French President’s Promise to Crack Down on Anti-Semitism Could Threaten Critics of Israel

French police officers will investigate critics of Israel who question the nature of the Jewish state for possible violations of law against hate speech.

TOPSHOT - French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a grave vandalised with a swastika during a visit at the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, on February 19, 2019, on the day of a nationwide marches against a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. - Around 80 graves have been vandalised at the Jewish cemetery in the village of Quatzenheim, close to the border with Germany in the Alsace region, which were discovered early February 19, 2019, according to a statement from the regional security office. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / POOL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron visited a Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France, where dozens of graves were defaced with swastikas. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

The French government will instruct police officers and magistrates to investigate critics of Israel who question its right to exist as a Jewish nation-state for possible violations of the law against anti-Semitic hate speech, President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday night.

“Anti-Semitism hides more and more behind the mask of anti-Zionism,” Macron said in an address to the Council of Jewish Institutions in France. “Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism.”

The French president added that France would adopt a definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That definition has been condemned by supporters of Palestinian rights for including as an example of anti-Semitism: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

While Macron also said that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, that distinction was quickly blurred by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who released a statement welcoming the news that France had adopted a “definition which determines that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism.”

Since anti-Semitism is prohibited hate speech punishable by up to one year in prison under French law, critics of Israeli policies that discriminate against non-Jewish citizens and that deny basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians living under military rule could be at risk of prosecution. Supporters of a binational state, with equal rights for Arabs and Jews, and proponents of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they were expelled from when Israel was founded could also be in legal jeopardy.

Macron said that action was necessary after a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the past week, in which 96 Jewish graves in Alsace were defaced with swastikas and Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known philosopher, was harassed by yellow vest protesters in Paris who called him a “dirty Zionist shit.”

When Macron visited the cemetery, in the Alsatian village of Quatzenheim, on Tuesday, a French television channel was forced to end a live broadcast on Facebook after their moderators became overwhelmed with vile anti-Semitic comments. “We are not talking about stupid or off-topic comments,” the channel explained, “but explicit calls for murder, overtly anti-Semitic and racist comments, like ‘Heil Hitler,’ or ‘dirty Jews.’” The same night, thousands attended protests against anti-Semitism in Paris and other cities.

After a two-year drop, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in France increased in 2018, to 541, according to official statistics. That number included 81 physical assaults, 102 attacks on property, and 358 anti-Semitic threats. (There were twice as many reported anti-Christian incidents, at 1,063, while reported attacks on Muslims, at 100, fell to the lowest total recorded since 2010.)

Although the president’s words were greeted with applause by leaders of France’s Jewish community, some were reportedly disappointed by Macron’s statement that there was no need to change the French penal code to define anti-Zionism as a crime. Instead, Macron said, police officers and magistrates would be encouraged to take complaints about anti-Zionist remarks seriously as possible hate crimes.

The debate over whether the nationalist ideology behind Israel’s founding — that Jews have a right to a Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine, from which Palestinians are excluded — can fairly be described as racist is not a new one. In 2001, Israel and the United States walked out of a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa over a draft declaration that condemned the “racist practices of Zionism” and “the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority.”

Under the leadership of Netanyahu, Israel has leant its full support to conflating all criticism of Israeli actions with anti-Semitism. Last year, for instance, as accusations of anti-Semitism were leveled at the British Labour Party for refusing to accept the full IHRA definition, Israel’s ambassador in London, Mark Regev, told Channel 4 News that, in his view, anti-Zionism was motivated by anti-Semitism.

As the late historian Tony Judt observed in 2003, in a New York Review of Books essay arguing for a one-state solution, the Zionist dream of establishing a nation-state for Jews on the land their ancestors had departed centuries earlier was originally inspired by nationalist movements in Europe, as the continental empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs dissolved at the end of the First World War. But the Zionists had to wait another three decades for “the retreat of imperial Britain” to establish “an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire.” Israel’s core problem, Judt suggested, was that “it arrived too late.”

“It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law,” Judt added. “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

Netanyahu’s own claim to anti-racist credentials has been severely undercut by his efforts to boost the election prospects of an openly racist, far-right party called Jewish Power, which he hopes to include in his next coalition government. The party’s leaders are former followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the virulently anti-Arab founder of the Jewish Defense League, whose extremist Kach party was designated a terrorist organization in 1994 after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine in the West Bank city of Hebron.

One of the Jewish Power leaders Netanyahu has courted was known for organizing celebrations of Goldstein’s massacre. Another leads a direct action group dedicated to preventing romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs and was accused, in 2014, of an arson attack against a Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem.

Before he was assassinated in 1990, Kahane served in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, where he introduced legislation to strip non-Jews of their citizenship and called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the occupied territories. “At the time,” Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13 news noted, “senior members of the Likud attacked Kahane’s policies and said they were similar to the Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis before the Holocaust.” When Kahane spoke, the other members of the Knesset, including the Likud party Netanyahu now leads, would boycott him by walking out of the chamber.

Now, to increase his odds of staying in power, Netanyahu personally intervened to encourage another far-right party to merge with Jewish Power, and as Ravid reports, the prime minister even “signed a formal agreement with the united ultra right-wing party promising its members two ministerial posts in the next government, as well as two seats in the Security Cabinet.”

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