Anti-Semitism appears to have reached its worst levels since World War II, French President Emmanuel Macron told Jewish community leaders on Wednesday, a day after thousands of people took to the streets to denounce hate crimes.
The scourge has grown in recent years “and the situation has got worse in recent weeks,” Macron told the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF).
“Our country, and for that matter all of Europe and most Western democracies, seems to be facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II,” he added.
Europe’s biggest Jewish community is reeling after a string of attacks that have made global headlines.
Macron announced measures including legislation to fight hate speech on the internet, to be introduced by May.
He said he had asked his interior minister to take steps to ban racist or anti-Semitic groups, singling out “for a start” three far-right groups — Bastion Social, Blood and Honour Hexagone and Combat 18 — which he said “fuel hatred, promote discrimination or call for violence”.
He also vowed that France would recognize anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.
Macron earlier balked at a call by a lawmaker in his Republic on the Move party to criminalize anti-Zionist statements, which criticize the movement that established Israel as a home for Jews.
On a visit Tuesday to a cemetery in the Alsace region, near Germany, where 96 Jewish tombstones were daubed with swastikas, Macron promised: “We shall act, we shall pass laws, we shall punish.”
Also Tuesday, thousands of people, some carrying banners proclaiming “That’s enough”, held a rally in Paris to denounce anti-Semitism — one of around 70 protests staged nationwide.
The number of anti-Jewish crimes rose 74 percent last year.
Swastikas on gravestones and pictures of Holocaust survivors. A Jew shot with an air-rifle outside a Paris synagogue. A prominent Jewish public figure called “a dirty Jew.” A memorial tree for a Jewish man murdered in a brutal, antisemitic attack demonstrably chopped down before a remembrance service for him.
These are just some of the vicious, vitriolic, antisemitic attacks that have taken place in France in recent days, generating real concern over the rising anti-Jewish sentiment in the country of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
So what has prompted this rash of attacks?
Recent social turmoil in France and the febrile atmosphere generated by the so-called “yellow vest” movement has been identified as one of the phenomena that has stirred up antisemitic sentiment.
Although the movement started out as a protest against fuel tax hikes, it has morphed into a protest movement against the socioeconomic condition of the working and middle class with a highly populist strain of anti-“elite” rhetoric and beliefs.
At the same time, the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment, alive in significant portions of France’s large Muslim population, has been an engine for antisemitic attacks in the country for the last two decades.
It appears that the combination of these two phenomena, and a snowball effect in which one antisemite is emboldened by the antisemitic attack of another, is behind the recent outbreak of attacks.
Arfi notes that although antisemitic incidents in the “yellow vest” movement have become a serious phenomenon, Muslim antisemitism is still one of the central causes of antisemitism in the country and has been ever since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in Israel in 2000.
He points out that before this time, antisemitic incidents in France every year numbered in the dozens, but since then have numbered in the hundreds as a result of Muslim anger with Israeli policies and the expression of this anger against French Jews.
He says, however, that it is very hard to know the precise origin of the attacks given that the authorities do not release data on the identities of the perpetrators.
Regardless of the precise breakdown of antisemitic attacks by social grouping, France is clearly in the throes of a worrying assault on its Jewish community and its place in the republic.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have spoken out against the phenomenon and the rallies on Tuesday night demonstrate that large swaths of the population still stand against antisemitism.
But antisemitism in various forms and guises has also become more legitimate in the eyes of many who feel so liberated from its stigmas as to repeat ancient libels and slanders against their fellow citizens.
As Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog put it on Tuesday, the antisemitism virus has returned once again to the heart of Europe.