I am one of the founders of the French edition of Slate, I am Jewish, I’m much older than Rachael Levy, and I am profoundly attached to my country and its secularism. I don’t believe, bien au contraire, that anti-Semitism has its origins in secularism. To be sure, our model has its flaws. But it should not be such a foil if France is now also home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities.
Secularism is not a dogma, but rather a response to the desire to integrate people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds into the same society around the same values that are precisely not religious. As for anti-Semitism, it is primarily the result of thousands of years of bloody competition between religions, which, by definition, all believe they alone hold the truth. Secularism’s great virtue is its attempt to remove this clash from the public sphere.
Levy confuses historical anti-Semitism (both religious and political) which has permeated Europe for 2,000 years with anti-Judaism, which has arisen much more recently as a result of the creation of the state of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Levy’s view, as an American journalist, is almost Manichean, obscuring the complexity of French society. It ignores the fact that Napoleon was the first in Europe to emancipate the Jews; that during the Dreyfus affair, France was cut in half and those who supported Dreyfus won; and that if the Nazi occupation saw many French collaborate, it also saw other French from the left and right risk their lives to save Jews, my parents among them.
For Levy, the murders of Jews in Toulouse reflect France’s inability to admit the permanence of anti-Semitism perceived in both everyday behavior and its history. (Her article provoked many critical comments, thus proving that she, as we sometimes say, put the finger where it hurts.) The historic wounds of anti-Semitism are clearly far from closed. The Jews of the Second World War and their children all lived under the betrayal of the Vichy regime. And anti-Semitism is still fed today from accusations that the Jews exploit the Holocaust and hold a “double allegiance” with the state of Israel.
But this doesn’t validate Levy’s thesis, which is also not really new in the United States. As a Jewish American who has lived in France for several years, Levy made this thesis her own in good faith, but she is wrong.
Europe and the United States do not have the same history and the same references. Religious communities fleeing persecutions built the United States. They suffered to create a country where ethnic and religious communities generally live in harmony. It took two centuries to get to that point.
European history is the result of 3,000 years of bloody struggles for political and religious power, which gave birth in the last century to the two most frightening and deadly totalitarianisms the world has known. Our European societies are forged in iron by this history. And one of the most recent chapters in that history—the history of decolonization—has now led to a new tensions as the formerly colonized come to live in the old countries of the colonizers.
Anti-Semitism, because of this history, has two very distinct sources. First, there is the historic anti-Semitism of religious origin, as Christianity built itself as the successor and replacement of Judaism. The Jews who didn’t accept the new religion were an unbearable challenge to Christian dogma—a “witnessing people” as it were. This Christian anti-Semitism found a political translation, in France and in the rest of Europe, from the 18th to the 20th centuries. A right-wing anti-Semitism accuses the Jews of destroying French identity from the inside, and a left-wing anti-Semitism blames the Jews for fostering a destructive capitalism.
These prejudices were met and are met still, it must be said, with considerable success. All you have to do is wander into the dark corners of the Internet where, as everyone knows, the ugliest face of our societies and collective unconscious hides.
That said, in the Western countries marked by rising secularism and a sense of guilt born out of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism faded from the public and political sphere. That is at best a cultural reflex. In this sense, the Jewish question, which agitated the philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries and drove the birth of Zionism, no longer arises.
But the last half-century has seen the surge of another type of anti-Semitism, or, more precisely, another anti-Judaism less underground and more uninhibited, because it avoids the inherited guilt of the Holocaust. It comes from the Arab Muslim world and has its origins in the existence of Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the scapegoating of Jews as the cause of all the problems in the Arab world.
This modern anti-Semitism recycles, of course, many of the old theses—sometimes the word “Zionist” replaces the word “Jew”—but contrary to historical anti-Semitism, this time the political precedes the religious.
Levy’s mistake is to mix these two currents of anti-Semitism into one. When I was a correspondent in the United States in 2002, I remember the difficulty I had explaining to Americans that the upsurge of anti-Semitic acts in France had nothing to do with the fact that the xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the French presidential election.
These crimes were carried out by young thugs from the French Muslim community who identified with the second Intifada, while Le Pen had campaigned against the immigration of Muslims themselves.
Nevertheless, I would like to thank Levy for her courage, her candor, and for an outside view on a question that remains painful in our past and present. The virulence of the reactions to her article illustrates the strength of French feeling, more or less repressed, about anti-Semitism. It remains simply impossible for many to do anything other than consider Jews as either victims or perpetrators. Indeed, Levy’s argument sparked powerful emotions even among members of our editorial staff at Slate.fr. Clearly, we cannot consign anti-Semitism as being a thing of the past or an evil only perpetrated by jihadists. And it is that ambiguity that probably provokes such strong reactions.