I. The Scourge of Our Time
The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Holocaust survivors, is an accomplished, even gifted, pessimist. To his disciples, he is a Jewish Zola, accusing France’s bien-pensant intellectual class of complicity in its own suicide. To his foes, he is a reactionary whose nostalgia for a fairy-tale French past is induced by an irrational fear of Muslims. Finkielkraut’s cast of mind is generally dark, but when we met in Paris in early January, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he was positively grim.
“My French identity is reinforced by the very large number of people who openly declare, often now with violence, their hostility to French values and culture,” he said. “I live in a strange place. There is so much guilt and so much worry.” We were seated at a table in his apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens. I had come to discuss with him the precarious future of French Jewry, but, as the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers seemed to be reaching its conclusion, we had become fixated on the television.
Finkielkraut sees himself as an alienated man of the left. He says he loathes both radical Islamism and its most ferocious French critic, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing—and once openly anti-Semitic—National Front party. But he has lately come to find radical Islamism to be a more immediate, even existential, threat to France than the National Front. “I don’t trust Le Pen. I think there is real violence in her,” he told me. “But she is so successful because there actually is a problem of Islam in France, and until now she has been the only one to dare say it.”
Suddenly, there was news: a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, in eastern Paris, had come under attack. “Of course,” Finkielkraut said. “The Jews.” Even before anti-Semitic riots broke out in France last summer, Finkielkraut had become preoccupied with the well-being of France’s Jews.
We knew nothing about this new attack—except that we already knew everything. “People don’t defend the Jews as we expected to be defended,” he said. “It would be easier for the left to defend the Jews if the attackers were white and rightists.”
I asked him a very old Jewish question: Do you have a bag packed?
“We should not leave,” he said, “but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice.”
Reports suggested that a number of people were dead at the market. I said goodbye, and took the Métro to Porte de Vincennes. Stations near the market were closed, so I walked through neighborhoods crowded with police. Sirens echoed through the streets. Teenagers gathered by the barricades, taking selfies. No one had much information. One young man, however, said of the victims, “It’s just the Feuj.” Feuj, an inversion of Juif—“Jew”—is often used as a slur.
I located an acquaintance, a man who volunteers with the Jewish Community Security Service, a national organization founded after a synagogue bombing in 1980, to protect Jewish institutions from anti-Semitic attack. “Supermarkets now,” he said bleakly. We made our way closer to the forward police line, and heard volleys of gunfire. The police had raided the market; the suspect, Amedy Coulibaly, we soon heard, was dead. So were four Jews he had murdered. They had been shopping for the Sabbath when he entered the market and started shooting.
France’s 475,000 Jews represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Yet last year, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal. In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif—“dirty Jew”—rang in the streets, as did “Death to the Jews,” and “Jews to the gas.”
The epithet dirty Jew, Zola wrote in “J’Accuse …!,” was the “scourge of our time.” “J’Accuse …!” was published in 1898.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe is not—or should not be—a surprise. One of the least surprising phenomena in the history of civilization, in fact, is the persistence of anti-Semitism in Europe, which has been the wellspring of Judeophobia for 1,000 years. The Church itself functioned as the centrifuge of anti-Semitism from the time it rebelled against its mother religion until the middle of the 20th century. As Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, has observed, Europe has added to the global lexicon of bigotry such terms as Inquisition, blood libel, auto‑da‑fé, ghetto, pogrom, and Holocaust. Europe has blamed the Jews for an encyclopedia of sins. The Church blamed the Jews for killing Jesus; Voltaire blamed the Jews for inventing Christianity. In the febrile minds of anti-Semites, Jews were usurers and well-poisoners and spreaders of disease. Jews were the creators of both communism and capitalism; they were clannish but also cosmopolitan; cowardly and warmongering; self-righteous moralists and defilers of culture. Ideologues and demagogues of many permutations have understood the Jews to be a singularly malevolent force standing between the world and its perfection.
Despite this history of sorrow, Jews spent long periods living unmolested in Europe. And even amid the expulsions and persecutions and pogroms, Jewish culture prospered. Rabbis and sages produced texts and wrote liturgical poems that are still used today. Emancipation and enlightenment opened the broader culture to Jews, who came to prominence in politics, philosophy, the arts, and science—Chagall and Kafka, Einstein and Freud, Lévi-Strauss and Durkheim. An entire civiliza