The Rise and (Alleged) Fall of French Anti-Semitism

Things have improved in France, but not so much as the ambassador to the U.S. would claim.

By Edward I. Koch & Rafael Medoff

The French ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Jean-David Levitte, had good news for the congregants at the Bronx synagogue he addressed last October: there had been a “48 percent decrease in reported anti-Semitic incidents [in France] over the past year.” As for the anti-Semitism back in 2001-2002, “Yes, we had a problem,” he acknowledged, “but it has abated. It’s not over, but the trend is encouraging.”

In view of the recurring eruptions of anti-Jewish violence in France in recent years, including, most notoriously, the torture-murder of a young Jewish man named Ilan Halimi by an anti-Semitic Muslim gang in February 2006, Monsieur Levitte’s announcement was good news indeed.

But how accurate was it?

We decided to write to the ambassador to ask if he would identify the sources for the figures he cited and comment on reports of recent anti-Semitic incidents in his country.

A month passed with no reply. So we wrote a second time, reiterating our original question and pointing out that there had been a number of disturbingly relevant episodes in the previous four weeks:

–arsonists attacked and damaged Merkaz HaTorah, a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Gagny (Nov. 8);

–the European Jewish Congress released a report which found that during July and August of 2006, there were 61 anti-Semitic incidents, “an increase of 79 percent over the same period last year.” (Nov. 12);

–a mob of French soccer fans shouting “Filthy Jew!” assaulted an Israeli man in a Paris restaurant, compelling the police to use lethal force to stop the attack (Nov. 23);

–and speakers at a conference held in November by CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish organizations, reported that “in many suburbs of Paris, few Jewish young people still attend public school because of violence or threats of violence, mainly from African and North African Arab students. Jewish parents have placed their children in private Jewish schools, many of which were established in the past few years.”

We asked the ambassador if that European Jewish Congress figure of 79 percent “is, to the best of your knowledge, correct; and if so, how does this square with your own reported statement of a recent decrease in anti-Semitic incidents?”

At long last, on December 5, 2006, Ambassador Levitte replied to our two letters. Since an ambassador’s job is to put his country’s best face forward, it is no surprise that he layered the letter with helpful quotations — a statement by French President Jacques Chirac condemning anti-Semitism, a statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praising Chirac’s stance, and a poll showing that most Frenchmen think favorably of Jews. All impressive enough, but not really to the point.

As for the substantive issue, Amb. Levitte wrote: “I confirm what I said in my remarks at Young Israel of Pelham Parkway on October 22.” He then quoted statistics that indeed show a 47-percent decrease (not identical, but close enough to the 48 percent cited in the Bronx). The problem, however, was that this number was for a time period earlier than the one about which we inquired.

The dates are critical. It was in late January 2006 that Ilan Halimi was kidnapped by an anti-Semitic Muslim gang and, after being tortured for three weeks in an apartment in a Paris suburb, was murdered. There was substantial evidence that anti-Semitism was a major motive of the perpetrators, and legitimate questions were raised by the Jewish community about what the neighbors may have known about what was happening in the apartment where Halimi was imprisoned for so long. Yet government and police spokesmen at first vehemently denied the attack was anti-Semitic, and none of the neighbors was ever prosecuted.

Thus the year following the Halimi murder can be seen as something of a litmus test: has the government, in response to the murder, taken sufficiently forceful measures to combat anti-Semitism, as it claims to have done?

That is exactly where Ambassador Levitte’s letter becomes problematic. When he quoted the figures for the time period that we were asking about — October 2005 through October 2006 — his numbers were drastically different from the ones that he had been quoted as citing in his Bronx speech.

“By the end of October 2006,” he wrote in his letter to us, “436 anti-Semitic incidents had been reported (compared with 450 for the same period in 2005).” That figure of 436 represents a decrease of only 3 percent. While any decrease is welcome, of course, a 3 percent decrease is a far cry from the 48 percent decrease he had claimed.

So we wrote again.

As politely as we could, we pointed out the contradiction between, on the one hand, the ambassador’s statement that there had been a 48 percent decrease and (and his subsequent statement “confirming” it), and, on the other hand, his assertion of a 3 percent decrease. Which is the right number, Monsieur Levitte?

Two and a half weeks later, his reply arrived. This one was much briefer than the first because, he wrote, he did “not wish to go into a point-by-point discussion” of the issues at stake. Instead, he chose to briefly reiterate that “substantial progress” has been made in France in the fight against anti-Semitism “over the last few years.” He said that these gains, “which were spectacular in 2005, look like being [sic] confirmed in 2006.”

It doesn’t look that way to us. It looks like, according to the government’s statistics, anti-Semitic incidents decreased by 48 percent in 2005 but by just 3 percent in 2006. And, given the government’s p.r. needs, those figures may well be the most optimistic possible.

“Even so,” Ambassador Levitte concluded, “the French government is not satisfied with the present situation and remains fully determined to keep up a tireless fight against anti-Semitism.”

Decisions on allocating time and resources to fighting anti-Semitism, like other governmental budgetary decisions, are made on the basis of the government’s perception of the problem. If French officials really believe that anti-Semitism has already dropped by 48 percent in the past year, will their government commit the resources necessary to effectively fight it? We wouldn’t take it for granted.

— Edward I. Koch, a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, served as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. They are coauthors of the forthcoming book, Confronting Antisemitism and the Holocaust.

As published in National Review Online – January 25, 2007

September 2007