In France, Progressives Fight a Two-Front Battle Against Israeli Propaganda and Anti-Semitism

2014 731 fra swProtest in Paris against the war Israel launch against the Hamas in the Palestinian territories of Gaza. Paris, France. January 10, 2009. (Photo: looking4poetry / Flickr)Progressives in France have to fight a two-front battle: one against the murderous attacks carried out by the Israeli far right that some Israelis call “fascist,” and a domestic one against the strange alliance between some genuinely anti-Semitic far right and Islamist groups.

In a recent article published by The Guardian, Daniel Barenboim mentions that he’s the holder of both an Israeli and a Palestinian passport. He also states what should be obvious to anyone following events in the Middle East: that there is no military solution to the Gaza or more largely to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This attitude is rare among analysts or commentators who often take one side versus the other.

There is no doubt that Israel bears the chief responsibility for the terrible loss of human lives taking place now. It started the current bout of fighting before Hamas launched its rockets; it indiscriminately bombs mostly civilian populations and justifies its bombing by using the canard that Hamas hides among civilians when, according to Human Rights Watch, it is mostly Israel that uses that particular tactic. Hamas responds violently although the death toll shows the disparity in power and therefore in the deaths caused by military actions. All this is well known to anyone wishing to be informed.

In France, demonstrations against the Israeli massacres in Gaza have sometimes been banned by a very pro-Israel government calling itself socialist. In a democracy, of course, it is rather rare and unconstitutional to ban demonstrations – as the example of many other democracies shows. Britain did not ban demonstrations; among democracies, France only did. The bans were justified by the French prime minister who argued that they were organized by anti-Semites or that anti-Semites would escape the control of the organizers. Whenever demonstrations were allowed outside Paris, there were no rampages or anti-Semitic declarations.

It would be easy to deconstruct the official discourse and show that Israeli propaganda always plays the same game, well known in the United States too. That is, it deflects legitimate critiques of Israel toward accusations of anti-Semitism, often conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (precisely what some anti-Semites are doing). Yet in France, a small group of people does correspond to what is generally a slanderous accusation on the part of the propaganda machine. Some individuals and groups close to the far right and supporters of anti-Semitic Dieudonné or of former leftist turned far-rightist Soral, mix with pro-Palestinian demonstrators and Islamist groups who advocate violence against Jews or the West (and in some cases Christians). This very small minority gives the pro-Israel lobby, mostly organized around CRIF in France (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France, a French AIPAC), an opportunity to base their propaganda on a few facts: Some anti-Semitic statements are made and the confusion between Israelis, Jews and Zionists is indeed encouraged by some demonstrators.

Leftists thus have a hard task deploying their anti-Israeli messages, in large part because of the rhetorical help unwittingly given by far rightists or Islamists. Decent progressives, of course, cannot side with anti-Semites in the same way that they must oppose the reduction of Islam to terrorism or Islamism.

Netanyahu is widely considered to have torpedoed Rabin’s efforts to move toward peace with the Palestinians and also to be morally responsible for Rabin’s assassination. Today, he is in power flanked by even more racist and war-mongering acolytes like Avigdor Lieberman and he strives to do everything to stop peace and justice for Palestine. He claims to act in defense of “the Jewish people,” thus lassoing in all the Jews who oppose his policies, all the Jews who are active in movements for justice for the Palestinians, all leftists who are thrown in the same bag as Islamist terrorists in Israel itself, as Max Blumenthal convincingly shows in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

In other words, Netanyahu uses a rhetorical tactic that is common among anti-Semites: He lumps all Jews together and attributes character traits or attitudes to all Jews. Not surprisingly many Jews, for instance those in Jewish Voice for Peace in the United States or Union Juive Française pour la Paix (French Jewish Union for Peace) loudly declare that what Israel is doing in Gaza is not in their name. In France, those who denounce anti-Semitism but support Israel never say a word about Israel’s bombings and massacres, thus making their denunciations very lopsided. Decent people, of course, denounce both the massacres and anti-Semitism.

Whenever there is a protest movement with a violent out-of-control fringe, the media focus on the fringe in order to delegitimize the whole movement. Americans have been aware of this at least since the 1960s. This is what is happening in France now with pro-Israel supporters arguing that there is a Kristallnacht (crystal night) in France. This is of course a lie, for authorities are on the side of Israel, contrary to Nazi Germany where authorities organized the pogroms and destruction. The memory of the victims of the Holocaust is instrumentalized and therefore sullied in defense of a cause of which “just” people could not have approved.

A highly respected figure like Robert Badinter, the former justice minister who abolished the death penalty in France, claims that there are once again shouts in the street calling for “Death to the Jews” as there were in his youth. It is unfortunately not all propaganda – for there are such shouts – but mostly from thugs and very small groups. These groups are in unknowing collusion with the Israeli lobby, for they both work to deflect attention from what is happening in Gaza now and to change the conversation.

Leftists cannot accept anti-Semitic rhetoric and they need to deconstruct Israeli propaganda, which uses the terrible accusation of anti-Semitism to cow critics of the far right racist government of Israel. (On anti-Semitism in France, real or alleged, watch this interview.) Netanyahu, as usual, uses the horror of the Holocaust to legitimize his horrific devastations. Those shouting anti-Semitic slogans in the streets of Paris, a very small minority, are of the same racist type as those shouting “Death to Arabs” in Israel. Thus progressives in France have to fight a two-front battle: one against the murderous attacks carried out by the Israeli far right that some Israelis, like Uri Avnery, call “fascist,” and a domestic one against the strange alliance between the far right and some Islamist groups.

Like Avnery or Barenboim, we need to move away from any ethnic or religious affiliation to deal with what is basically a political problem. Being on the side of justice means pointing out the “dispossession” of Palestinians (Edward Said) and denouncing the support for Israel’s military devastation without ever confusing Jews with Israelis or Zionists, and without supporting war crimes committed in retaliation for other war crimes. The left in France supported Algerian independence even if the National Liberation Front (FLN) had some dubious sides (for instance, killing other Algerian resistance fighters).

Today, the question is not about supporting Hamas or not. In the same way, as for the United States in Vietnam, the question was not about supporting the communists in Hanoi or among the Vietcong, but stopping an imperialist war. What is happening in Gaza is a matter of concern for all – Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and Europeans, indeed all humans. Netanyahu and the anti-Semites belong to the same ignoble racist category, and opponents of the massacres are fighters for justice and respect. Edward Said, the fighter for Palestinian rights, was a friend of Barenboim, an admirer of Freud who always told his audiences about the horrible crimes of the Holocaust. The “righteous” today fight both against Israeli bombings and anti-Semitism.