Pascal Boniface: “Criticizing the Policies of Israel Is Not Anti-Semitic“

2014 726 pasc stPascal Boniface speaking at the University of the Euro-Mediterranean. (Photo: Flickr)

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Pascal Boniface is the director of the IRIS (Institut des relations internationales et stratégiques), a left-leaning think tank in Paris, and has written many books on international relations. His most recent book is La France malade du conflit israélo-palestinien [France’s illness due to the Israel-Palestinian conflict] (Editions Salvator, 2014). This interview took place on the occasion of the prohibition by the French police of a demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinians in Paris on July 20. The demonstration took place nonetheless.

The Interview by Alexandre Devechhio, was published in Le Figaro (Paris), July 18, 2014, and translated by Jim Cohen.

FigaroVox: After the violent incidents that upset the pro-Israeli demonstration last Sunday, July 13th, the police authorities of Paris have undertaken an informal procedure to prohibit a demonstration in support of Gaza scheduled for Saturday. Is French society becoming a collateral victim of the Near-Eastern conflict?

Pascal Boniface: France is not becoming the victim of the Near-Eastern conflict; it has been a victim of it for a long time. The new upsurge in violence between the Israelis and Palestinians has provoked a spike of fever in France, but this “illness” due to the conflict is unfortunately not new. No conflict beyond France’s borders has provoked such passion and so much criticism of viewpoints that displease others. Longtime friendships between people who do not share the same views on this conflict have broken up. You don’t see this for any other conflict.

What is your opinion of the prohibition of demonstrations. Could this not prove to be counter-productive?

If the goal is to avoid the clash between communities, prohibiting demonstrations produces the opposite effect. Those who want to demonstrate may have the feeling that the government is responding to the desires of Jewish community institutions. There is also a violation of the right to demonstrate. Where should the limits be placed? Will it later be necessary to prohibit the numerous demonstrations of support to Israel? Should articles critical of the action of Israel be prohibited because they supposedly contribute to anti-Semitism? There is a risk of radicalizing a portion of those who feel solidarity with the Palestinians.

In your view, the confusion between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the Israeli government contributes to the importing of the conflict into France. What distinction do you make among these different notions?

This confusion is entertained by Jewish community institutions and certain Jewish intellectuals. Anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews; anti-Zionism is the opposition to the existence of a Jewish state. Neither has anything to do with criticism of the Israeli government – or else certain Israeli NGOs, and personalities such as Israeli politician Avraham Burg and journalist Gideon Levy are anti-Semites too! When we criticize the policy of Vladimir Putin, we are not accused of being racist toward the Russians. To brandish the accusation of anti-Semitism each time a criticism of the Israeli government is uttered serves only to protect the latter. The huge majority of those who declare their solidarity with the Palestinians also combat anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, and favor a two-state solution, which means they also support the existence of Israel.

When you accuse the Haut conseil à l’intégration [the French High Authority on Integration] of Islamophobia for some of its positions, in particular its recommendation that the Islamic headscarf be banned in the university, are you not committing a dangerous confusion between the legitimate criticism of sectarian community behavior (communautarisme) and anti-Muslim racism?

When the HCI proposed last summer to prohibit the headscarf in universities, I indeed took the position that it was proposing a measure that targeted Muslims exclusively because it did not call for banning signs of religious identification in general. It seemed to me that this would have set off a war at a time when the majority of French people agreed that the law of 2004, prohibiting the wearing of the headscarf in public secondary schools, but not the university, was quite sufficient.

In your view, many non-Jewish French people, Muslims in particular, have the feeling that there is a double standard at work in the struggle against racism and that anti-Semitic acts are given more media attention than other racist acts. But doesn’t your approach run the risk of encouraging the resentment of a certain youth in outlying urban areas toward Jews, and toward France, more generally?

Calling for the end of the double standard in the struggle against anti-Semitism as opposed to anti-Muslim racism, whether we’re talking about the media or political leaders, does not mean encouraging the resentment of these youth; on the contrary, it is a way of combating it. Denouncing an injustice or a form of unequal treatment is indeed the best way of fighting the syndrome of competition among victims. If everyone is placed on an equal footing – if all the children of the Republic are treated in the same way – then there is no such competition and there is less political space open for resentment.

Can you give some precise examples of this double standard ?

Many attacks have taken place against women wearing the veil, but these have not given rise to mobilizations to nearly the same extent as if the victims were men wearing the Jewish skullcap. To present the wearing of the veil as part of some plot to put the Republic on its knees – as some journalists do – contributes to an unhealthy atmosphere.

In a short article in Libération published on February 22, 2011, we learned that the car and the motorcycle of Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist specialized in Islam, were vandalized. On one of the vehicles the perpetrators wrote “No to minarets” and a note was left which read: “May Colombey-les-deux-Eglises [De Gaulle’s hometown, “Colombey of the two churches”] not become Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées [Colombey of the two mosques]. The moment will come when Islamo-collaborators will be made to pay.” Just imagine a comparable act committed against Bernard-Henri Lévy or Alain Finkielkraut – it would have been on the front page of every newspaper and all important politicians would have expressed their solidarity.

In your opinion, all racisms should be criticized, so what do you think about antiwhite racism?

It may be that some Arabs or blacks are racist with respect to those different from themselves. Possibly some whites are victims of racism. But there is no anti-white racism that is powerful, structured, based on many texts of reference, and which develops through social networks, is propagated in the press and supported by political leaders. Whites in France are not discriminated against.

You have had many difficulties in getting your latest book published. Are there certain subjects that remain taboo in France?

Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provokes passions, many people prefer to protect themselves, given that political criticism of the Israeli government is rapidly assimilated to anti-Semitism. Many people prefer to avoid the risk of such a defamatory label.

However, the French press is far from being in complicity with the Israeli government . . .

I know of few other subjects that appear so risky for political leaders and for the media. I know of no case in which political leaders, journalists or university professors who manifest their deep and possibly even unconditional commitment to Israel have been exposed to personal or professional sanctions. But many have had to pay a big price for having criticized the Israeli government. It is rather paradoxical that in France it is less risky for anyone to criticize the national authorities than those of a certain foreign government, that of Israel. I know of many people who tell me that they are in complete agreement with my analyses, but who prefer not to declare this publicly because they fear reprisals. I think that this reflects a dangerous strategy in the long run, even though in the short term it protects the Israeli government.