JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2008

 

ANTI-SEMITISM: A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES

 

by Myriam Miedzian

 

My interest in French anti-Semitism dates back to November, 2005, when I and a long list of others received an e-mail informing us that “only the Arab countries are more toxically anti-Semitic than France” and urging a boycott of France and everything French. A long list of anti-Semitic incidents followed. Metropolitan Paris alone, said the e-mail, had seen ten to twelve anti-Jewish incidents per day.

 

The figure didn’t make sense. My older daughter is married to a French Jew and lives in one of the most Jewish neighborhoods in Paris. Neither of them had ever mentioned any anti-Semitic incidents. If there were more than ten anti-Jewish incidents occurring in Paris each day, surely many would take place in their neighborhood and on their street. Their building has a ‘glatt cacher” (kosher) market downstairs, and the sign on the competition across the street boasts, ‘super glatt cacher.’ The street is lined with kosher pizza parlors, a kosher bakery-café, a kosher Chinese restaurant, a Judaica store. Orthodox men wear yarmulkes, and often their tzitzis are visible. On Saturday nights, the streets are filled with Orthodox youngsters. All this in an integrated neighborhood with many Muslim and African residents.

 

I called my daughter and asked if she had been concealing anything. “No way,” she said. Neither she nor her husband had ever witnessed or heard of an anti-Semitic act in their neighborhood.

 

I knew that the e-mail’s comparisonof France to Arab countries was absurd. I am a Holocaust refugee-survivor, born in Belgium. I studied at the Sorbonne and still keep up with French news. France has had three Jewish prime ministers. Many government officials have been either Jewish or part-Jewish (including Sarkozy). Of three contenders for the Socialist candidacy in the 2007presidential election, one was Jewish and one was half-Jewish. The corps of leading French intellectuals and writers include numerous Jews. Not exactly comparable to Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

 

After my initial indignation, I didn’t give the e-mail much thought, viewing it simply as one more manifestation of the French-bashing (“freedom fries,” dumping French wines, “Kerry looks French”) that had become so common in the U.S. since France had opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But a year later, I received another e-mail entitled, “News from France — Disgusting and Unbelievable.” The sender claimed to be forwarding an e-mail from a French Jew stating that “nowhere have the flames of anti-Semitism burned more furiously than in France.”

 

Again there was a long list of “re-cent” anti-Semitic incidents: “In Montpelier, the Jewish religious center was firebombed; so were synagogues in Strasbourg and Marseilles all recently . . .” Again there was the claim of ten to twelve incidents daily in metropolitan Paris during the past month. Yet these “recent” incidents were identical to the ones in the 2005 e-mail!

 

France, like many European countries, underwent a huge increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 219 in 2001 to 936 in 2002.

Since most of the perpetrators were young Muslim men, this outbreak was widely interpreted as a reaction to the start of the second intifada in Israel and the occupied territories in September, 2000. Since 2002, the rates have fluctuated significantly, averaging 672 per year, according to French government statistics, which are based on their data combined with figures collected by the Jewish organization, Conseil Representatif des Français Juifs (CRIF).

 

The 2002 increase was widely reported in the U.S. press, as was the French government’s initial denial and failure to take action. Not widely reported was the fact that by 2003, the government and police were actively combating anti-Semitic acts.

Many Americans’ view of the situation is frozen in 2002.

 

In the U.S., meanwhile, anti-Semitic acts have remained relatively steady, with 1,571 incidents in 1997, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and an average of 1,672 between 2003 and 2006. The 2005 FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicate that 68.5 percent of U.S. religious bias attacks were against Jews, and of the 971 Jews victimized, about half were victims of assaults or aggravated assaults.

 

After making the necessary population adjustments, it appears that France’s rate of anti-Semitic incidents is approximately twice that of the U.S. Comparing statistics is fraught with difficulty, however, with countries varying significantly in collection methods and reporting. Still, it seems safe to say that France has a considerably more serious problem.

 

This fails to explain, however, why some American Jews feel the need to exaggerate grossly the scope of France’s problem and to focus, until very recently, almost exclusively on France — to the notable exclusion of Germany. In fact, German government statistics indicate that the average number of anti-Semitic acts committed by right-wing activists alone in Germany from 2003 to 2006 was 1,452 per year. This is much higher, after population adjustments, than the French average, and acts committed by German Muslims are not even included!

