Emmanuel Macron's statement on 20 February was a surprise. Speaking at the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), the French President said that, "Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism."
According to historian Dominique Vidal, that statement was a political error. "Never before has a French President, not even Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed that the 'security of Israel' was his 'lifelong struggle', or François Hollande, who 'always had words of love and appreciation toward Israel and its leaders', drawn a parallel between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism," said the former journalist at Le Monde Diplomatique and author of the bestselling Anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism? A Response to Emmanuel Macron.
Macron actually came up with the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism notion in July 2017. It was the 75th Anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv raid when French police arrested more than 13,000 French Jews who were deported to the Nazi death camps in 1942. The president invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the ceremony. "Israel did not exist when this tragic event happened," Vidal pointed out, "so why should he invite him?"
That too was a mistake, he insisted. "How can we not see the danger hidden in conflating French Jews with Israel, as if they had some sort of obvious connection?" asked Vidal. "Even more so, when Israel has as its leader a man who spreads revisionist Zionism and is close to Italian fascist ideology. In an attempt to save his Prime Ministerial seat, Netanyahu has recently made an alliance with the heirs of Meir Kahane's Kach Party, which is banned in Israel [for being too extremist]. Yet the President and the Prime Minister exchanged 'Dear Bibi' and 'Dear Manu' platitudes."
On the eve of his CRIF dinner speech last month, Macron asserted that "I do not think that penalising anti-Zionism is a solution." Nevertheless, the very next day, he declared that France will implement the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). "It is not about amending the criminal code," he explained. "It's about clarifying and strengthening the power of our magistrates and teachers."
The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism includes 11 "illustrative examples", including that criticism of the state of Israel may be anti-Semitism. As Vidal pointed out, though, neither the definition in question nor the examples — "Which, by the way, have no legal validity" — mention anti-Zionism.
For Vidal, the French President is confusing anti-Jewish racism, which is punishable by law, with opinions that challenge the Zionist claim that it is impossible for Jews to live in their own countries and so they need a Jewish state, even if that means removing the Arab majority from the land chosen for that state. "Anti-Semitism has absolutely nothing to do with Zionism and anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism that targets Jews, and there is a legal arsenal to punish anti-Semitism."
Anti-Zionism, on the other hand, is simply a criticism of Theodor Herzl's thinking, explained the historian. "Anti-Zionists believe firmly believe that Jews can be assimilated wherever they live. The proof is that there are 10 million Jews living outside Israel and 6 million living in occupied Palestine. I don't know any anti-Zionist who is in favour of the destruction of this state for a very simple reason: it exists. That is a fact. It is about finding a solution that respects the rights of Palestinians and Jews."
Dominique Vidal feels that the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a political distortion with defamatory objectives. "The Zionist project has had tragic consequences for the Palestinians. Between 1948 and 1949, four out of every five Palestinians were kicked out of their own land. The 1967 [Six Day] War was also followed by the expulsion of Palestinians. Am I anti-Semitic to remind people of this?"
The wider context of Macron's statement is ongoing anti-Semitism across Europe, including France. We have seen graffiti saying "Juden" — German for "Jews" — scrawled on a bagel shop; swastikas daubed on walls and gravestones; and damage to memorials. On the morning of the CRIF dinner, 80 Jewish graves were desecrated in Quatzenheim, Alsace.
On 11 February, the French Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, stated that 2018 had seen a 74 per cent increase in recorded anti-Semitic acts. "What Castaner did not say," said Vidal, "is that in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, there was a very clear decline in anti-Semitic violence. In 2018, Castaner said that there were 541 anti-Jewish actions; in 2014, there were 851, which means that despite the resurgence last year, we are still on the same downward path."
Government sources have linked this increase with the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) demonstrations. Four days before Macron's speech to the CRIF, racists amongst the group called controversial intellectual Alain Finkielkraut a "dirty Zionist" and told him to "go back to Tel Aviv".
Many Jews are critical of the attempts to create conflict around allegations of anti-Semitism. Reports on the involvement of the Gilets Jaunes in the "Juden" graffiti turned out to be inaccurate.
Macron's "political mistake"
For Vidal, Macron's equating of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a backdoor way of reintroducing thought crime, something which has largely disappeared in France since the Algerian War of Independence. Even though the French President made it clear that there would be no moves to pass such equivalence into law, Vidal believes that he had to come up with something to compensate for this lack of legislation; hence, his statement, which surprised everyone.
Whatever his reasoning, knowingly or unknowingly, Macron has empowered the right-wing in Israel. Netanyahu and his far-right cronies, members of the CRIF — whose president, Algerian-born Francis Kalifat, was involved with the far-right Jewish movement Betar — and pro-Israel websites were correct in saying that the French President's statement was open support for Israel's occupation and colonisation of Palestine. Above all else, they saw it as support for their attempts to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Vidal pointed out that if anti-Semitic acts are on the decline in France, it is still true to say that Israel has a bad image. "In 1946, polls asked French people if Jews are like any other French people to them. A third responded yes. Last year, a poll asked the same question and 92 per cent of French people said that Jews are French like any other people. So anti-Semitism is no longer a popular ideology in France, it has marginalised itself." Even so, he added, we should pay attention to prejudice because it is much more worrying. "Between a third and half of the French people share stereotypical prejudices about Jews such as: 'they are rich'; 'they believe more in Israel than in France'; 'they are powerful'; 'they basically own the media'; and so on. It is important to know that prejudice can kill. According to polls, 57 per cent of French people have a bad image of Israel, and 69 per cent have a bad image of Zionism."
