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It couldn’t expunge the bloodbath; but, all the same, it was good to see François Hollande in Paris’s Grande Synagogue; and it was even better to hear Manuel Valls’s unequivocal denunciation of anti-Semitism in the National Assembly. France wouldn’t be the France he knew without Jews. The spontaneous chorus of “La Marseillaise” that broke out in the synagogue was a vote to stay.
So I shouldn’t have been thinking of the Game of the Jew. But I was. It was a favourite board game in late 18th-century France. Imported from Germany, it left most of the obscene caricatures behind: no more Jews sucking the teats of pigs; or abducting children to bake Passover matzos from their blood. All the same, when you played Jeu du Juif, you were stuck in the clutches of the money-grubbing Jews in the middle panel unless you threw a double six.
In eastern France, in Lorraine and the bishopric of Metz, Jews were indeed moneylenders as well as horse-traders and old-clothes vendors, and that was because they were forbidden to do much else — own shops, for instance. But the stereotype of gougers persisted right through the revolution. For that matter, a poll taken of British opinion recently discovered that one in four of those questioned thought Jews more interested in money-making than other British people. Voltaire, who has been much invoked amid the horror of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, felt much the same way. Ultimately, whatever their pretensions to enlightenment, they were too incorrigibly mercenary to join the rest of humanity. “You have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables in bad conduct and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny,” Voltaire wrote in one of his more brutal diatribes in 1772.
In his morally decent speech, prime minister Manuel Valls wanted to remind France and the world that it was in 1789 that Jews were first granted equality anywhere in the world. But he got the date wrong. It didn’t happen until September 1791 — and that was because a majority of the National Assembly did not, in fact, believe that Jews were capable of full citizenship. They were “a nation within a nation”, it was said; they wouldn’t abandon their own communities or their deplorable business habits. The result was that Jews joined a list of other unsuitables — public executioners and actors — waiting for égalité. Responding to Jewish eagerness to join “la nation”, an ex-aristocrat Stanislas Clermont-Tonnerre (who was to be killed by a mob in 1792) insisted in the spirit of Locke, Montesquieu and Jefferson that: “The law cannot affect the religion of a man. It can take no hold over his soul; it can affect only his actions, and it must protect those actions when they do no harm to society.” As for the alleged “unsociability” of the Jews, Clermont-Tonnerre denied it existed. So what if they balked at intermarriage or dining at tables that might not be kosher. “Is there a law that obliges me to marry your daughter? Is there a law that compels me to eat hare’s flesh, and eat it with you?”
Even when they were formally emancipated, the revolution turned out to be a mixed blessing for Jews. The Jacobin Terror’s war on all formal religions forced them to close their cemeteries and synagogues. Jews who had not shaved their beards ran the risk of being denounced as unpatriotic: a charge that could be lethal.
Jews had to wait until the next revolution of 1848 for full emancipation and no sooner had it come to pass than a fresh crop of anti-Semitic writing burst into poisonous bloom. It began on the left with Alphonse Toussenel’s Les juifs, rois de l’époque (Jews, Kings of the Epoch), in which the old canards of physical blood-sucking now became capitalist vampirism à la Rothschild. Then leftie anti-Semites were joined by righties who believed that “modern” Jews in particular had corrupted the ancestral, spiritual and territorial culture of Christian France. Edouard Drumont’s La France juive (Jewish France) was the runaway bestseller of the latter decades of the century. At the fore of the dehumanising hatred sustained in Drumont’s journal La Libre Parole was the charge that, ultimately, Jews were capable of only one allegiance: to each other. Hence the presumption, even after forgeries and false evidence were exposed, that Alfred Dreyfus must be guilty because it was inconceivable for him to have been a loyal soldier of France in the first place.
When France fell to the Germans in 1940, it had to be because the patrie had been sold down the river by Léon Blum, who, unaccountably, had become prime minister in 1936. Without being pushed by the Germans, Vichy had its own autonomous policy of deportations, above all of “foreign Jews” who had sought shelter there from Germany and Austria. After the war, survivors who attempted to reclaim homes and property were met with threats and actual violence. In Paris in the 1950s, I heard someone sneeringly refer to the Jewish prime minister Pierre Mendès-France as “Monsieur Pierre Mendès — curieusement surnommé France.”
