Anti- Zionism= Anti- Semitism?
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Like most conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians, the Gaza war has led to an increase in racist acts in France, particularly anti-Semitic ones. Some have taken advantage of the situation to draw a parallel between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. But the facts are stubborn.

"We will yield nothing to anti-Zionism because it is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism." This statement by Emmanuel Macron in his speech at the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Vél d'Hiv roundup, on July 16, 2017, sparked a long and lively debate. It is both a historical error and a political mistake. It ignores the fact that anti-Zionism is first and foremost a Jewish school of thought, long in the majority. And it confuses in the same condemnation an offence - anti-Jewish racism, condemned by French law like all other forms of racism - and an opinion - which challenges Theodor Herzl's thinking on the need for a state where all Jews could live, in a Palestine populated at the time by over 90% Arabs.

Let's try to disambiguate the amalgam.

Anti-Judaism, then anti-Semitism, runs through the history of Europe - more so, in fact, than that of the Arab world. For centuries, it has been reflected in discrimination, expulsions and massacres - from the Crusades to the "pogroms" of the Tsarist Empire. These persecutions culminated in the Nazi genocide, which exterminated half of Europe's Jews.

In France, where the Vichy regime and its police organized the deportation of 76,000 Jews (out of 330,000, both French and foreign, a proportion that underlines the solidarity they enjoyed), anti-Semitism has been steadily declining since the war. Today, it represents a marginal ideology. This is confirmed by the latest report from the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH).[1]

First thermometer: the answer to the question "Are Jews 'French like the rest'?". In 1946, only a third answered in the affirmative; 77 years later, the proportion had risen to... 89%.[2] The CNCDH adds: "Jews are the most highly regarded community in public opinion.

On the other hand, as a second thermometer, the researchers observe the persistence of certain prejudices: between 18% and 38% of French people share preconceived ideas such as "Jews have too much power in France", "for Jews, Israel is more important than France", "Jews have a special relationship with money". The Ilan Halimi affair also shows that prejudice can kill: the Barbarians gang believed that the young Jew's family could pay a ransom... These prejudices, the CNCDH points out, are particularly prevalent on the far right, while "supporters of left-wing and center parties are relatively impervious to them".

The image of Jews also suffers from that of Israel, which "has gradually deteriorated". Since November 2022, "negative judgments have clearly overtaken positive ones (34% vs. 23%)". The image of Palestine has also deteriorated: "23% positive evocations vs. 34% negative". But, continues the report, "the link between the image of these two states and the political positioning of those polled is more complex than suggested by the thesis of a new anti-Semitism based on anti-Zionism, which has moved en bloc from the extreme right to the extreme left of the political spectrum".

France's third thermometer was a surge in racist violence at the turn of the century. In 2002, compared with 2001, the number of racist incidents increased fourfold, and the number of anti-Semitic incidents sixfold. However, from 2003 onwards, there was a clear downturn in anti-Semitic and racist violence. This decline continued throughout the following years in the case of anti-Jewish violence. On the other hand, racist violence, and particularly Islamophobic violence, remained at a high level, even tripling in 2015, the year of the major attacks. The year 2022 saw a decline in the three main categories of racist incidents. Compared with 2019, before Covid, their overall decline is 17%, but "the notable fact here is a singularity of anti-Muslim acts, for which we record a 22% rise", compared with a 35% drop for anti-Semitic acts and 11% for other acts.

When it comes to anti-Semitism, all this quantitative data cannot conceal the qualitative realities: for the first time since 1945, Jews have been murdered in their own right (the four Jewish victims of Mohammed Merah, the four martyrs of the Hyper Casher, but also Ilan Halimi, Lucie Attal-Halimi and Mireille Knoll). The complexity of the killers' other motives - villainous murders, even acts of madness - does not prevent them from being perceived first and foremost as anti-Semitic.

The fight against racism and anti-Semitism is more necessary than ever. Any incitement to racial hatred must be combated and punished. In France, the anti-racism laws of 1881, 1972 and the Penal Code constitute an effective arsenal. All that's needed is for the courts to seize them. Yet for years, Dieudonné and Soral have been able to play with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial with impunity.

So much for the first term of Emmanuel Macron's comparison.

What about the second? Confronted with the pogroms of 1881-1882 in Russia, then witnessing the Dreyfus affair in Paris from 1895 onwards, Theodor Herzl drew the conclusion that Jews were unassimilable, even in the country that had first emancipated them. They must therefore have a state of their own. In 1896, he published The State of the Jews and, the following year, convened the First World Zionist Congress in Basel: "Zionism," states its program, "strives to obtain for the Jewish people in Palestine a publicly recognized and legally guaranteed home."

Twenty years later, with the Balfour Declaration, the United Kingdom endorsed the project for a Jewish National Home in Palestine, and in 1922 obtained the Mandate of Palestine. However, until the Second World War and despite London, Herzl's heirs found little support among Jews. For the Communists, the solution to the Jewish question lay in socialist revolution. For the Bund, the solution to the "Jewish question" presupposes cultural autonomy for Jews in the countries where they live. As for the religious Orthodox, their opposition to Zionism is radical: there will be no Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah. Finally, let's not forget the great Western Jewish bourgeoisie, who had better things to do than plough the land of the kibbutzim...

