Antisemitism and Islamophobia in France:
Responsibility of Religious Leaders in the Fight Against these Dangers
Chief Rabbi René-Samuel SIRAT,
Former Chief Rabbi of France
The Moderator of our Council has given me the honor of reflecting upon the problem of antisemitism and islamophobia in France, issues that unfortunately are burning topics.
We are faced with a challenge directed at the whole civil society, especially at religious communities. The publications made during these last years regarding these societal problems are numerous, to such a degree that it is difficult to develop a reflection concerning this subject containing a minimum of originality. Nevertheless, I will, within the time that I dispose of, try to formulate some issues to explore:
I will make my reflection three-partite:
- Contemporary antisemitism
- The responsibility of religious leaders facing these delusions.
I / Antisemitism
It is a platitude to repeat that this social disease named antisemitism has been an old European tendency since the High Middle Ages. Until today, the Jewish communities of Western Europe have kept the memory of persecutions of the epoch of the crusades in their liturgy. In the Ashkenazi synagogues, i.e., in the synagogues of Germany, Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Check Republic and many other countries, the prayer for the martyrs of Worms, Mayence and Spire is still recited every Saturday. In fact, one recalls that the crusaders, on their way to free the tomb of Christ, left in ruins the Jewish communities along the Rhine and Northern France. The antisemitism then moved towards Spain and Portugal. Let us remember the different Jewish expulsions during the Middles Ages: Expulsion from England in 1290, from France in 1306 and 1314; from Spain in 1492; and from Portugal in 1497.
Afterwards, the persecutions moved towards the East. In 1648, there was a pogrom lead by Chmielnicki, followed by the pogroms of the end of the 19th century in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, culminating with the pogrom of Kichinev in 1903 including the Shoah, whose memory is present among all our contemporaries.
We should remember that these persecutions did not have the approval of all the religious authorities. We will emphasize the courageous attitude of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century including the somewhat forgotten one, of Louis XVI saying to the Comte de Malesherbes who had just edited the Tolerance Edict for the Protestants: "Until now I had made Protestants of you, from now on, I make you Jewish." Also in France, Abbot Gregory made great efforts to return to the Jews their dignity, which had been offended. In 1790, the National Assembly made the French Jews citizens. This considerable progress extended gradually during the 19th century to the whole of Europe, except from Tsarist Russia.
Among the founders of Protestantism, it is appropriate to remember that, if Luther became a strong antisemite towards the end of his life, Calvin, on the contrary, had clearly a more reserved, and much more favourable, attitude towards Judaism.
At the end of the 19th century, French Judaism had to face the exacerbation of antisemitism following the Dreyfus Affair and even after the rehabilitation of the dishonored calumniated captain. However, let us not forget that France mobilized strongly, and that, faced with the fraud, courageous men fought to let the truth win, thus saving the honor of France.
Our generation thought that after the Shoah and horror of the gas chambers and cremation ovens, this subject was closed. We thought that antisemitism had died in the flames around Hitler's suicide in 1944. Then, insidiously, it returned. Jean-Marie Le Pen started to affirm that the cremation ovens were a detail in History. The revisionist historians started to work to support the monstrous thesis that denied the existence of Shoah. Besides, in 1975, we experienced the lowly accusation formulated in UNESCO and the UN, stating as a mathematic postulate that Zionism was equal to racism. Then a demonizing of Israel gradually took place. Naturally, anyone is free to criticize aspects of the Israeli politicies that should not deserve any impunity or any privileges. That is obvious! The Biblical rule prohibiting the application of an unjust law of discrimination must be respected. And especially the easy amalgam between the Israelis and Jews must not become a common reason for condemning both parties.
