Is This France?

The brutal, overtly anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish couple in their own home in a Paris suburb last week has prompted public officials to condemn such crimes and promise to fight back against the rise of anti-Semitism in France.

What is there left to say about French or European anti-Semitism that hasn’t already been said? And what good are the promises to do something about it when so many such promises in recent years have not stemmed the scourge?

One thing we can say is that we disagree with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls that “[w]hat happened in Creteil, this abominable crime, this violence … against a family because they are Jewish. That’s not France.”

Coming as it did just days before France agreed to pay reparations to American survivors of the Holocaust who were deported to Nazi death camps in French trains, it is hard to say that this incident “is not France.”

Especially in view of the years of resistance put up by France’s state-owned SNCF railway (if anyone was wondering why it took so long to arrange this compensation). Although SNCF officials had formally expressed regret about the company’s role in the deportations, they refused to pay compensation, claiming that the railway’s part in the shameful episode had been involuntary, forced upon them by the Nazis.

Until, that is, pending state and federal legislation threatened a ban on SNCF or its foreign subsidiaries from winning contracts in the United States. The agreement just reached stipulates that the matter shall be considered closed, thereby allowing SNCF to proceed with business as usual, including a bid for a certain multi-billion dollar rail project in Maryland.

French collaboration in the Holocaust is a long-established fact, as is the generations-long history of anti-Semitism that stretches back to persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages.

To be sure, we do not mean to accuse every French citizen of bigotry. Only a small number of people, and many of them born and raised outside France, participated in recent attacks on the Jewish community. But it cannot be denied that it is a part of France that has yet to be eradicated.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred protesters on Sunday, France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve pledged that the government would defend the Jewish community with “all its force.”

“We must make the fight against racism and anti-Semitism a national cause,” he said.

In order to make it a national cause, one has to first recognize the depth of the problem. We don’t know if Mr. Cazeneuve does or not, but at least he isn’t denying it.

Still, these fine and necessary words are also vague.

Presumably he means more security for Jews and Jewish institutions. The Jews of France (those who haven’t already left or are packing their bags for safer destinations) would no doubt appreciate it.

But after every major terrorist or anti-Semitic attack there is a show of force and a flurry of rhetoric. Then the emergency passes and things go back to normal — until the next outrage. The problem does not go away; it only gets worse.

If the French authorities and the French people are to make a national cause of ridding their country of anti-Semitism, it will take much more. But what?

There is no magic formula for bringing anti-Semitism to an end. As much as the civilized world recoiled at the Holocaust, and despite all the Holocaust museums and productions, 70 years later we are witness to a recrudescence of violent Jew hatred in Europe.

But that does not excuse anyone from rethinking how it can be fought. We want to suggest here that generalized declarations be followed up with specifics — a specific program in schools and public places.

One leading watchdog against anti-Semitism recently identified no less than 90 ways for people to educate themselves and each other about the evil. The French can formulate their own programs. Perhaps, in the spirit of making it a national cause, specific numeric goals can be set for public awareness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Surely, at the very least, the number of people who have minimal knowledge of the Holocaust can be raised. There can also be nationwide literary and art competitions related to the subject.

Again, we do not delude ourselves into thinking that France can purge itself of this hatred — only that there is an obligation to improve the situation as much as possible.

That is for France. But for us, as Jews, nothing has changed. The principle that Esav soneh l’Yaakov remains. There aren’t 90 ways to change it, either. There is only one: Hakol kol Yaakov, v’hayadayim yedei Esav. Only when the voice of Yaakov, the sound of Torah, prevails, will the violence and ugliness of anti-Semitism disappear completely from the face of the earth.