The facts are stubborn: the vast majority of Jews leaving Europe went to the United States - 3.5 million between 1881 and 1939.[3] By contrast, at the start of the Second World War, there were only 460,000 Jews in Mandate Palestine, representing 2.9% of the world's Jewish population[4].

The Nazi genocide changed everything. Six million Jews were exterminated, and hundreds of thousands of survivors were unable to return home. Yet the American visas most of them dreamed of were still in short supply. Many emigrated to Palestine, then to Israel, from which the 1947-1949 war had driven 800,000 Arabs. But they did so less by "Zionist choice" than by default.

As for Arab Jews, some have been expelled, as in Egypt. Others have been "imported" by the Israeli authorities, as in Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia and, for the most part, Iraq. Only a minority of these immigrants join Israel by ideological choice.

The same applies to Soviet "Jews", a large proportion of whom were not. Most took advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev's agreement with Itzhak Shamir to leave the USSR, unaware that they would not be able to continue their journey to the United States.

Seventy-five years after its creation, Israel is home to 6.9 million Jews. The majority of the world's 16 million Jews therefore live elsewhere, as do the hundreds of Jewish citizens of Israel who have left their country. Should we consider all those Jews who, generation after generation, have resisted the sirens of Zionism as anti-Semites? Or simply as citizens who preferred to continue their lives in their long-standing or adopted homeland? Historically, then, the French President's little phrase was absurd.

Politically, it represented a serious threat to freedom of expression. The Israeli right-wing and its supporters would like to criminalize all criticism, since they know they are isolated in the eyes of the public. A symbol: during the last vote of the United Nations General Assembly on "the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, including their right to an independent State", on November 10, 2023, only 5 States voted against (Israel, the United States, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru).

And this isolation is unlikely to diminish. For the war in Gaza is not a storm in a calm sky. Since January 2023, Benyamin Netanyahu has associated three Jewish supremacist, racist and homophobic parties with his government. From January 1 to October 7 2023, Tsahal killed some 209 Palestinians[5]. It carried out extensive operations against many West Bank towns, including Jenin and Nablus. It protected settlers, even when they were engaged in a "pogrom"[6]  in Huwara. Itamar ben Gvir violated the status quo at the Holy Places, followed by thousands of extremists. Bezalel Smotrich, Minister in charge of the West Bank, intends not only to speed up settlement, but also to prepare for annexation.

In the space of a year, three major NGOs - Betselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International - have published reports calling Israel's apartheid regime into question. Beyond discriminatory laws and practices, this system is engraved in the constitutional marble of the new Basic Law "Nation-State of the Jewish People" adopted on July 19, 2018. Its Article 1 states unambiguously: "The right to exercise national self-determination within the State of Israel belongs to the Jewish people alone." This explicitly contradicts the Declaration of Independence which, on May 14 1948, promised that the new state would "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens, without distinction of creed, race or sex"[7].

This is why the use of the law to punish expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people has so far failed. The convictions of activists in the Boycott-Divestment-Sanction (BDS) campaign have been overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which on June 11, 2020 considered the boycott to be a form of freedom of expression. Another resounding failure: the law to punish anti-Zionism that the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) had hoped to see put into practice by the President of the Republic has come to nothing. Had this project taken shape, the French Constitutional Council would undoubtedly have rejected it. Otherwise, France would have reinstated the offence of opinion for the first time since... the Algerian war.

"I don't think that penalizing anti-Zionism is a solution”[8], concluded Emmanuel Macron, on February 20, 2019, before the CRIF dinner. As a consolation prize, the latter obtained a resolution taking up the "definition" of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)[9]. Presented as "non-legally binding", this text, badly voted on December 3, 2019, can be summed up in two sentences: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which can be expressed as hatred towards them. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism target Jewish or non-Jewish individuals or/and their property, Jewish institutions and places of worship[10].

Added to this indigent definition is a series of "examples" which, never formally adopted by the IHRA, mostly serve to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. One of them states: "Anti-Semitism can manifest itself in attacks on the State of Israel when it is perceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticizing Israel as one would criticize any other state cannot be considered anti-Semitism." To get his resolution adopted, MP Sylvain Maillard had to explicitly exclude... the "examples" which, in any case, do not mention... anti-Zionism.

Let's leave the conclusion to Frédéric Potier, prefect in charge of the Délégation interministérielle à la lutte contre le racisme, l'antisémitisme et la haine anti-LGBT (Dilcrah): "The contribution of this definition is that it speaks of hatred of Israel as a collective, even if the word 'anti-Zionism' does not appear as such. It will, however, enable some anti-Zionist statements to be qualified as anti-Semitic[11].



[2] These and other figures are taken from the CNCDH's 2023 Report.



[5] This figure and those that follow are from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

[6] This term was used by the Israeli media


[8] Le Monde, February 19, 2019.




Author Bio: 

Dominique Vidal: Journalist and historian, author of “Antisionism = Antisemitism? Réponse à Emmanuel Macron”, Libertalia, Paris, 2018.