However, it is appropriate to draw attention to the fact that a fundamental change took place in Europe after the Second World War. In fact, a handful of religious leaders gathered in 1947 in Seelisberg in order to prepare the foundation for Jewish-Christian friendship. The Catholics and the Protestants that participated in this historical conference were still impregnated by the atmosphere that prevailed during the time of the German occupation. Men of honor, "Righteous men among the nations", only listened to their conscience and the values of their religious faith or the principles that the School of the Republic had taught them. They revolted, risking their lives, against the unjust laws established by the Germans, or, even worse, by the governments installed by them, such as the Vichy regime. They saved thousands of Jews, including thousands of Jewish children. The gestures of repentance that followed, by both the Catholic and Protestant churches, were numerous and culminated with a pilgrimage by Pope Jean-Paul II to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The Jewish-Christian dialogue then extended to the large Christian Orthodox community, even though; there is still a long way to go.
I had the honor of participating in the historical encounter that took place in Geneva in 1986, co-lead by Cardinal Albert Decourtray, whose untimely death is very regretted and President Théo Klein, and where also Cardinal Macharsky, Arch-bishop of Crakow, Lustiger, Arch-bishop of Paris and Daneels, Primate of Belgium, and other important persons representing French, Belgian and Italian Judaism participaated. Having obtained the transfer of the Carmelite convent at the Auschwitz, outside the camp area, which was the symbol of the destruction of European Judaism, is an event which made a great impression on the Jewish and Christian conscience.
Besides, we have repeatedly heard the affirmation of the Jewish origin of Christianity and the reminder of the parable of the olive tree formulated by St. Paul.
Unfortunately, however, we experience today an antisemitism in France which is strongly developing, and which has its origin in very different environments.
There is an old, traditional antisemitism which has survived like remains from the big wave of antisemitism from before the Second World War and which is now seen more and more openly. (It is possible to refer to, as an example, the recent Bruno Gollnisch declaration , made by an important member of the National Front, which put in doubt the victims of the Shoah in the gas chambers).
However, the solemn declarations of President Jacques Chirac and the members of his successive governments - one would recall the Gayssot Law and more recently the Lellouche Law adopted unanimously by the French Parliament - show the willingness of the public powers not to let themselves be drawn into a delusion, the consequences of which were tragic in the past and risk to become tragic again.
The second source of antisemitism originates from the suburbs of the big cities where poor people live. Since the second Intifada, the young people - and the not so young - regularly experience on television the permanent and unconditional condemnation of Israel by journalists. Most often, the latter fail to mention that Israel is subjected to violence and must respond strongly to bloody attacks, counter attacks which unfortunately often result in the death of innocent people as well as in the death of those responsible for the attack. Unfortunately, these inhabitants of the suburbs are taken by a feeling of increased and frenetic hatred against Israel. Taking up the old reflex (?) of the crusaders who wanted to free the Holy Tumb (Holy Grave) and who started by attacking Jews they encountered on their way, they attacked synagogues and community centers of the towns where, until then, harmony had prevailed with their Jewish fellow citizens. The attitude of the Muslim Communities in France in 1990-1991, during the first Golf War and the war of recent years is sufficient to imagine the terrible degradation and the increasing disappearance of the peaceful co-habitation between Jews and Muslims.
In 1967, during the Six-Day War, in the urban quarter of Belleville in Paris where people started to get agitated, it was sufficient that Chief Rabbi Chouchena (then Rabbi of Belleville) accompanied by the Consul of Algeria in Paris, made a friendly tour to re-establish the calm and friendship between the communities. Unfortunately, we are far from this now.
Teaching tolerance and "Living Together" in the schools of the French Republic is far from what it should be. The educational authorities, as well as the religious and spiritual leaders, need to reflect strongly in order to match the challenge, and they must realize that too much time has been lost.
There is another source of antisemitism, a relatively recent, but perhaps a more intense one. I am talking about the hatred of Israel and of Zionism directed by the extreme left and by groups strongly related to laicity. After the war, there was a movement in France named Movement against Racism, Antisemitism and for Peace (MRAP). This nice title entailed an entire program. While keeping the abbreviation, the leaders of the movement reformulated it as follows: Movement against Racism and for Friendship between the Peoples. Undoubtedly, friendship between the peoples is valid for all the peoples of the world, except for the Jewish people. In fact, it was during a meeting organized by the MRAP in October 2000 that, for the first time since the last war, the clamor for "Death to the Jews" was heard in the streets of Paris. Later on, young people belonging to the Jewish left-wing movement, Hachomer Hatsaïr, were attacked during another demonstration, this time against the war in Iraq.
