The drama plays out in arguments over the state of Israel. Two things make French arguments over Israel particularly passionate. First, French Jews' attachment to Israel is strong. There are 800,000 French-speakers in the Jewish state, and Jerusalem is just over four hours' flight away. So French Jews simply spend a lot of time there. They even speak of a "Boeing aliya" (borrowing the word for a migration to the Holy Land) that takes place every weekend. Certain causes célèbres, like that of the Franco-Jewish soldier Gilad Shalit, held hostage by Hamas in Gaza since 2006, tighten this bond.
The second is that French opposition to Israel is ferocious among certain groups of people who are closely listened to, especially immigrants and intellectuals. A host of organisations are dedicated to exposing the Jewish state's alleged misdeeds. These range from the Communist-inspired Association France Palestine Solidarité, which has existed for decades and organises marches and campaigns, to the newer Europalestine, which spearheads various boycotts and guerrilla theatre operations. They will, for example, enter a Carrefour supermarket en masse and cart out Israeli products. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated UOIF, which often holds a majority on France's official Muslim body, the CFCM, backs the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Hamas government of the Gaza strip. The Sheikh Yassin Collective, named after the Hamas leader slain in an Israeli anti-terrorist operation, is more hardline still.
There are flashpoints in this preoccupation with Israel's conduct, and they tend to result in tense times for Jews on the streets of Paris. Consider the anti-Israel flotilla of May 2010, which made news all over the world but had a special resonance in France. International anti-Israel activists sent a flotilla to break the Israeli blockade in Gazan waters. When Israeli troops boarded the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, they were met with armed resistance, and they killed nine. This led to a certain amount of rage among the global Left, but among French leftists it was extreme. There were 190 demonstrations against the incident across France the following day. A petition supporting an anti-Israeli flotilla scheduled for last spring drew the signatures of 300 influential people: Franco-Arab leaders, intellectuals, and deputies and senators not just from the Communist Party but also from the Socialist mainstream.
Even the attempts of oil-rich countries to slant discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian issue are more aggressive in France. Recently the Washington Post carried an article about Yale University's abandonment of its prestigious programme for studying anti-Semitism, possibly due to pressure from its Arab donors, and this sort of thing happens across Europe. But in France, the enormously gifted and appallingly anti-Semitic Franco-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné M'bala-M'bala has received financing from Iran to make a film about the slave trade. If it resembles Dieudonné's earlier public pronouncements on the subject, it will stress the role of Jews in setting it up.
How much those in the non-immigrant, non-intellectual mainstream of French life care about Middle Eastern matters is hard to gauge, but there are disquieting signs. One was the runaway popularity last winter of the pamphlet Indignez-Vous! penned by a 93-year-old veteran of the French resistance named Stéphane Hessel. "Get Mad!" would be a good translation of its title. In little more than a dozen platitudinous pages, Hessel, who is of Jewish background, assured its readers that they too could claim the mantle of the resistance. That was a message to which French readers were receptive, and the broadside sold more than a million copies. But what were French people supposed to resist, now that the Nazis were gone? "Today my main indignation concerns Palestine," Hessel wrote. He claimed Israel "is massacring innocent people," without being specific about who those people were. He went on to liken the Jewish people to the Nazis who once persecuted them: "That the Jews could themselves perpetrate war crimes is intolerable. Alas, history gives few examples of people who learn the lessons of their own history."
If the only people mobilised by such passions were the children of Palestinians in Europe, they might be seen as occupying a continuum with, for instance, the Boston Irish, who funded IRA terrorism throughout the second half of the 20th century — people with a genuine historical grievance, a stunted sense of when bygones become bygones, and a deplorable tendency to see violence as a first resort. But the demonisation of Israel is not that way. It has appeal outside the Palestinian community, and indeed outside the Muslim community. It is bizarrely single-minded and implausibly intense. This spring, as many frustrated Jewish monitors of anti-Semitism have noted, the Syrian government was killing more unarmed peace marchers, day after day after day, than were killed on the Mavi Marmara in a war zone. The German author and political commentator Henryk Broder has noted a similar bizarreness in his own country's political passions. Broder sees Germany in little danger of the classic, fascistic anti-Semitism that brought it low before, but he is troubled when a Stadtrat, or city counsellor, in Duisburg — a man whose job is to make sure garbage is collected promptly — feels he must enunciate a Middle East policy on behalf of the municipality.
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