(Bloomberg) -- When France got rid of military service, it introduced instead a mandatory one-day seminar on “defense readiness” for all 18-year-olds. The day I had mine, there was a morning of presentations delivered by a meek reserve officer, who used a photo of the Sept. 11 attacks to help explain that France had a military, in part, to defend against terrorism.
That was the moment when one of the attendees, with the recognizable accent of the French “banlieues” — the immigrant-heavy suburbs — made his assertion: “It wasn’t terrorists who did Sept. 11. It was the Israelis, with missiles. I saw it on video.” The officer let it go.
That moment encapsulated a broader reality that French elites have been aware of for a while — the virulent anti-Semitism that holds sway in much of the country’s immigrant communities. Largely for reasons of political correctness, policy makers and leaders take pains to avoid the issue.
Last month, 250 French personalities, from former prime ministers to artists and intellectuals, published a “manifesto against the new anti-Semitism.” This, they clarified, is not the anti-Semitism of the reactionary right that prevailed during the Vichy regime during World War II and which is now moribund; it is an Islamist anti-Semitism that holds sway among immigrant communities.
The official interior ministry statistics they cited are chilling: French Jews are 25 times more likely than French Muslims to be victims of assault. Some 10 percent of Jews in the Paris area say they have had to move because of anti-Semitic assaults on them or on their children in public schools. The authors write of a “quiet ethnic cleansing” of French Jews from Muslim immigrant-majority neighborhoods. They note that many Muslim leaders fight Islamist anti-Semitism, adding that “most of them are under police protection, which speaks volumes on the reign of terror that Islamists have put French Muslims under.”
They accuse the French elite of choosing to see Islamic radicalism as “the expression of a social revolt”; in part because to self-interested politicians “the Muslim vote is 10 times bigger than the Jewish vote.”
The reactions to the letter were predictable. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and unofficial spokesman for French Islam, called it “insane.” The normally even-keeled center-left pundit Claude Askolovitch blasted the text for asserting that French identity and Islam are incompatible, even though it emphatically says no such thing.
The political correctness that tempts the hard left into covering up for anti-Semitism is not a French-only phenomenon: witness the endless contortions of U.K. Labour-leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose party lost the heavily Jewish borough of Barnet in last week’s local elections because it did too little to shake off charges. But it is particularly noxious in France, where the radical left holds so much sway over elite discourse, and where Muslim immigration is so much larger.
According to official figures from 2016, one-third of reported criminal acts in France with a racist motivation are anti-Semitic. The authors of the report note that these figures understate the reality since most Jews have stopped reporting all but the most violent anti-Semitic acts. In 2016, the pollster Ipsos found that fully half of French Muslims agreed with various anti-Semitic statements.
And yet, I have some sympathy for those outraged by the manifesto. Islamophobia is, as I’ve written, institutionalized in France, so their defensive reaction is understandable. Both sides have legitimate grievances. It is true that distressing numbers of French elites profess beliefs and engage in behaviors that can rightly be termed Islamophobic; it is also true that distressing numbers of French Muslims profess beliefs and engage in behaviors that are incompatible with life in an enlightened society, and that political correctness makes that subject taboo.
Each of these issues is a massive problem on its own, but the bigger problem is the cultural assumptions that cause each side to only look at one part of the story. There is only so much government can do against such cultural problems, beyond reciting platitudes — and when it does try to step in, it is with heavy-handed attacks on free speech that only make the problem worse. The result is a vicious cycle of growing hostility and mutual radicalization. It’s hard to see how to reverse it, but maybe one small step to help would be to dispel the kinds of myths and misnomers that fuel hatreds, like the one I witnessed when I was 18.
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