This may also exacerbate tensions between France's Jewish and Muslim communities, which are the largest in Europe. Anti-racist Jews have pointed out the danger of double standards when Islamophobia and Negrophobia are not treated as seriously as anti-Semitism. "After the Charlie Hebdo attacks," explained Vidal, "there was a feeling among the youth that, when Jews were targeted, the politics and media were mobilised, whereas when a young Muslim woman got her veil torn off when going to a hospital, we were no longer mobilised. We have to be cautious and ensure that there is no difference in treating one community over another, leading to the idea that one racism requires more attention than another."
The historian is also surprised by the implicit support given to Benjamin Netanyahu's policies. "Nothing was said [by Macron] when the Knesset voted for the Apartheid 'Jewish Nation-State Law'. Not a word about the annexation laws aimed at the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. Not a word about Netanyahu's repressive laws and his dealings with every populist and anti-Semitic government in Europe." The Israeli Prime Minister, Vidal reminded us, has made alliances with every populist, nationalist and neo-fascist government in Europe and elsewhere, even when they are anti-Semitic; from the Hungarian Viktor Orban to the Polish Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and from the Italian Matteo Salvini to the Austrian Sebastian Kurz.
The real threat to the State of Israel, he suggested, is Netanyahu himself. "Netanyahu passed a fundamental law on 19 July last year which is an Apartheid law. Article 1 states that only the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in Israel. However, Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence promises equal treatment for all of its citizens, regardless of their religion or race."
In words and deeds, Netanyahu breaches this declaration. "He and his allies advocate for the annexation of the West Bank. This will, therefore, create a bi-national state. I have nothing against this idea if there are equal rights for all its citizens. For the past 10 years or so, he has passed 15 freedom-destroying laws. Ninety members of the parliament — the Knesset — have the right to expel other MPs until the end of their term. This is insane."
The aforementioned Francis Kalifat, President of the CRIF, went to Vienna and spoke with the young Austrian Chancellor, about whom he speaks highly in his organisation's newsletter, Vidal pointed out. "Keep in mind that this Chancellor counts six neo-Nazi ministers in his government, from Jörg Haider's party."
What is the role of the CRIF? "Here, in France, they prefer blaming the suburban population for anti-Semitism because it is mainly Muslim and Arabic. In the United States, it is the far right wing, Trump's voters, personified by Steve Bannon which worries American Jews." It would be stupid to say that anti-Semitism is caused by what Israelis are doing in Jerusalem or Gaza, he claimed. "French people were shocked to find out that snipers were shooting at young people in Gaza. These snipers are Israelis. So if the CRIF supports these actions and Israel's policy, it is easy to make a link between French Jews and Israel. These are dangerous, even criminal positions."
According to Dominique Vidal, the CRIF claims to represent French Jews, although it actually represents just 10 per cent. "The CRIF claims to have 100,000 French Jews as members through various associations. I reckon the real number would be around 60,000, and there are 600,000 Jews in France, so the CRIF does not speak for all French Jewish people." Some politicians, though, feel that they need the French Jewish vote to win elections. "I believe that this way of thinking is actually a true form of anti-Semitism. Anyway, all polls show that there is no 'Jewish vote' in France."
BDS: the real target
Although they are merely illustrations, Vidal said, the IHRA's "examples" of anti-Semitism are used to harass anyone who criticises Israel and its policies. Boycotting Israel falls automatically into that category. "So according to the IHRA, anti-Semitism can manifest itself in attacks against the State of Israel when viewed as a Jewish community. However, criticising Israel as one would criticise any other state cannot be considered as anti-Semitic because what state other than Israel has been occupying for at least fifty-two years territories that it has conquered by force, where it has installed more than 700,000 settlers and where it imposes an Apartheid system?"
Supporters of Israel always say that French law prohibits boycotts of the state. "Well, I'm still looking for these laws," said Vidal. "I have never seen them. They simply don't exist but we are told the contrary." The closest thing would be a ministerial order, which has no significant power, but can be referred to: in February 2010, Minister of Justice Michele Alliot-Marie ordered the Public Prosecutor's Office to prosecute anyone who calls for a boycott or participates in boycotts of Israeli products. Relying on an article in the Act dated 29 July 1881 on the freedom of the press, she likened these actions to discrimination or racial hatred. Since then, there have been many calls for its repeal.
For Vidal, the fight for freedom of opinion and expression continues. He even views Macron's statement as a relative failure for the CRIF. "This is a defeat of the bill criminalising anti-Zionism that the president of the CRIF had been demanding for fifteen months," he alleged. "However, this new manipulation will not change the revulsion caused by Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies and rivals, who keep putting their heads in the sand. When they impose a strict law of Apartheid, engage in annexation operations in the West Bank and multiply the number of freedom-destroying laws, even the best magicians cannot hide such obvious radicalisation."