Anti-Racism Versus Anti-Semitism?
In France, students will soon be given a handbook that
educates them about racism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, anti-Semitism is the
European term for racism against Jews. In addition, students will watch and
study movies on the Holocaust, such as Shoah, Sophie’s Choice, and
France suffers from a guilty conscience regarding Jews. It
was the place where the fabricated Dreyfus Affair took place – thus
inspiring journalist Theodore Hertzl to establish the Zionist movement. It
was in France that Marshall Pétain set up the Vichy government that
collaborated with the Nazis and delivered trainloads of Jews to death camps
in numbers greater than the Germans requested.
Today, about 600,000 Jews and four million Muslims live in
France, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is on centre stage. Televised
scenes from the Middle East have a heavy impact on France’s Muslim youth who
identify with Palestinians and on French Jews who overwhelmingly support
The situation is further exacerbated by the security and
psychological climate in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and by societal
problems caused by the country’s difficulties in assimilating the Muslim
population. Also, there is the volatile issue of whether Muslim women should
be permitted to wear the hijab, as well as U.S. pressure on Paris to take
more pro-American policies in the Middle East.
The bottom line is that while there is a problem of
anti-Semitism in France, the roots are largely different than the
traditional ones. And the French government is taking positive action in
trying to contain the problem, particularly in the schools, which are
France’s prime tool for weaving together a cohesive social fabric.
In March, the French Ministry of Culture, the Pompidou
Centre, and France’s Bibliothèque publique d’information cancelled a
screening of a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Route 181, a
film co-directed by Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan. The
reason given was that the film “provoked intense emotion, particularly among
those who are alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish statements
and acts in France, and who consider that the film’s underlying hostility to
the existence of Israel may be of a nature to encourage these acts.”
Especially provocative was the juxta-positioning of a scene from Claude
Lanzmann’s holocaust film, Shoah, with a scene that portrays Palestinians as
victims of Holocaust survivors and their offspring.
The cancelled screening, urged by some French
intellectuals and denounced by others, was, in my view, crude, arrogant, and
oppressive. It reflected the view that anti-Semitism is an absolutely unique
phenomenon that cannot be equated, in any way, with any other tragedy, large
or small. Although the Palestinian tragedy is a by-product of anti-Semitism,
it is, according to some French intellectuals, simply not acceptable to use
the mother tragedy to understand elements of the Palestinian tragedy.
There is also a deeper truth. The censors were, in effect,
insisting on the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust decades after the
Holocaust had become part of the literature of democratic and progressive
intellectuals and activists. This is, in itself, harmful to the memory of
the Holocaust and may, in certain environments, backfire and provoke
Yet, there is an unfortunate truth that explains the
indifference to such fears and that also explains the lack of Arab
enthusiasm for denouncing suicide bombings: namely, that opposition to
anti-Semitism and opposition to racism are becoming mutually exclusive,
Anti-Semitism has become the preoccupation of white
Westerners in countries where this hatred originated. Fighting anti-Semitism
should be a universal movement that reaches beyond Europe and the U.S., but
the struggle against anti-Semitism has been twisted into a means of pointing
blame at those who oppose Ariel Sharon’s bloody policies. Rather, the fight
against anti-Semitism should be a movement that attracts the sympathy and
support of people everywhere.
At the same time, the struggle against racism,
particularly since the Durban Conference in 2001, has taken on a similarly
exclusive quality for those supporters of the non-Western poor, who want to
see the West and “the Jews” as the cause of Third World misery. As a result,
they do not criticise their own societies, and they fail to enlist
Westerners in the battle against racism.
So, you are either against anti-Semitism and turn a blind
eye to racism that targets Arabs, Muslims, and Africans, or you are against
racism and turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism that affects Jews and is of so
much concern to Americans and Europeans.
This dichotomy represents a tragedy which negates
enlightenment, modernity, and a sense of universal humanity.