“In France, I would say that we are under attack” from jihadist violence, stated French priest and antisemitism scholar Patrick Desbois on November 16 at Georgetown University. His presentation on behalf of Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization before some 80 listeners filling the Riggs Library insightfully analyzed the dark confluence in France of antisemitism old and new.
Desbois, a leading expert on the Nazi Einsatzgruppen “Holocaust by Bullets” in the Soviet Union during World War II, reviewed antisemitism’s history in France. In 1890 Eduourd Drumont, author of the bestselling La France Juive, founded the Anti-Semite Federation (Ligue antisémitique de France), uniting right-wing and left-wing anti-Semites while today Alain Soral is prolific polemicist against Jews and Israel. On a personal level one upscale family expressed their worries to Desbois that their son had acquired a taste for money because of his Jewish friends, supposedly recognizable by their Prada shoes.
Desbois identifies the 1995 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp, when French television broadcast numerous commemorative documentaries, as a significant turning point. “People began to think we are free now, now we can say we hate the Jews. We have paid our bill, time is gone…there is no more taboo,” he stated. “Suddenly we had a huge propensity to have specialists of geopolitics in France for only one country, Israel,” often by “specialists” who have never visited Israel, while Catholic Church discussions often strive to avoid Israel as a “burning subject.” “Suddenly you could not say that you work with Jews;” when he discusses his work with the French bishops’ Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism, “80 percent of the time people change the conversation, it is finished.”
Yet when discussing continuities and discontinuities between antisemitism past and present, Desbois distinguishes that the leading force behind antisemitism in France today is not native French, but rather immigrant Muslim communities. Contrary to common comparisons of modern antisemitism with Nazism’s rise in the 1930s, he states that the “story does not repeat itself. We are in a new situation.” While Adolf Hitler is dead, jihadist groups like ISIS have “new ideologies that say not only is it good, but it is something good in front of God, to kill Jews.”
Desbois stated that the “problem unfortunately is all from radical Islam, the violence. It is not publicly polite to say that but it is true…only the extreme right speaks about that.” “If you go into Paris you will not find an old, Catholic lady kicking you in the streets,” he noted, a message underlined by his slides citing jihadist killings of Jews in Toulouse (2012), Brussels (2014), and Paris (2015). While the Muslim comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala tells Auschwitz jokes before diverse crowds of 5,000, violent threats have prevented screenings of a film about a horrific 2006 murder-kidnapping of a Jew by a Muslim gang. Accordingly, “when there is an official ceremony, many, many times people don’t mention they [Muslim murderers] killed Jews, because it doesn’t pass easily politically.”
Desbois made palpable the official state of emergency declared in France following the November 2015 jihadist attacks upon Paris, stating “when we go into subways, the first thing we do is to watch who is there.” Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris now searches visitors’ bags, creating waiting lines of some 500 people, something that would have been unthinkable for many two years ago. Police and other security forces guard Jewish schools and synagogues as “militaires [soldiers] sleep in the synagogue,” he stated while noting that arson had struck one Paris synagogue three times.
Desbois, who refrains from wearing his clerical collar in downtown Paris due to fear of attack, has personally experienced this need for protection given his public addresses concerning Jews. “Anytime there is something about that subject, the Jews, you need the protection of the army,” he stated while noting the “nightmare” of one address he gave in a Paris school under heavy military security. Protesters also interrupted him during a Paris synagogue conference, necessitating police intervention.
Desbois disagreed with one Jewish audience member who noted her worries of stereotyping, stating that “not all Muslims are terrorists” and “we are dealing with a small number of bad people” among Muslims. “In France first we are not sure it is concerning a small group. We would dream to agree with you,” he responded, and reflected upon the Paris demonstrations in response to the January 7, 2015, Charlie Hebdo jihadist massacre. Among some one million demonstrators there were “unfortunately nearly no Muslims. I was hoping, hoping that ten million Muslims would be in the street.”
“Islamophobia is not actually a big problem,” Desbois stated. “I am not an anti-Muslim guy at all,” he added, while noting that his bodyguards are normally Muslim and that he works with Muslim refugees. A more pressing concern for him was that Muslims act to counteract hate and violence; “we would need the intellectuals of Islam in France to explain how the radical Islam is not in fidelity to the Quran.”
Desbois noted how the advent of Islamic antisemitism in France combined with longstanding native anti-Semitic elements in a toxic mixture. “The Anti-Semite Federation in France is back. In the same street you will find people who normally totally disagree, who hate each other, but they hate more the Jews. Some will only yell at them and some will attack them.” He recalled a large leftist demonstration in Paris against President George W. Bush where “suddenly half the people were yelling ‘Death to the Jews,’ that the Jews were handling Bush.” Some Islamists and far-right individuals joined the leftists, although “normally these people never gather together in my country.”
Desbois’ discussion of a France in which demonstrating sports fans spontaneously attacked a synagogue recalled the testimony of Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Jewish political commentator from Sweden. There as well historically indigenous and newly imported Islamic antisemitism threatened Jews. Such global phenomena gave weight to Desbois’ warning: “My friends, don’t sleep well!”