverified statistics don’t differentiate between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel said it has killed thousands.

Hassan has also repeated the “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” slogan, which many view as a call to ethnically cleanse Israel of Jews, and has said that “every Palestinian has a score to settle” with Israel.

Insight into a rent French society

The Arthur-Hassan showdown stands out: It shows how incremental developments in French society are rippling into a diversifying cultural elite and polarizing it over the Israel issue along ethnic, generational, ideological and gender lines.

Jacques Essebag aka Arthur, left, meets television executive Gilles Pelisson at a CRIF event in Paris, France on February 20, 2019. (Marin Ludovic/AFP)

It was Arthur, recently placed under police protection due to antisemitic death threats, who touched off the saga on Sunday. He wrote to his 3 million Instagram followers: “If you want Forbes France to feature you, support Hamas terrorism and be systemically antisemitic.” He called Hassan specifically an “antisemite.”

French media — including Le Figaro, 20 Minutes, Le Parisien and Yahoo! – covered the row extensively, but some ignored or downplayed Hassan’s Hamas endorsement. Instead, they appeared to frame criticism of her by Arthur — a multimillionaire who has used his stardom to amass his wealth — as an Old Guard figure silencing a newcomer.

Hassan’s own response to Arthur on X went viral with 1.2 million views and 4,500 reposts. She couched his rebuke of her in the context of progressive identity politics, noting age, gender, ethnicity and perceived power differences between her and Arthur.

French Jews install a display concerning hostages in Gaza in Paris, France on November 9, 2023. (Stefano Rellandini / AFP)

He’s “attacking a Palestinian woman only because she’s recognized for her work and progress,” she wrote in her viral reply. “He’s using his influence to kick me off the [Forbes] list […], revealing the sexism and racism of this boomer.”

Hassan, who is featured often in the French media and heads a pro-Palestinian lobby group, has repeatedly posted on social media popular, far-left talking points about Israel, calling it an “apartheid” state that’s engaged in “genocide.”

Her viral post prompted some pushback, but it also unleashed an outpouring of support for her from tens of thousands of users, including opinion shapers: the left-wing politicians Aurélien Taché and lawmaker Thomas Porte; historian Fabrice Riceputi and scholar Kaoutar Harchi.

Nadiya Lazzouni, often described as France’s first female Muslim television presenter, called Hassan “the face of dignity.” Claudy Siar, a well-known journalist and musician, wrote about Hassan’s remarks that he’s “proud” of France.

Few addressed Hassan’s endorsement of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

Demonstrators protest Israel’s actions in Gaza at a rally in Paris, France on January 6, 2024. (Dimitar Dilkoff/ AFP)

Le Monde, possibly the world’s most prestigious French-language newspaper, ignored her remarks entirely in a flattering and uncritical 1,400-word profile article it published about Hassan on January 14.

Generational warfare

France’s younger generations are likely more receptive to Hassan’s massaging than their elders, polling suggests.

In an Ifop poll from December, only 4 percent of 1,014 respondents over 50 called Hamas’ atrocities “acts of resistance” rather than terrorism compared to a whopping 22% among adults under 25. In the same demographics respectively, 29% expressed “much sympathy” for Israel compared to only 20%.

The poll, which has a 3% maximum margin of error, was conducted amid an explosion of antisemitic incidents in France. The CRIF umbrella organization of French-Jewish communities last week said that the war has caused a quadrupling of recorded incidents in 2023 over 2022.

Some pro-Israel critics noted Hassan’s Hamas endorsement. Patrick Klugman, a prominent French-Jewish lawyer and left-wing politician, took to X to call Hassan’s reply “symptomatic of the abuse of progressive codes and values to avoid the truth.” His post was viewed 122,000 times and reposted 200 times.

CRIF President Yonathan Arafi wrote on X that Hassan “looks and sounds like a progressive but pursues the fundamentalist agenda of Hamas, justifying its October 7 atrocities.”

CRIF President Yonathan Arfi speaks with the mother of an Israeli hostage during a press conference in Paris, France on November 9, 2023. (Stefano Rellandini / AFP)

Hassan replied to him that her remarks on October 7 had been “taken out of context.” Le Crayon appears to have removed the full interview, of which only snippets exist online. It didn’t immediately answer a request by The Times of Israel to view the full video.

Hassan, meanwhile, has posted several visual memes about the brouhaha. They show Adam Sandler, a Jewish-American actor, chasing a woman on the street. Sandler is labeled with the names of several of Hassan’s Jewish critics, including Arthur, and the woman as “me.”

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