A Frightening Look at the Rise of Anti-Semitism in France

Laura Fairrie’s new documentary ‘Spiral’ examines the atmosphere in France, where hate crimes against Jews are on the rise.

Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty

Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and Americans need only look at their own commander-in-chief—a man willing to dub neo-Nazis “very fine people” and hire the likes of Steve Bannon—to witness that trajectory firsthand. Nowhere is this alarming trend felt more urgently, however, than in Europe, and particularly in France, home to the largest Jewish population on the continent (500,000), and fourth largest in the world, and the location of numerous attacks against Jews in recent years, be it the stabbing death of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, in her Paris apartment, or the 2015 slaughter of four Jewish patrons of a kosher “Hypercacher” that was linked to the Charlie Hebdo killings. With an average of nearly two attacks against Jews per week, France has become the epicenter of our era’s new anti-Jewish hostility.

While there are many possible reasons for this upswing in French hate, be it the rise of nationalist parties (like the right-wing National Rally, led by extremist Marine Le Pen) or the burgeoning number of radicalized Muslims in the country (who, according to one recent study, are generally the perpetrators of these crimes), there’s no longer any reasonable means of denying that it exists. Laura Fairrie’s Spiral, which is now playing in theaters, addresses this reality with few of the devices so common to modern non-fiction filmmaking. No stats are presented via functional title cards. Talking-head interviews with scholars and experts are wholly absent. And a single theory to explain this phenomena is never proffered. A term-paper documentary this is not.

Nonetheless, Fairrie’s film isn’t lacking a position. Opening vistas of landscapes spied out the windows of moving trains suggest the inexorable forward-momentum of anti-Semitism in Europe, as well as the reaction with which some have met it. For the Durans, a lack of security has compelled them to abandon the French flat they’ve called their own for the past decade in order to relocate to Israel. It’s a move that none of them are happy to undertake, in large part because they all admit they feel more connected to France (their native land) than to their destination. Yet thanks to horror stories such as one told by their oldest son—in which a friend was being beaten by attackers, and a passerby, upon hearing that the assaulted kid was Jewish, told the thugs, “Well carry on, that’s fine”—they now feel as if their backs are up against a wall.

A different sort of move defines the circumstances of an orthodox Jewish man named Sopher, who along with his wife and young children has left Manchester, England, to live on the outskirts of the West Bank settlements. Convinced he’s doing God’s work, he ponders violating his own principals and purchasing a gun, all because of the recent nearby murder of an entire clan. Back in Paris, young lawyer Julien, rather than responding to threats by changing his location, opts to stand his ground, waging legal war against those who not only commit atrocities, but also disseminate the ugly anti-Semitic propaganda that litters the Internet. In France, that viral vileness is embodied by comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, the target of numerous hate-speech prosecutions by authorities because of his popular routines mocking and denigrating Jews and the Holocaust—one presented here, for example, finds him jokingly casting the Final Solution as merely a dead horse that Jews beat for sympathy and money.

Dieudonné himself appears as one of Spiral’s many subjects, proclaiming himself an unjust victim of a white society that expects him to care about historical crimes committed against people who, he claims, were his own African ancestors’ oppressors. Fairrie intertwines Dieudonné’s corrosive voice with those of many others, including a Sarcelles community leader named Nabil who says that Arabs and blacks resent the fact that violence against Jews is prioritized above that of other groups, as well as another Jewish family, the Meimouns, who now live in fear after the bombing of a pharmacy directly below their (former) apartment. Together, they’re polarized perspectives defined by distress and anger, and ones that, according to Jewish teacher Francois, only beget a never-ending cycle (i.e. spiral) of isolation, distrust and death.

Spiral doesn’t prioritize any one of its speakers, allowing its collection of opinions to commingle in ways intended to impart larger truths. That’s often an evocative means of investigating what is, at heart, a thorny hot-button issue. When Mr. Meimoun compares his own youth (in which French Jews and Arabs lived in harmony) to that of his kids, and Fairrie cuts to one of his daughters playing a military first-person shooter videogame, the director silently captures a larger sense of how real-world (anti-Semitic) bloodshed has become so endemic and normalized, it’s been transformed into a form of entertainment. And when Francois lectures an Israeli student about her paranoia (created, supposedly, from her insular upbringing), Fairrie’s transition to the face of Mr. Meimoun’s younger daughter—who’s known terror first-hand—speaks volumes about Francois’ own academic narrow-mindedness.

Fairrie’s expressionistic approach does have its drawbacks. While the film strikes a suitably despondent mood, it’s also so placid and reserved as to feel detached from the action at hand, even when the director is situated on these people’s property and in their cars. More pressing still, one wishes the underlying causes of anti-Semitism were more fully laid out; an illuminating historical-religious-cultural framework for her material would have been welcome. That’s especially the case whenever the film strives for even-handedness, which comes via cursory scenes in which Palestinian boys preach Koran-inspired patience for retribution against Israelis for stealing their land, and Nabil talks about how persecuted he is (as an Arab) for repeatedly driving by a security forces-protected Jewish school.

The problem isn’t with the film’s multitude of viewpoints; rather, it’s that Fairrie’s other-side-of-the-argument speakers all point the finger for anti-Semitism squarely back at Jews for causing their own dire situation. Such comments render these individuals part of the problem rather than any solution about how to quell this intolerant tide. Then again, perhaps exposing these individuals’ own root prejudice is, in the end, Spiral’s worthiest triumph.