The Charge of Anti-Semitism

Gilets Jaunes protest. Paris, 5 January.

They couldn’t have given the article a more pointed title. Publishing an AFP wire on Sunday morning entitled Macron condemns antisemitic abuse during gilets jaunes Paris protest, The Guardian waded back into a longstanding controversy over whether criticising Israel is racist.

The trigger was a Gilets Jaunes demonstration in Paris on Saturday afternoon, in which Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was attacked for being “a dirty Zionist” and taunted with shouts of “France is ours,” by protestors, according to AFP.

The report was straightforward. To the degree that it qualified the event as anti-Semitic, it relied on quotations from Emmanuel Macron and Communist Party chief Ian Brossat, who pushed the envelope a bit while upholding the racism charge.

“We can hate Finkielkraut’s ideas,” said Brossat, but “nothing can justify attacking him as a Jew.”

For most European Jews, the attack’s framing is correct. Anti-Zionism is considered anti-Semitism according to the IHRA definition, and the European Union adheres to the construction in its anti-racism policy. The Guardian headline, for all intents and purposes, reflects the consensus.

The problem is with its casual editorial usage in the article is its subject, Alain Finkielkraut. Though Ian Brossat upholds the racism claim, by qualifying his opinion of the philosopher, he opens the door towards explaining why the attack may have happened, separate from the prejudice exhibited by some of his attackers.

It’s an especially important point to make given Finkielkraut’s heavily publicised support for the Gilets Jaunes. Few mainstream intellectuals have been more consistently supportive of the French protest movement than the 79-year-old Jewish philosopher. Especially those on the centre-right.

News media offered scant deeper analyses on Sunday, except, in The Guardians case, to prominently link to a Friday feature in the newspaper on reports of rising anti-Semitism in France and Germany, in its coverage of the attack.

Featuring a Paris mailbox illustration of the late French Jewish politician, Simone Veil, with a swastika daubed across it, the article link image helped reinforce the concern that what happened to Finkielkraut is in keeping with the explosive rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in recent years.

That’s a lot of interpretation to embed in a single news report. But, as Brossat’s diplomatically constructed quotation suggests, there’s more to understanding what happened to the philosopher than The Guardian, in this specific instance, would imply.

The best place to sort out what exactly happened is to listen to the victim of the attack himself. For analysts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the politics are relatively transparent:

“There were shouts of hate, like ‘throw yourself into the canal…..or others related to Palestine, I did not hear” dirty Jew,” Finkielkraut told Le Figaro.

Reviewing all of the video clips, Israel’s centre-left newspaper Haaretz offered additional translations from the French:

“‘Dirty Jew’ and ‘you’re a hater, you’re going to die, you’re going to hell’, while others called on the thinker to ‘go home’ and ‘return to Tel Aviv’.

In a different clip, demonstrators can be heard screaming anti-Semitic profanities such as ‘dirty Zionist shit’.”

For a politically diverse movement that has been increasingly called far-right, there was nothing especially nationalist about these statements. Just zero in on the word Palestine and do the math.

As a cause, Palestine is not on any right-wing itinerary in Europe. Since the late 1960s, the topic has been entirely owned by the left, particularly in France and the United Kingdom, both of which host large Arab communities descended from their former colonial holdings in the MENA region.

The invocation of Palestine could only have come from leftists, who, as Ian Brossat alluded to earlier, deplore Finkielkraut’s long and consistent history of attacking Arabs, both in reference to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in regards to immigration and multiculturalism in France.

The philosopher is not the only member of France’s Jewish community to do so. But his outspokenness has given his xenophobia a degree of credibility given his seniority in France’s academic establishment. Compounding the issue is that he’s a minority of Holocaust background.

Yet, as has been pointed out in numerous reports, there is a similarly racist and anti-immigrant continuum within the Gilets Jaunes, It’s not hard to see why, given what was said to Alain Finkielkraut on Saturday, that it would be interpreted as only anti-Semitic. Statements such as “France is ours,” are unambiguously xenophobic.

The tension here is obvious. There is no clear good and bad guy, just two different types of bad politics colliding with each other, but even then, only if you know Finkielkraut’s background. Not surprisingly, the only leftist element gets buried in the mix, as the news media oversimplified what happened because part of it was racist.

Reading through all the reports of what took place in the European press, which should have done a better job on this score, I’m not sure they could have done much more, either. Europe is drowning in racism right now, and nuance and context in coverage of the crisis are in logically short supply.

Few political events are as anxiety-inducing and infuriating, with good reason. The last time Europe experienced a wave of prejudice like this was under fascism. Though it never really disappeared, the era of decolonisation and 1968 left the impression it had become taboo.

The sensitivity around the Jewish aspect of it is most unnerving because it signifies how far the rise of Islamophobia has spread in helping trigger a return to other kinds of prejudices previously thought disappeared, like anti-Semitism.

Heaven help us though if we don’t get over the shock soon, as Islamophobia and Judeophobia are indistinguishable in so many ways. One incubates the other and the two require each other because they designate different class demographics of otherness in European society.

Hence, its all too easy for journalists to not do their homework and sort out why Palestine might figure into this, and see it as a sign of something more complex than just racism. What happened to Alain Finkielkraut was, in fact, two things at once. The sooner we realise that, the better.

Photograph courtesy of Christophe Leung. Published under a Creative Commons license.