Very recently, the director of Radio France Internationale explained, during a number of conferences to promote the book he just published, that the security wall erected in Israel to diminish the number of terrorist attacks, originated in a Bible text regarding the separation between the pure and the impure. Here is what he dares declare : If you take a look at the Levite in Torah, what is that? The separation between the pure and the impure. A Jew, in order to pray, must be pure; anything that contradicts this purity must be separated ( ) Read the Leviticus, it is written in all the scriptures) . He also accuses the Jews of the Venice ghetto of having built the walls of the ghetto themselves in order to separate themselves from the other inhabitants of the town: Which was the first ghetto in the world? It was in Venice. Who founded it? The Jews themselves (sic) in order to separate themselves from the rest. Later on, Europe put them into ghettos. Thus, the anti-Jewish persecutions would never have existed and the ghetto was a result of the racist will of the Jews of the Middle Ages to separate themselves from the non-Jews. Can one imagine such a misleading revisionism knowing that the Jews of Europe have suffered for hundreds of centuries being locked up against their will - in crammed ghettos and living in a terrible promiscuity?
It is also enough to read newspapers: daily and weekly news, publications on paper or online, to be horrified by the anti-Israeli delusions (often under the cover of anti-Zionism) or the thriving anti-Semitism. The condemnation of steps taken by the Israeli government to respond to a dramatic increase in terrorism justifies, in the opinion of those responsible for the newspapers, all these accusations.
Recently, le Monde thought felt obliged to publish a letter to the editor. The letter had the following title on the first page: Sharon's revisionism, a letter written in contempt of the Israeli Prime Minister for his statement concerning the aggressive antisemitism that, according to him, prevails in France. However, the word revisionism has assumed such a connotation that using it in this context expresses a willingness to harm.
In this respect, it is; however, appropriate, to give credit to the report on racism and antisemitism written by Jean-Christophe Rufin on the request of the Minister of the Interior. In this report, the author sharply criticizes those who justify the radical anti-Zionism which he names antisemitism per procuration .
Of course - the absence of political perspectives on peace is a misfortune for the Israelis as well as for the Palestinians. Of course, the innocent victims, Israelis or Palestinians - victims that are not to be confused with terrorist suicide bombers - are an offense in the name of God who is Shalom-Salam-Paix. But is that a reason for always condemning Israel and constantly present the Palestinian leaders as innocent? I would like to quote for the journalists the statement from the Talmud: Would the blood of the Israeli victims be less red than the blood of the Palestinian victims? Does not the blood of all innocent victims shout with the same strength to the Supreme Master of Llife?
On the other hand, unfortunately, some Israeli rabbis who make statements that are highly condemnable, preaching civil disobedience when Prime Minister Sharon maintains, in any case, his decision to return Gaza to the Palestinians.
Let me present some quick reflections concerning the growth of islamophobia in France. Here too, we have to go back in history.
Faced with the hatred that existed between Christians and Muslims in the high Middle Ages, it is appropriate to remember the words of Peter the Venerable, bishop of Cluny (13th century): "We come to fight the Sarrazins, not with weapons, but with love". But the war continued raging, and if the hatred has declined somewhat, we have experienced during the recent decades that the hostile feelings of the Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croates towards the Bosnian and Albanian Muslims have not lost any of their acuity and has revitalized a centuries old conflict.
Let us also remember also that King Boabdil of Grenade, who abdicated when confronted with Isabel the Catholic in January 1492, required, as the only condition of his surrender, that no harm would be done to neither his Muslims nor his Jewish subjects.
The queen agreed but turned out to be perjurious, because in August, the same year, she declared the Edict of Expulsion, giving the Jews and the Muslims no choice other than conversion or exile. Some years later, the King of Portugal made the choice even more tragic: conversion or death.
Concerning the Turkish Empire, the Christian states experienced periods of relative calm and periods of tension. The Balkan region experienced these periods in a tragic way.
