Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the French Anti-Semitism Myth

Although Dominique Strauss-Kahn fits the stereotype of rich, leftist, Jewish banker preying on the poor and getting ethnic support from notable friends, there have been few anti-Jewish attacks on him in France, showing that claims of an anti-Semitism epidemic in the country are overblown, writes Eric Alterman.

05.19.11 11:08 PM ET

It’s an anti-Semite’s dream and a nervous Jew’s nightmare. Imagine: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an extremely wealthy international French Jewish banker—married to a media star and famous for his extravagant lifestyle and leftist politics—enjoying a $3,000 New York hotel suite allegedly violently rapes a poor, powerless, devout Muslim maid from West Africa and expects to fly home to Paris (first class, of course) as if nothing happened.

To make matters worse, who leaps to his defense but yet another high-living leftist French Jewish intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who insists, in one of the oddest professions of class solidarity ever issued, "I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other." Though to be fair, for sheer oddness Lévy is matched, if not topped, by the “I am Spartacus”-style statement by the right-wing Jewish financial pundit Ben Stein, who insists that Mr. Strauss-Kahn must be innocent because, “People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes? Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes?” whereas many hotel maids are “ complete lunatics, stealing airline tickets…stealing money…throwing away important papers, stealing medications..." And this is perhaps not even his craziest point. There’s this one too: “[T]his is a case about the hatred of the have-nots for the haves, and that's what it's all about. A man pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room? He's got to be guilty of something. Bring out the guillotine." And beyond the Lévy and Klein comments, did I mention that Strauss-Kahn has hired an extremely expensive orthodox Jewish lawyer?

All of this is primo fodder for anyone wanting to lob anti-Jewish comments in DSK’s direction, or even issue anti-Semitic broadsides about Jews inevitably rising to the defense of one of their own, regardless of the circumstances. And much of the criticism would be expected to come from France. For more than a decade now, we’ve been hearing about an alleged epidemic of anti-Semitism all across the Western world, but nowhere more than in Europe—and in Europe, nowhere more than in France. It was not so long ago that the American Jewish Congress called for a boycott of the Cannes Film Festival and a halt to organized Jewish tours of France to protest French anti-Semitism. Ed Koch wanted an American boycott of all French products. Israel's ambassador to France at the time, Nissim Zvili, insisted that French Jews were so " afraid of anti-Semitic attacks that many of them are thinking of emigrating," Ariel Sharon, then prime minister of Israel, warned them to flee their nation to escape " the wildest anti-Semitism."

Strauss-Kahn’s religion has proven relevant to only two types of people: Neo-Nazis and Ann Coulter.

There was some dissent from this view at the time. "France is not more anti-Semitic than America," argued Roger Cukierman, then the head of the Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF). He called on U.S. Jewish organizations to stop interfering in the affairs of French Jews, and suggested that the attacks on Jewish institutions at the time were the result of a fringe section of France’s six million-strong Muslim community. ( France has 600,000 Jews, the largest number outside the U.S and Israel. Cukierman thought the violence was a direct result of Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian intifada.

If ever there was a time that French anti-Semitism were going to rear its head, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has all but issued an engraved invitation. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single anti-Semitic stereotype that he does not exemplify. Think about it. Jewish banker: check. Jewish cosmopolitan globalist running shadowy financial institution that nobody quite understands: check. Jewish leftist: check. Jewish sex maniac: check. Jewish predator on the poor and powerless: check. Jewish rich guy with beautiful wife in powerful media job: check. Jew with Jewish lawyer: check. Jew with famous Jewish friends in the media defending him purely on the basis of personal and ethnic ties, with no apparent concern as to whether he’s innocent or guilty: check.

And yet this card-carrying Mosaic member of the " caviar left”, with his $3,000 hotel suites and $3,500 suits and million-dollar apartments, etc., together with all of these stereotypical "Jewish” flaws named above was somehow the leading candidate to become France’s next president. (Help me: Has the United States ever had a Jewish president?)

Ironically, almost all the conspiracy theories floating around France for this historic upheaval in the nation’s political future have centered not around Jews, but around President Sarkozy’s interest in upending the candidacy of the man most likely to replace him. Marc Knobel, a researcher at CRIF, told a reporter he could find no significant mentions of Strauss-Kahn’s Judaism in the aftermath of his dramatic arrest. In fact the opposite was true. “[E]verybody knew he was Jewish, and that didn’t prevent him from being the most popular candidate in France,” added CRIF’s president, Richard Prasquier. “And that says something about France. Today we find it completely normal that a Jew can become president.”

As it happens, Strauss-Kahn’s religion has proven relevant, really, to only two types of people: Neo Nazis and Ann Coulter, (though this might be a distinction without a difference).

What can one say to all of this except “ Vive La France?” How about "We’re sorry.”

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.