 

American Jews also tend to downplay and even ignore anti-Semitism here at home. While the 2002 surge in anti-Semitism in France continues to receive considerable attention, a U.S. incident that same year — a California resident of Egyptian origin killed two and injured three at the Los Angeles Airport El Al counter —is largely forgotten. And in 2006 — the same year that a 23-year-old Parisian Jew, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by a mostly Muslim youth gang — Naveed Haq burst into the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, yelling “I am a Muslim American, angry at Israel!” He shot and killed Annual Campaign Director Pam Waechter and injured five others, three seriously.

 

I recently conducted an informal survey of over thirty well-informed Americans, mostly Jew, including leading figures from progressive Jewish organizations and publications. My goal was to find out whether they remembered any serious anti-Semitic incident that occurred in the U.S. in 2006. Most common response: “I think a cemetery was desecrated.” Not one brought up the Seattle shootings. Many had never heard of them, or when reminded had only a faint memory. Far more had heard of Ilan Halimi.

 

Why were so many Americans, especially Jews, unaware of the Seattle shootings? Part of the answer lies in the fact that they occurred on the same day as Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rantings, which received far more ongoing coverage. The other part of the answer lies in the Anti-Defamation League’s focus on the French rather than the American tragedy.

 

After Halimi’s death, the ADL issued a press release about “the brutal murder of Ilan Halimi,” extended condolences to the family and the French Jewish community, and invited Halimi’s mother to New York to meet with prominent American and French figures and the press. ADL Executive Director Abraham Foxman addressed her compassionately, then reeled off a litany of Jews killed in recent years: “congregants in Buenos Aires, Daniel Pearl, a volunteer at a Jewish charity in Seattle — and now Ilan.”

 

Not only were Pam Waechter’s adult children and those Seattle survivors well enough to travel not invited to this or any ADL gathering, but Foxman was so out of touch that Waechter, a full-time Federation employee for nine years, became a nameless “volunteer at a Jewish charity in Seattle.” This inattention was in keeping with the organization’s initial July 28th press release about the Seattle shooting, which called it “a terrible tragedy” without giving names or identifying that one had been murdered and three others critically injured.

 

One couldn’t very well argue that the Seattle tragedy was getting so much attention in the U.S. and the Paris killing so little in France that the ADL wanted to balance the scales. According to CRIF, after Halimi’s death, two hundred thousand people, including many high-level government, union, and other officials, participated in a march in Paris against anti-Semitism and racism.

 

Disturbed by this double standard, I called the Seattle Jewish Federation and interviewed Campaign Coordinator Carol Goldman, who had been shot in the knee. She told me that while she and her colleague, Cheryl Stumbo (shot in the abdomen), were still suffering from their injuries, they alone were well enough to return to work full-time. Neither Christina Rexrod, also wounded in the abdomen, nor 23-year-old Layla Bush, who had a bullet lodged in her spine and had lost parts of her kidney, liver, and pancreas and all of her spleen, were back. Dayna Klein, pregnant at the time of the shootings, had put her arm on her abdomen. Her arm was injured but her fetus survived. She is home taking care of her son.

 

The Seattle survivors are grateful for the emotional and financial support received from individuals and organizations in Seattle and Washington state, as well as from other parts of the country and world — Goodman mentions Canada and Israel. 

But they are aware, she says, that many have never heard about their tragedy: “We were a little blurb on the screen and then it faded.”

 

American Jews have long enjoyed a ‘Golden Era.’ After the virulent and very popular anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, in the 1950s Jewish writers, artists and culture became mainstream. University quota systems were eliminated, as were “No Jews or Dogs Allowed” signs. Jews have now been comfortable for so long, it seems that a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign has been internalized, leading them to believe that while France has a serious problem with anti-Semitism, the U.S. has only Mel Gibson and cemetery desecrations. But FBI statistics tell a different story: Approximately 1,000 Jews are victims of violent assaults or serious threats every year.

 

A 2002 ADL survey indicates that negative attitudes toward Israel and a belief that Jews have too much influence on U.S. Middle East policies are now driving anti-Semitic beliefs in America. This can only have increased, since the disastrous Iraq war is connected in many people’s minds with Jewish neoconservatives and Israel’s interests. Mearsheimer and Walt’s recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which mistakenly lays the blame for the Iraq war almost entirely on the Israel Lobby, can only worsen the situation.

 

American Jews are right to be concerned with anti-Semitism worldwide, but wouldn’t it make sense to move away from an obsession with France and focus more on Germany? Most importantly, focusing on foreign anti-Semitism should not blind us to our own problems.

 

Myriam Miedzian is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. A former professor of philosophy, she writes frequently on social and political issues.Her website is www.myriammiedzian.com