During the 19th century, extensive colonization restored the contact of the Christian colonizers, French, English, German or Italians, with the Muslim populations of North Africa and Africa South of Sahara. The colonizers believed, in good faith, that they would bring progress and science to Muslim populations, often illiterates and in any case, demonstrating a great setback compared to the magnificent Muslim civilization of the first centuries of the Hegira. But such a power balance could not last eternally. During my childhood and later my adolescence, in Algeria, I experienced the development of integration and still, I could witness the great religious tolerance that existed at that time between the communities. One of the most beautiful lessons of religious instruction that I experienced during my childhood was given to me by a Muslim, a simple donut seller. I was nine years of age and my mother, whose memory I worship, had given me a 2 penny coin to buy a donut after my prayer in the synagogue. The service started at six o'clock in the morning, and before going to school at eight o'clock, I went as usual to the donut seller next to the synagogue. I asked him to make me a donut. After having agreed, the baker stood still with his arms crossed. I suspected wrongly that he wanted to verify if I had money to pay and I took the money demonstratively out of my pocket. The seller smiled, but he still did not move. I said to him that if he wouldn't start to fry my donut, I would have to skip my breakfast in order not to be late for school. Then, he said to me, in Arabic: "Would you forget the rules of your religion today?" Confused, I looked at him, and then I understood the lesson: It was in fact the tradition to participate, even if only symbolically, in the production of the donut, in order to emphasize the importance and the value of work. We therefore used to through a handful of sawdust into the fireplace. As long as I hadn't done this symbolic gesture, my interlocutor would not start. This donut has become my own madeleine.
Millions of Muslims of North Africa have lived at the time of the French civilization and experienced the willingness to assimilate. They twice responded to the appeal of an endangered France. Those with origins in the North-African populations who Died for France are numerous.
On May 8th, 1945, as the Europeans in Algeria celebrated the end of the war and the victory of the Allied, the Muslim populations demanded the recognition of their civil rights. More precisely, they demanded a certain equality of rights. The authorities responded to their demonstration with heavy bursts of rifle fire in Sétif (department of Constantine). The repression then aggravated in the region of Constantine as a consequence of the nomination of Prefect Papon. Papon has been condemned since for crimes against humanity due to his abominable behavior in Bordeaux in connection with the deportation of the Jews of the town. In Constantine, the same prefect was responsible for the candidates of the party in favor of the reforms demanded by the Algerians (Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratique, MTLD - Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Rights) being beaten in the second round of the elections. Algeria then experienced a situation which would have been comic if it had not been so dramatic: The candidates of this movement, who, in the first round, in some places had obtained an average of 30 to 40% of the votes, experienced that the number of their electors decreased drastically eight days later, during the second round. By the way, this happened nearly all over Algeria.
The same prefect, unfortunately still the same, who in 1961 became police prefect in Paris, was accused of murdering by drowning, near the Billancourt bridge at Boulogne, close to Paris, of many FLN demonstrators who were in favour of the independence of Algeria.
We must also remember the practice of torture in Algeria by the French military forces. General Aussarèsse sadly became famous by declaring having exported the "know-how" that he had acquired in Algeria, to Latin-America.
Besides, from the beginning of the 1950s, Algeria was the place where increasingly terrible violence by the members of the FLN took place. On November 1st, 1954, an atrocious assassination of two French teachers took place marking the signal of the Algerian revolt leading to numerous deaths, destruction and hatred, culminating in the beginning of the 1960s with the independence of Algeria. My family paid a high price for this explosion of violence. My brother, leaving a synagogue on a Friday evening, was assassinated in Constantine by the FLN, under horrible circumstances.
The hatred increased during the combats. While some shouted: "The suitcase or the coffin" others shouted: "Death to the Arabs!" This hatred has caused an antagonism which has not been overcome, because the integration of the Maghrebines in France was far from a total success. In addition, at the end of the Algerian war, there were dramas experienced by the Harkis, Algerians in auxiliary forces who had fought in order for Algeria to remain French. We have seen, with great sadness, the failure of the pedagogic principle of tolerance in the multi-society that the French society represents today. The Jews, who were in between and thus per definition more likely to experience the friction between the Christian community and the secular association on one side and the Magrebines on the other, were then highly exposed, like always in the history of Europe.
