As antisemitism rears its head in France, so does indifference

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 10:14am

As a non-Jew living in Paris, the scourge of antisemitism had, until recently, faded from my mind as a major concern.

But my eyes were opened in 2016 when I was approached by the USC Shoah Foundation to executive produce for them a new collection of testimonies on contemporary antisemitism in Europe and more particularly in France, Belgium, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden and the UK. 

In this position, I coordinated interviews with various people whose experiences with antisemitism were impactful on their lives in many different ways. Some of these testimonies were particularly hard and emotional. They included the mother of a 23-year-old Jewish man named Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped, tortured and ultimately killed in 2006 by a group of young French of various origins; and the tormented brother of an Islamic extremist who went on a shooting spree in 2012 in Toulouse that killed seven people, including teacher Jonathan Sandler and his two sons, Arié and Gabriel, both students at the school, as well as a third student, Myriam Monsenego.

Then came March 23, 2018. Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was murdered in her flat in Paris because she was Jewish. Since 2006, she is the eleventh victim killed in France because of her Jewishness. In the sweet smile of this fine-featured woman I saw a semblance to my own grandmother, whose face I used to cover with kisses as a child.

This latest event put me in a second state. Split between the feeling of an immense sadness, helplessness, on the one hand, and anger, on the other hand.

It made me angry because I sensed in my fellow French citizens a lack of alarm. Perhaps the same lack that I’d had before my work with victims of contemporary antisemitism woke me up. Or should I say, reawakened me.

In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, a movement was created to fight racism and antisemitism. It was called “Touche pas à mon pote” -- literally “Do not hurt My Pal.” In 1990, I had taken part in the demonstration when the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras had been desecrated by a group of Neo Nazis. We were thousands and thousands to walk in the streets of France then. I was 19 and felt the world belonged to me. Looking back, I realize how much more concerned I was then than ever after – until my affiliation with USC Shoah Foundation.

This work has propelled me into this dark side of the world, hidden in plain sight. Like millions of French people, I did not anticipate the Republic would be unable to handle this old evil creeping back.

A few days after Mireille Knoll’s murderer, I attended the march in her honor. We were a few thousand – certainly a fraction of the swelling crowds of 1990. Still it was a larger turnout that greatly exceeded that of another march a year earlier in homage to 65-year-old Sarah Halimi, who was thrown out of the window of her apartment by her neighbor who, whilst committing this horrible crime, shouted “Allahu akbar.”

It took more than a year of investigation for the French judicial system to qualify Sarah's murder as antisemitic. Mireille’s was recognized as such in the space of a few days. Encouraging, perhaps, but we have so far to go.

I very much believe that young people now must take the torch in the fight against hatred. This starts with education: French schools must redouble their efforts to teach the Holocaust in all neighborhoods and they must do it with qualified educators. But the onus is also on the youth. From afar I am admiring the fight against the carrying of guns organized by young Americans. We need a similar movement here – much as young Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists gathered in the streets to fight in the 90s with “Touche pas à mon pote.”

Today, I am not optimistic. Even in my own family, which values inclusivity and knows of my involvement with USC Shoah Foundation, nobody called to ask for my thoughts on poor Mireille. This is out of indifference rather than antisemitism. But indifference can be a stiff wind when the fires of hate are burning…

Marianne Lère