After Monday's horrific shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in the southern French city of Toulouse, some members of the US press were swift to cite the incident as evidence of France’s waxing anti-Semitism. On the Commentary blog, for example, Jonathan Tobin claims the slaughter signals “the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world.”
“Revival” is the wrong word here. (Was it ever in abeyance? When? Where?) In reality, the French are aware that anti-Semitism is a persistent part of their culture; and they've taken strong measures—in some ways, stronger than America's—to address it.
Let us not make the dangerous leap of assuming that acts of violence accurately measure French anti-Semitism. The last anti-Semitic spike of this magnitude was the 1980 bombing of the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris, which killed four people and injured 40. Would this then mean that 1980 was another banner year for Tobin’s so-called “specter of European anti-Semitism”? Why then, and why not before or after?
What is far more telling than the existence of anti-Semitic incidents in France is how the French react to such incidents. And in many ways, the French response has been enviable.
For one thing, the mainstream French press readily came to the conclusion that the shooter was anti-Semitic. By contrast, the US mainstream media is maddeningly slow to use the word "anti-Semitic". I remember clearly the 1999 shooting at a Los Angeles area Jewish preschool. At the time, mainstream US news simply said a gunman opened fire at a Jewish school, making it sound as if the religious affiliation could have been accidental. As an American journalist, I grudgingly realize that this is the correct treatment of the news, to refrain from speculating on the shooter’s inner thoughts.
Still, I can't help but admire the French press’s reaction to the Toulouse shooting. Within minutes of the incident, just about every major French news source declared the gunman was clearly motivated by anti-Semitism—even though his identity was wholly unknown, and even though three of his previous presumed victims were non-Jewish French soldiers. One might even say the French press would rather err on the side of making a premature accusation of anti-Semitism, because history has shown the dangers of being cagey or overly proof-oriented.
Americans should also take note of another feature of French Jewry that came to light after the shooting: that the French media’s first reflex was to get reactions from the Grand-Rabbin—the Chief Rabbi, or the Rabbi-General, if you will. That’s right, the country that Charles de Gaulle called ungovernable because it had 246 kind of cheese somehow managed to create this position.
Elected by the French Jewish community, the Grand-Rabbin is an ingenious effort to weave the interests of a religious group into a secular state with minimal contradictions. Following a tragedy such as the Toulouse shooting, media outlets and politicians have a first-response contact. Not all French Jews will necessarily agree with him, but at least they have state-recognized representation. I realize that the US is about as likely to have a Grand-Rabbin as it is to have national identity cards.
But Americans should recognize that anti-Semitism in France is not a “spectre". The Gauls are perfectly aware of its existence and have taken measures to respond to it that in the US would be impossible to implement.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.