Anti-Semitism in France: Where Ancient History Meets Modern Rhetoric

Anti-Semitism in France: Where Ancient History Meets Modern Rhetoric

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh. 

“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

 This is the creed my Jewish father-in-law taught me to memorize when I first arrived in France.

“Son,” he said to me, “it saved my father’s life, and it might just save yours.”

When people think of anti-Semitism, they usually think of the Holocaust. My own father-in-law, Marcel Teboul, lived through this particularly horrifying time in history. While in France during the war, he was stopped by a Nazi patrol. They asked him if he was Jewish, and, not waiting for an answer, they ordered him to expose himself, at which point the Germans immediately pointed out that he was, in fact, a Jew. Marcel, a member of a dynasty of Algerian rabbis, thought about his wife and babies in hiding and retorted, “No! I’m a Muslim!” He then quoted the famous Shahada (above) in fluent Arabic to the stunned Gestapo officers. They immediately let him go. After all, it was a well-known fact that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand Mufti of Jerusalem and a fierce enemy of the Jews, was a friend of the Führer.

Unfortunately, as vile and brutal as the Nazi regime was, the intensity of its anti-Semitism wasn’t anything new – it has existed throughout history.

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.” –Haman (Esther 3:8–9) 

Haman’s plan was not only evil, but his reasoning was also perverse. He made the accusation that we were bad for the kingdom, and that it was in the interest of the common good to get rid of the Jewish people. (Ironically, the Jewish people were actually good for Persia; when we were protected and esteemed in its society, Persia flourished.)

Fast forward several hundred years, and one can see that even the “civilized” Romans viewed the Jewish people as a threat to the cohesion of Pax Romana and a destabilizing factor in society.1 The Emperor Vespasian introduced a “Jewish tax” (Fiscus Judaicus) that obligated Jewish people to pay additional tribute. This tribute supported the temple of Jupiter, obligating Jews to support and uphold pagan rites and rituals. Deliberately demoralizing, not only did Fiscus Judaicus undermine and discriminate against Jews, it also specifically targeted our belief in the God of Israel.

This is where ancient history meets modern rhetoric.

Today, France is famous the world over for her anti-Semitism. In fact, up until just a few years ago, there was a town called La Mort aux Juifs (“Death to the Jews”). “Death to the Jews isn’t a battle cry unique to France. In certain regions of Spain, it’s actually become a colloquialism. Originating from medieval times when mobs would get drunk and raid Jewish neighborhoods, the phrase is used in some Spanish towns to mean “let’s go have a drink.”

But in the streets of Paris today, death to the Jews is declared in its most literal sense. France once housed the largest Jewish community in Europe. Now, France is infamous for the largest Jewish emigration from Europe. The French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, announced that anti-Semitic attacks increased by 74 percent in 2018. Recent events have included unthinkable crimes against our people: torture, rape, robbery, beatings, and even brutal and violent murder.

It is appalling, atrocious, and abhorrent. In some ways, it feels as if our people are threatened with something far more nefarious today than what we’ve faced before. Where does this heightened contempt come from?

The recent aggression against philosopher Alain Finkielkraut sheds some light on the matter. In February, Finkielkraut was walking home, and was accosted by protesters in the yellow-vest movement (a grassroots, populist group in France). The police came to his rescue quickly, but during the altercation, several people with keffiyehs shouted the following:

Racist!

Go back home!

Dirty Zionist s – – t, get out of here!

Finkielkraut is not called a “dirty Jew” but instead a “racist” and a “dirty Zionist.” This change likely has to do with the fact that racism is generally frowned upon in our “enlightened,” post-colonial world. In reference to the Nazi party’s stereotypes of Jews, the famous French thinker Bernanos once said that Hitler had “dishonored” anti-Semitism.2 In place of the older Nazi brand is a new, more insidious anti-Semitism – one that paints Jews as imperialists and persecutors due to the existence of the state of Israel.

How is Alain Finkielkraut, whose parents survived Auschwitz, a persecutor? According to his attackers’ ideology, because he is Jewish, his identity is subsumed into that of a stereotyped Israeli (a persecutor of Palestinians). At times, he has tried to give some balance to the negative media propaganda concerning Israel, and that is considered to be further evidence of his guilt. If French Jews show any connection to Israel – even constructive criticism – they are assumed guilty of persecution! While it is now generally unacceptable for Jews to be persecuted on the basis of Nazi-era stereotypes, it is acceptable for us to be persecuted for being perceived as persecutors.

History shows us how one gets rid of the “Jewish problem”: by making us the global enemy of society, and in so doing, removing our right to defend ourselves and to exist. How then will we survive?

The cause of the plague of anti-Semitism is spiritual, and therein lies the antidote. The Jewish people were chosen by God: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). What makes the Jewish people special is the One who set them apart. Ultimately, hatred against the Jewish people isn’t about the chosen, but the One who chose them. God Himself said, “He who touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8).

The reality is that our world is broken because of sin. It doesn’t work the way God created it to. The only way to mend it, to treat this plague and disrupt the cycle of hatred, is through redemption. In God’s immeasurable love for His people and the nations, He brought us a messiah whose very name means “salvation.” That salvation was born of suffering. Yeshua said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own… but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19). Just as the prophet Isaiah predicted, Yeshua took on that suffering willingly, to the point of becoming our atonement – offering healing to his own people and reconciliation to the rest of the world.

Author Bio: Joshua Turnil is the director of the Paris branch of Jews for Jesus. In 2018, Joshua and Jewish leaders Rabbi Gabriel Farhi and Raphaël Chemouni marched together in solidarity on the streets of Paris to protest rising anti-Semitism in their country. This demonstration of partnership within the Jewish community promises great hope for the future. 

Endnotes

1. Ernest L. Abel, The Roots of Anti-Semitism (London: Associated University Presses, 1975), 91–96.
2. Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Genius of Judaism (New York: Random House, 2017), 7.

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Joshua Turnil | Paris

Branch Leader

Joshua Turnil is the leader of the Paris branch of Jews for Jesus. Josh will fill you in on what is happening in Jewish evangelism in France. Joshua was born in New York and has a bachelors degree in French literature. His wife, Delphine, who is French, has a degree in American literature. He has three children, Ilan, Lilya and Levia. Josh has also produced a music album, “Praise and Glory,” and several evangelistic videos.

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