That pathology was recycled in some of the most vicious slogans chanted at the demonstrations during the 2014 Gaza conflict: “Jews, France is not yours” and the like. Jean-Marie Le Pen may still feel that way — though, evidently, his daughter does not. But Amedy Coulibaly was driven to murder the four Jews at the supermarket by the assumption that all Jews are fair game when you want to make a point about Israel. And that presumption has its own history too.
Two of Coulibaly’s victims came from Jewish communities in Muslim countries which, between long periods of untroubled coexistence, came to suffer from such violent oppression in the mid 20th century that hundreds of thousands of them left for France as well as Israel. The anti-Semitism that engulfed them did not, it cannot be emphasised enough, begin with Zionism. In 1854, the very un-Zionist Jew Karl Marx published an article in the New York Daily Tribune on the daily humiliations and oppressions endured by Jews in some Muslim countries; especially brutal in Yemen, where it was standard practice for boys to throw stones at their Jewish schoolmates in the playground.
In 1840, there was a hideous case of blood libel in Damascus, in which seven innocent Jews were tortured, two dying from their wounds, and an ancient synagogue pillaged. As the 19th century went on, it got worse not better. It became common to abduct Jewish children whose father had died and forcibly convert them. If they dared revert to Judaism, they could be executed for apostasy, and some were. There were brutal attacks on Jewish communities from Persia to Fez. Anti-Semitism in the Middle East, as elsewhere, was not caused by Zionism. It was the reason for Zionism.
The presence of Sephardi and oriental Jews in Jerusalem was ancient and unbroken. There was a Jewish majority in the city by 1900. But the growth of Jewish Palestine undoubtedly inflamed Jewish-Arab relations. In some countries — Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia — old patterns of daily coexistence hung on. But as Palestine became the only hope of survival when other countries slammed their doors shut, the blowback in Arab countries was fatal to cohabitation. Jewish life itself now became a target. During the second world war an SS Colonel Walter Rauff, who had exterminated multitudes in mobile-gassing units, was assigned the job of creating a similar unit in Egypt. The local enemies of the Jews were to be mobilised for the work of human destruction, as they had been in Lithuania. If El Alamein had gone the other way, the killing industry would have extended to Baghdad, Cairo, Aleppo and Tel Aviv.
After the United Nations Partition Plan, in November 1947, and the surprising survival of the Jewish state, Jewish communities in Arab countries found themselves all treated as a “fifth column” whatever their professions of allegiance. Jewish leaders in Egypt dutifully denounced Zionism and contributed funds to the Egyptian army in Palestine but still there were mass arrests, exemplary punishments, mobs allowed to rampage. In 1963, a year after independence, Algeria deprived Jews of nationality. Muammar Gaddafi called for the obliteration of Jewish cemeteries; remains to be exhumed and thrown into the sea. In the end, some 850,000 Jews were dispossessed and uprooted from Muslim countries where they had lived for centuries; approximately the same number as the Palestinian victims of their tragedy. The tragic irony for the Hattab family, whose son Yoav was one of the Porte de Vincennes supermarket victims, is that notwithstanding all the difficulties, they opted to stay in Tunisia. But this was of no concern to Coulibaly. His targets — as they are for the controversial French comedian Dieudonné — were Jews wherever they happen to be.
. . .
There is light in the darkness of this history. Lassana Bathily, who hid people in the supermarket’s cold store, was just another of countless non-Jews who have put their lives on the line to save Jews from destruction: gentile Dreyfusards; hiders of Jewish children in the war; many Muslims who at the height of violence in 1947-1960 did what they could to save their old neighbours. In 1948, Martin Gilbert reminds us, the Egyptian Jew Abraham Matalon encountered the Alexandria leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in prison. He wanted to learn Hebrew; Matalon, the Koran. One was a Zionist; the other bitterly anti-Zionist. It didn’t matter. “When you come to talk to your enemy,” Matalon said, “you see he is a different person, you can see the human side.”
For that “human side” to prevail over mutual hatred and the will to kill, education, not legislation, is needed. It is not good that Jews cannot wear skullcaps in the street for fear of physical attack; nor is it good that Muslim women face arrest if they wear the burqa. Neither does anyone any harm. Both communities should know each other’s history, and without the burden of a victimisation competition. The rest of France should accept that those histories are theirs too. But in the end, the only school of tolerance will come from the academy of the everyday: the café, the street, the classroom, the workplace. For in those places, the precious, humdrum urge to live and let live will resist the hate-filled shrieking of blood-drunk executioners.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor