Ever since France has been commemorating the Vel d’Hiv round-up, no Israeli Prime Minister had ever been invited to attend. And for good reason: the State of Israel did not exist in 1942, and the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, could scarcely have come to the aid of its endangered European cousins. The newly elected president of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macon broke new ground by inviting Benyamin Netanyahu to attend the ceremony on 16 July 2017, addressing him as “dear Bibi” and declaring: “We will make no concessions to anti-Zionism for it is the new guise of anti-Semitism.”
This statement, which conflates a crime under French law, anti-Semitism, with an opinion, anti-Zionism, opened a dangerous opportunity for those who wish to create an offence of opinion and stifle any criticism of Israel’s policies. After the efforts to criminalise the campaign Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS), will they manage to outlaw anti-Zionism?
A few weeks later, the chairman of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France, CRIF), Francis Kalifat, threw caution to the winds:
To declare that anti-Zionism is a new form of anti-Semitism is to recognise a truth that the CRIF has been hammering home for years now, in particular in our fight against BDS. It is time to stop beating about the bush and start thinking about how to prosecute this new anti-Semitism. French legislation, which is very complete when it comes to fighting ‘classical’ anti-Semitism, does not yet have the weapons to combat anti-Zionism.
And he went on to demand that the definition of anti-Semitism formulated by The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “be transposed into the French legal arsenal.” Oddly enough, the definition in question makes no mention of anti-Zionism. It comprises just two sentences:
Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
This is followed by several examples, meant to serve as “illustrations,” among them this:
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
In its annual report for 2018 on the struggle against racism, the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme (CNCDH) came out against this transposition. Because “it is not compatible with the French judiciary tradition to make such a distinction between different forms of racism”; and because “a singularisation of anti-Semitism as opposed to other forms of racism might open Pandora’s box, encouraging other groups victimised by racism to demand a similar recognition”: and because “it might undermine the universal and indivisible approach to the struggle against racism which must prevail.”
Months went by and nothing happened. Francis Kalifat refers regularly to the President’s little phrase, but the latter has never repeated it. Even at the CRIF’s annual banquet on 7 March 2018, Emmanuel Macron “‘forgot” his outrageous conflation, which deeply irritated the CRIF’s chairman. At the 76th anniversary of the Vel d‘Hiv round-up, he attacked me personally. “I want to tell Dominique Vidal who published an op-ed in Le Monde a few days ago in which he claimed that anti-Zionism is in no way an anti-Semitism but rather a school of thought that his reading of the debates in the Jewish community at the beginning of the 20th century is not only a dangerous anachronism but reveals a guilty naiveté!”
Two months earlier, a poll taken by the Institut français opinion publique (IFOP) on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, revealed that 57% of the French population “have a negative opinion of Israel” and 69% “a negative opinion of Zionism.” Anti-Semitism? As for the other major opinion polling institute, Ipsos, it found that the electorate of the Communist Party, la France insoumise (FI) and the radical left is at one and the same time the most critical of Israel and the most refractory to any form of anti-Semitism.
However, in February 2019 there occurred a series of anti-Semitic incidents: on the 9th and 10th, a graffiti ‘Juden’ (Jews) appeared on a Bagelstein eatery in Paris, swastikas on portraits of Simone Veil in Place d’Italie, while trees on the Ilan Halimi1 Memorial in the department of Essonne were cut down; on the 16th, some ‘yellow vest’ demonstrators insulted Alain Finkielkraut; and the 18th, on the morning of a demo that had been called Place de la République, 80 graves were desecrated in the Quatzenheim Jewish cemetery in Alsace.
These were all instances of symbolic rather than physical violence, but they deeply shocked public opinion. All the more so as the Minister of Interior Affairs Christophe Castaner announced that anti-Jewish acts had increased by 74% in 2018 but failed to point out that their number had declined considerably during the three previous years so that in fact anti-Semitic violence in 2018 was far less frequent than in 2015: 541 incidents as against 851. The CRIF’s reaction was to again demand a law against anti-Zionism. On 18 February, Sylvain Maillard, an MP belonging to La République en marche (LREM, the President’s party), chairman of a study group on anti-Semitism and vice-president of the Groupe d’amitié France-Israël announced that he had tabled a draft law to this end.
This attempt to force a decision through parliament met with strong opposition. Legal experts were consulted and warned against the creation of an offence of opinion which would be annulled by the Conseil Constitutionnel. Many MPs refused to be a party to this manoeuvre and leading personalities in the presidential majority, such as the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanqer, the Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubey and the speaker of the National Assembly, Richard Ferrand, expressed reservations. The media also gave voice to critical intellectuals and Le Monde even asked me to contribute an op-ed, which was quite unusual.
The Israeli ambassadress enters the fray
On the 19th the suspense came to an end. “I do not believe,” Emmanuel Macron said, “that penalising anti-Zionism would be a solution.” And Richard Ferrand was more explicit: “Enacting a law which would suggest that criticising the policies of Israel is tantamount to an offence would cause many problems [and start an] endless debate which might wind up being harmful to that just cause which is the fight against anti-Semitism.”
While this return to reason was widely praised, Aliza Ben Noun, Israeli ambassadress in Paris, tweeted an angry “clarification”: “There are no grounds for the assertion that the word ’anti-Zionism’ applies to criticisms of the policies of the Israeli government. Anti-Zionism is not the expression of a political opinion, but a denial of the legitimate national rights of the Jewish people and hence (. . .) a form of anti-Semitism (. . . )” A poison which must be “condemned in all its forms.”
In exchange for the aborted law, the President of the Republic gave the CRIF a consolation prize. On 20 February, at the organisation’s traditional banquet, he again said, “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism, and then announced that “France would implement the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.” After which he placed limits on that implementation:
There is no question of modifying the Penal Code, and certainly not of preventing people who wish to criticise (. . .). Israel’s policies from doing so, no (. . .) It is a matter of specifying and strengthening the practices of our law enforcement agencies, our magistrates, our teachers enabling them better to combat those who conceal behind their rejection of Israel their denial of Israel’s right to exist.
Failing in the National Assembly
To make sense of this balancing act we must read an interview given to Le Point by Frédéric Potier, a prefect in charge of the Délégation interministérielle à la lutte contre le racisme, l’antisémitisme et la haine anti-LGBT (Dilcrah)
The usefulness of that definition (by the IHRA) is that it refers to the hatred of Israel as a collectivity, even if it does not contain the word “anti-Zionism” as such. It allows us to qualify a part of anti-Zionist rhetoric as anti-Semitic.
Do the courts really need this? In July, on the basis of existing laws, they gave one of the men who insulted Alain Finkielkraut a suspended sentence of two months.
Clearly, Israel’s unconditional fans expect a good deal more of this official recognition of the “IHRA definition,” that it would allow them to harass anyone who criticises the policies of the State of Israel, and a fortiori calls for its boycott. Chased out the main door, Sylvain Maillard’s project has crept back through a little window. On 20 May, he tabled a draft resolution which includes the IHRA definition. Anti-Zionism is not mentioned in the text itself . . . but in the explanatory memorandum accompanying it. And to show the bad faith of its authors, they have censured the second part of the “example” devoted to criticisms of Israel: “Criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
Originally scheduled for 29 May, the discussion of this draft resolution has been postponed indefinitely. It must be pointed out that the day before, Sylvain Maillard and his colleagues Meyer Habib and Claude Goasguen organised an outright provocation: a joint press conference in a big Parisian hotel with Yossi Dogan, president of the colonists in “Samaria,” as Israel calls the northern part of the West Bank. In so doing, these MPs are not only flouting international law but also the constant policy of every French government since 1967 which has been to condemn the colonisation. The video of that encounter illustrates the cynicism of those who use the accusation of anti-Semitism to blackmail the Republic into approving Tel Aviv’s policies.
Considering he was betrayed by the postponement of the discussion, originally meant to be held after the parliamentary recess, Francis Kalifat was furious: “To fight the scourge of anti-Semitism and its reinvented guise as anti-Zionism, requires political courage”—in other words Richard Ferrand, Speaker of the National Assembly, is a coward. “Worse still,” he went on, “the resolution could now be examined in October, on condition it be rewritten, which is to say emptied of its substance!” And thereupon, he wrote a letter to the President of the Republic demanding that the resolution be adopted before the commemoration of the Vel d’Hiv round-up!
This attempt having failed, the CRIF fanatics changed hobbyhorse: they tried to tack “anti-Zionism” and “hatred of Israel’ onto a Law regulating Internet which was then under discussion. But on 3 July, the Assembly voted against their amendments. At which point, Meyer Habib insulted his fellow MPs: “There are many speeches, but not much action. With some MPs, their hatred of Israel is practically instinctive, a knee-jerk reaction. For a huge majority of the others, it’s a lack of political courage.”2
At this point in time, the chairman of the CRIF admitted his defeat:
The Speaker of the National Assembly and the presidential majority have surrendered to the pressure exerted by the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel lobby (which deliberately confuses delegitimisation and political criticism) and the unchecked activism of supporters of the criminal campaign to boycott Israel (BDS) which prospers with utter impunity in our country and has produced a well-known consequence: the rise in the number of anti-Semitic acts prompted by the demonisation and hatred of the State of Israel.
No doubt that as parliament reconvenes, Francis Kalifat will bounce back and try to push through the Maillard resolution.