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Lingering prejudices against Jews

Klaus Jansen / tj
December 7, 2014

"Jews are rich" - this prejudiced view recently led some young men to brutally attack a Jewish couple in France. Anti-Semitic crimes there are rapidly on the rise - and not for the first time in French history.

Swastika daubed on Jewish tombstone in France Photo: Christian Hartmann dpa
Anti-Semitic vandals have targeted Jewish tombstones in the past in FranceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Hartmann

A large number of people took to the streets in the Paris suburb of Creteil on Sunday because they wanted to send a signal against anti-Semitism and violence. The attack on a young Jewish couple in Creteil this week has shocked France. The young criminals had apparently selected their victims because they were Jews, believing that this meant they would have a lot of money; the attackers are alleged to have said as much after forcing their way into the couple's apartment. They robbed the young man and his girlfriend, raped the latter and disappeared. The three alleged attackers have now been arrested.

The horrific crime raises questions about how much anti-Semitic sentiment there is in French society at the present moment. This year, the Interior Ministry registered more than 500 anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from graffiti slogans saying "Jews out" to serious bodily harm, in the pre-summer period alone - more than in all of last year.

Synagogues and Jewish businesses have also been attacked, particularly in July during the war in Gaza. Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke of a "new form of anti-Semitism." Now, he is choosing more drastic words, writing of the "horror of Creteil." The fight against anti-Semitism must be taken up every day afresh, Valls said. At the demonstration in the Paris suburb on Sunday, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve even called anti-Semitism a "social disease."

France's special status

As in many other countries, rulers in France have often persecuted Jews at various times in history. But the country does have a special status all the same, as Berlin historian Marie-Christin Lux points out: "There have been large Jewish communities in France since the French Revolution; France was the first country to give Jews civil rights, long before Germany or eastern European countries." Many Jews felt at home in France, and saw themselves as first French, and only then as Jewish, she says.

Marie-Christin Lux, Berlin historian
Marie-Christin Lux finds parallels in French historyImage: privat

But if surveys are to be believed, a growing number of the French are of a different opinion. Some 40 percent of supporters of the successful far-right party Front National feel that French people who have Jewish religious beliefs are not as French as other citizens of France. That is the finding of a study carried out by the think tank Fondapol about the new brand of anti-Semitism.

The study also shows how widespread prejudices are. Almost every fifth respondent said Jews had too much political power; every fourth feels that Jews have too much influence in the financial world; and one in ten would decide against having a Jewish boss.

"These stereotypes were and are rooted in France across every milieu," Lux says, adding that it's not a problem just among the extreme right. She says the old stereotypes of the rich, economically powerful Jew, which were already rife in the 19th century, are now being combined with the negative image of Israel held particularly by left-leaning French people, who loudly criticize what they see as a disproportionate offensive by Israel in the Gaza Strip this summer, in which hundreds of people died.

Créteil has become symbolic of anti-Semitism in FranceImage: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Hostility connected with a lack of prospects

The historian Marie-Christin Lux is convinced that a large number of different factors are behind the new surge in hostility toward Jews in France. Some of these factors have appeared again and again throughout history.

"Anti-Semitism already increased rapidly in the aftermath of the global economic crisis in 1929," she says. Now, France once more has huge social and economic problems; history appears to be repeating itself here. Particularly in the greater metropolitan area of Paris, with its problematic suburbs, these problems are openly apparent. "At the same time, school education has missed many chances to work against such stereotypes, and youth projects on such topics do not take place enough in France," Lux argues.

Alain Jakubowicz, the president of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, is of the same opinion. He spoke to broadcaster Europe 1 about the mere lip service paid by politicians to the problem. Thousands of Jews obviously see things the same way. The Jewish Agency for Israel says that France is the country with the highest rate of Jews moving away. Some 5,000 French Jews have already moved to Israel this year. At present, more than half a million Jews live in France, the highest number of any country in Europe, putting it in third place behind the USA and Israel in terms of its Jewish population.

Marie-Christin Lux says she hopes that the current show of public solidarity with Jews and the will to fight prejudices will endure: "It mustn't die away again now. It is not a Muslim or Jewish problem, but a French problem that affects all French citizens."