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Why France Is Losing the War on Anti-Semitism

It's coming from three very different sources. And it's extremely hard to combat online.

Graves vandalised with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

In the first weeks of 2019, French authorities discovered 96 tombs desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, the word “juden” scrawled across a bagel shop in Paris, and swastikas marring a street portrait of former government official and Auschwitz survivor, Simone Veil. On February 16 in Paris, a group of protestors in the Yellow Vest (“gilets jaunes”) movement cornered local Jewish intellectual, Alain Finkielkraut. “Dirty Zionist, you’re going to die!” they yelled, along with “Go home to Israel!” and “France is ours!”

Last year, France saw a 74 percent jump in anti-Semitic incidents. A survey from the European Union, released in December, found that a staggering 95 percent of French Jews saw anti-Semitism as either a fairly significant or a very big problem (more than any other country in the E.U.).

Within days of the Finkielkraut harassment, President Emmanuel Macron proposed a controversial new strategy to fight anti-Semitism, including broadening its legal definition, dissolving several far-right groups, and putting his support behind a law that would punish online hate speech with fines of up to several million euros.

France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third largest in the world. Anti-Semitism in the country springs not only from fringe online groups but also from a long history of Jewish persecution and a contemporary anti-establishment surge. Today, Jewish historians and advocacy groups say, the far-left, the far-right, and radical Muslims—groups with few shared interests, historically—are finding common ground in anti-Semitism and the gilets jaunes. And as they do so, the language of anti-Semitism is shifting, making it particularly hard to track and filter as new laws would demand.

“It’s old wine in new bottles,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history who famously won a legal battle against Holocaust denial in the 1990s. “It’s the same anti-Semitism but it morphs into different forms, different expressions, different manifestations.”

Old-school French anti-Semitism has been historically associated with conservative, often Catholic, factions, moving farther right over time. This is the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair starting in 1894—in which a Jewish army captain was wrongfully convicted of espionage and spent five years on a prison island—the anti-Semitism of the Vichy regime, and the anti-Semitism of twentieth-century far-right leaders like Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Recently, new strains have appeared in France, notably from the far-left and from France’s large Muslim community, where anti-Israel sentiment has morphed into anti-Semitism. Lipstadt, along with others on the ground in France, is quick to point out that most Muslims are not anti-Semites, and that the growing presence of anti-Semitic fundamentalists does not negate the issue of anti-Muslim prejudice in France or legitimate objections to Israel’s policies. The shift is rather about a small but loud faction of people who conflate Israel’s policies with Jews everywhere.

The far-right and the far-left in particular, with some buy-in from extremist Muslims, have found common ground in the Yellow Vests: a protest on a gas tax that quickly morphed into an all-out anti-establishment movement. As the protestors’ numbers have dwindled, those who remain have grown more extreme, although reports of anti-Semitism in the chaotic and heterogenous movement date back to the beginning of their movement in November 2018. This anti-Semitism has taken the form of anti-Jewish slogans, conspiracy-fueled rants, and the taunting of a Jewish woman on the Paris subway in December 2018. The group was also slow to make a statement on the Finkielkraut incident. When a response did come, prominent social media figures for the Yellow Vests insisted that the media outcry was a ploy to distract from their crusade.

The bill Emmanuel Macron has proposed, written by a deputy from his party, aims to make specifically online hate speech a priority. It would force social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter to remove hate speech in a set time period (likely 24 hours) or risk a fine of up to 37.5 million euros. Macron also previously advocated for a statute that would make it easier for the government to remove anonymity protections online, in order to prosecute individuals who engage in hate speech.

The plan has found support among the Jewish community, including the Jewish umbrella organization known as the CRIF and the Jewish Student Union (UEFJ). “Social networks are one of the main vectors of anti-Semitic hate, and of hate in general—because it’s also racist hatred, hatred of Muslims, hatred of LGBT people,” Francis Kalifat, president of the CRIF, told me. “Freedom of expression is something that we all cherish, but it must have limits.”

But given Facebook and Twitter’s history of laxness when it comes to hate speech online, some experts have questioned whether such a plan would be effective. Others criticized the proposed law as draconian and an impingement of free speech. “The intentions are noble, but the venture is perilous and could create a new victim: the Internet,” wrote one computer scientist in an op-ed for the French newspaper Le Figaro.

And while the law has been pitched to the public as a response to the most recent incidents, the uptick in anti-Semitic hate speech and violence predates the Yellow Vests, pointing to a more complicated and subversive source of hate speech—one hard to fight with laws such as this one. Much of the trouble in fighting online anti-Semitism stems from the shift in rhetoric to what some scholars call “soft anti-Semitism” or “new anti-Semitism.”

53-year-old French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has been convicted multiple times for inciting hatred against Jews, has become a prime example of this type of behavior. Dieudonné, as he is known, started out in the early 2000s as a far-left political activist, but is now increasingly associated with the fringes of the far-right. He substitutes the word “Zionist” for “Jew,” saying things like “Zionism killed Christ.” He also invented the “quenelle” salute, a gesture where people grasp their shoulder with one hand and point the other straight to the ground. Many have categorized it as a combination of a French gesture meaning “up yours” and the Nazi salute—with people performing it outside of Auschwitz and French synagogues (it is also popular among the gilets jaunes). Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front party founder who has been convicted for Holocaust denial multiple times, is a close friend and serves as the godfather to Dieudonné’s daughter.

Instead of the outright slurs of traditional anti-Semitism, this new form takes a more insidious angle, and one particularly hard to combat by filtering out certain words on an online platform. It sees Jews as part of a global elite conspiracy, an establishment controlling everything from the government, to media, to banking institutions. The conspiracy theory aspect has particular currency with the yellow vests. “They’re all Jews,” a Paris protester’s vest painted with a freemason pyramid read. A yellow vest encampment outside of Lyon featured an immense sign with the words “Macron = Banks = Media = Zion.”

France is not alone in its struggle to combat anti-Semitism and the proliferation of other conspiracy theories. In just the past two years, the U.S. has seen protestors in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!” and a mass shooting that killed 11 people in a Pennsylvania synagogue. Two studies in 2018 found a rise in anti-Semitic content on Twitter and Instagram. And while the House of Representatives voted last week to denounce anti-Semitism in the wake of a controversy wherein Representative Ilhan Omar criticized American policy vis-à-vis Israel, such efforts fail to address the actual sources of anti-Semitic content in American society—from the dark corners of the internet, to a populist surge, to a president who has peddled conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire George Soros.

While conspiracy theories are notoriously hard to fight, recent research does offer hope. Psychologists point to a combination of miseducation and narcissism as risk factors for conspiracy theory belief. Research has also shown that small and consistent interventions over such beliefs—whether about politics or science—can correct irrational thinking over time. Confronting anti-Semitic claims with evidence, showing their absurdity, is crucial, Lipstadt told me—even if it’s also prudent to keep some distance and avoid validating those acting in bad faith.

Any effective solution requires recognizing anti-Semitism as the problem that it is: not merely a handful of online trolls and not only a threat to Jewish people. “No healthy democratic society can tolerate having anti-Semitism in its midst,” Lipstadt said. “If they believe these irrational things about Jews, they’ll believe irrational things about their government. They’ll believe irrational things about the economy. They’ll believe irrational things about their neighbors. Conspiracy theories within a society are very dangerous.”