Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is Jewish. Does anyone care? We hear nothing about it in the campaign; voters seem uninterested. Things would have been different a generation ago: remember that, up to the 1960s, American universities imposed a de facto quota on Jews. In France, Laurent Fabius, the new president of the Constitutional Council, the nation’s highest court, is of Jewish origin, a fact that has escaped notice. The new Minister of Culture is Jewish—could this have been imagined in the country of the Dreyfus affair and of Marshall Pétain, the Nazis’ most enthusiastic collaborator? In Spain, the descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 can now have their original nationality restored, if they request it. It is true that, especially in France, in places where the Jewish community is mostly of North African origin, Jews are victims of violent criminal acts. But these remain quite rare, committed by young Arabs who reenact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their sections of Paris or Marseille. And anti-Zionism shouldn’t be confused with anti-Semitism.
Anti-Zionism is based on a real situation: the Palestinians are not a mythical people, nor are their demands mythical, however difficult they may be to satisfy. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is entirely mythical: the Jew was not a real person but a mystical and political construction. The extermination of Jewish communities, which began in France and Germany around A.D. 1000, and continued in the wake of the Crusades, was almost always set off by an accusation of ritual crime: a Christian child supposedly had his throat slit in order to mix his blood in with the ingredients of bread for the Jewish paschal feast. The pogroms in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century similarly took off from this myth. For 1,000 years in the West, the Jew was the standard scapegoat for explaining bad harvests, economic crises, and bank failures. Jews, thought to be rich when almost all lived in poverty, were expelled, massacred, and stripped of their possessions.
Anti-Semitism was also based on the accusation of “deicide,” until Vatican II erased this reference from the Easter liturgy. The mythic character of anti-Semitism is demonstrated by the lack of correlation between the number of Jews and the virulence of anti-Semitic feelings. When the Dreyfus affair broke out, less than 60,000 Jews lived in France, and they held mediocre ranks in society. Dreyfus himself was only a modest colonel. Germany was home to fewer than 100,000 Jews when Hitler seized power in 1933. In Poland, where one still finds anti-Semitic currents on certain radio stations and in certain newspapers, Jews themselves have disappeared. Jews are not necessary for anti-Semitism to flourish—as shown by its persistence in Poland, as it persisted in Stalinist Russia and even in France in the immediate aftermath of the war. Some of my lycée professors (high school teachers) were openly anti-Semitic.
The emigration of 7,000 French Jews each year, some argue, proves that being a Jew in France is unbearable. But this figure, representing about 1 percent of France’s Jewish population, is misleading, since it mixes together economic exiles (who are not only Jews) with those who, for religious reasons, wish to pursue their life in Israel, and perhaps some who fear the hostility of young Arabs.
It is time to admit that Jews are no longer scapegoats—in fact, they are hardly distinguishable from the non-Jewish population. Is this because Jews have assimilated? Jews have always shown a surprising patriotism wherever they lived: in 1914, my ancestors, Austrian Jews, fought in the Austrian army, and my Russian ancestors in the Army of the Czar. I did not yet have French ancestors, but they likely would have rushed to the front just as Dreyfus did. It is not Jews who have changed but Western society. Of course, the discovery of the Shoah in 1945 made it forever clear that anti-Semitism is diabolical, but I would date the end of anti-Semitism to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. This “banality of evil,” according to Hannah Arendt, made it so that after this trial no bureaucrat (“I am a bureaucrat who obeyed orders,” Eichmann said in his defense) and no intellectual could call himself an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism, which had been an elegant position in Europe among Christian intellectuals on the right and anti-capitalists on the left, became grotesque after Eichmann. Then, in 1962, came Vatican II, whose influence remains fundamental. The church became sincerely philo-Semitic.
Because of the persistence of attacks that mix old-fashioned anti-Semitism with contemporary anti-Zionism, some in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands will consider me too optimistic. But I remember that in 1940, the French police deported my family. Today, they protect us. It’s a very different world, and we need to keep that truth in view.
Photo by Djampa