The Magazine

Black October

The unreported attacks against the Jews of France.

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By MICHEL GURFINKIEL
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For all their antipathy toward Jews, however, the radical Muslims of France probably would not have unleashed a pogrom without what they saw as the backing of the powers that be. The fact is that most of the political class in France has sided with the Palestinians in the current Middle East crisis. President Jacques Chirac, a conservative, blamed the Israelis for "deploying tanks against the feelings of a nation." Hubert Vedrine, the Socialist foreign minister, who had previously called the policies of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak "reasonable and realistic," nonetheless lined up behind Chirac, rather than with the more measured Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Pro-Palestinian activism was even more conspicuous on the far left, among the Communists, the Green party, the blue-collar unions like the C.G.T., the diehard Trotskyites, and even such "anti-racist" organizations as the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme (League for the Rights of Man) and the MRAP (Movement Against Racism). There were many reasons for this sentiment. The French of every political stripe are broadly anti-American and have long resented Israel's special relationship with the United States. Also, ironically, some public officials and citizens who might otherwise have been supportive of Israel were persuaded to look kindly on the Palestinians by "peace-loving" and Likud-hating left-wing Israelis.

As for the media, many of them mistook self-righteous agitprop for responsible reporting. This was true of both of the state-run TV channels, France 2 and France 3, as well as of the state-owned and state-controlled news agency, Agence France-Presse, and many privately owned dailies and magazines. Over and over, France 2 broadcast pictures of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed in a shootout between Israelis and Palestinians at the Netzarim junction near Gaza, pictures that made the Israelis look like cold-blooded murderers. France 3 showed Palestinian children and mothers taking pleasure in provoking Israelis and getting killed in the process, but commented only that "Palestinian resolve [had] not weakened."

The media also gave extensive coverage to pro-Palestinian rallies all over France, carefully editing out the fact that many of the demonstrators--a colorful mix of rank and file Muslims and far-left militants--were shouting, "Death to the Jews!" And the same media ignored or gave minimal coverage to a large pro-Israel rally held in Paris on October 10. It appears that Muslim fundamentalists, hearing from authoritative sources on all sides that Israel was very, very bad, failed to register that they were not thereby entitled to harm Jews.

But even more shocking than the violence itself has been the slow and embarrassed official reaction. It took the president and prime minister 12 days to issue statements. And even then, they refrained from the customary symbolic gestures, such as a visit to a burned synagogue or an address to the nation. This was a sharp departure from past practice. In 1982, after the killing at the Goldenberg restaurant, President Francois Mitterrand attended a service at the nearby Rue Pavee Orthodox synagogue. And in 1990, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery at Carpentras in southern France (a shady business that may have owed more to satanism than anti-Semitism), both President Mitterrand and then leader of the opposition Jacques Chirac attended protest rallies. The French government's official reaction contrasted, too, with German chancellor Gerhard Schroder's response early this month to attacks on Jewish buildings in Dusseldorf and Berlin: Schroder promptly paid a visit to a synagogue.

Some of the media waited as late as October 15 to report extensively on the anti-Jewish violence. L'Express, France's widest-circulation newsmagazine, was still running an anti-Israeli cover on October 12, after a dozen synagogues and schools had been attacked. And when reporting finally began in earnest, most of it was biased. A common approach was to call the trouble "interethnic" or "interfaith" and to urge "both communities," Jewish and Islamic, to rein in their extremists, as if the incitement and assaults were evenly distributed.

None of this should be taken to mean, of course, that France is an incipient Fourth Reich. The government has, at long last, condemned the violence and taken steps to stop it. And the public, genuinely troubled, is demanding a more balanced approach to the Middle East crisis. A few political leaders have even started to question the country's pro-Arab stand. Still, the symptoms are alarming--both for French Jewry, and for France.

Michel Gurfinkiel is editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, a Paris newsweekly.