However, it would not be fair to conceal certain speeches in the mosques that, far from working for the necessary reconciliation and declaring that fraternity between members of a society is a religious duty, are too often characterized by a will to revenge and, we have been told, including hatred. We have been told that, in certain cases, fortunately rarely, some have gone as far as recruiting people to the terrorist movement Al Qaïda. Muslim intellectuals have given ambiguous statements that do not always facilitate the return of order and calm.
Fortunately, some important persons, among whom I will mention my friend the Rector of the Paris Mosque and President of the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (French Council for the Muslim Religion), Si Dalil Boubakeur, dare speak loudly and clearly to affirm the values of moderate Islam. On all occasions, they preach tolerance and respect for others. In addition, the recent law regarding the religious symbols in secular schools, of which one could fear the unpleasant consequences for peace in the city, seems to be recognized and understood by nearly everyone.
As soon as calm has returned, there is no doubt that the Jewish community will re-establish its role as peacemaker and catalyst between the contradictory forces inside the nation.
III/Responsibility of the religious leaders
What can we do, faced with antisemitism and islamophobia?
First of all, it is the duty of men of religion not to despair. That would be a crime of someone in the service of their religious position and office that they have freely chosen. Only the repeated declaration of the fundamental values of the monotheist religions that overlap entirely can provide a glimpse of hope. Jews, Chistians and Muslims constantly declare that the one who saves a life is considered as having saved the whole humanity and the one who ends a human life is as guilty as if he destroyed the whole humanity. This quotation is found word by word in the Michna and in the Koran. It is also declared several times in the basic Christian texts.
Men of religion must also be very active teaching the values of tolerance and love to our fellows in the educational system. One should start with the easiest thing to do, i.e. in the framework of the confessional schools. We should also open up for "the Other", still within the framework of this teaching, by making the young co-citizens get to know better the confession that do not belong to themselves, including - and they are in majority - those who do not belong to any confession. Young students should get a wider knowledge of the moral and ethical values of the other monotheist religions and the moral and ethical values of the confessionless young people
Spiritual and religious leaders have a duty to speak out loudly and clearly when the delusions occur within their own group. We must remember the teaching of the rabbis regarding a biblical verse: Beautify yourself before demanding that others do so . It is the parable of "Let me pull the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thy own eye" that was taken up later by Christianity.
We have to emphasize the necessity not to keep silent when faced with delusion and falsifications of history and contemporary events.
Finally, is it permitted to dream?
The education of religious leaders - of all religions - should be carried out according to a dual program, consisting of a deep religious culture, accompanied by a no less deep general culture. Since this general culture demands knowledge of literature, linguistics, philosophy, history, sociology, why not consider this education to be common for future priests, pastors, rabbis and imams? That would allow much more frequent encounters between the religious leaders of the new generation. A better mutual knowledge will naturally lead the religious communities to tolerance, fraternity and love for our fellowmen, which is what we desire.
Amélie Nothomb, a writer with great success, writes in the Biography of Hunger : The word is a weapon, the dialogue a war, the sentence a conquest.
I tend to take a firm stance against this declaration. For us, men of religion, the word is an opening towards the Other. One must refer to the verse of Genesis (XXI, 7) in which the root M L L formulated for the first time, means exactly this.
Dialogue is the antidote of war. It is the bridge that connects one human being with another. The Prophet Malachie emphasizes: Then [at the time of Redemption] man will speak to his fellowman and the Lord will hear their statements which will be written in the memorial in front of the Lord, remembering the merits of those who feared Him and honored his name.
Finally, the sentence brings harmony between the heart, the spirit and the word, allows healing of human consciences and leads them to abandon all thought of conquest. It urges them to make a universal peace declaration as the Prophet Jesaja teaches : God creates man's lips [which pronounces the benediction of peace]: Peace, peace to the one who is far away, as well as to the one who is close, says the Lord, and I will heal you.