AJC expert charts rise of French extremism

AJC expert charts rise of French extremism

Jason Isaacson, left, and Rene-Pierre Azria spoke on The Future of French and European Jewry at the AJC Central NJ chapter’s Marshall Society reception.
Jason Isaacson, left, and Rene-Pierre Azria spoke on The Future of French and European Jewry at the AJC Central NJ chapter’s Marshall Society reception.

The capture of a young Islamist man who planned to bomb two churches near Paris has forced among French authorities a new understanding of extremism.

While attention has focused on attacks on Jews, the April 22 arrest suggests that few are safe from extremism.

“This opens a new recognition by the government and forces them to put plans in place that will reassure the population,” said Rene-Pierre Azria, chair of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris desk. “If not, after the next election, we will have the far Right, which will be really terrible and a huge strain on French pride and republican values.” 

At the same time, Azria said, the government must proceed carefully, lest it create rifts between different communities, including the 10 percent of French citizens who are Muslim.

“The purpose of terrorism is to radicalize all Muslims by making them feel discriminated against,” he explained. “The government wants to involve the Muslim community in the fight against extremists.”

Azria spoke on April 28 at the AJC Central NJ chapter’s Marshall Society reception at the Princeton home of AJC supporters Susan and Larry Kanter. 

Azria, a businessman who lives in Manhattan, said his weeklong visits every month for 30 years have kept him deeply involved in the French-Jewish community. 

Pointing to “a series of incidents not directly related to Palestinians, but related to the fact they are Jews” — including attacks in Paris, Toulouse, and Brussels — Azria noted that such incidents are no longer merely “anti-Israel.” Instead, they have created a climate that, he said, “has gone from being oppressive and unpleasant to becoming scary and frightening…. What we are facing today is a traumatized country.”

Jewish fears in France, he suggested, grow out of the relentless daily television reports critical of Israel. Jewish children come home from school frightened or ashamed, having faced accusations of Israeli misdeeds. Adults hear similar remarks in the workplace.

Anti-Israel sentiment becomes anti-Semitism, Azria suggested, when it “penetrates the home.”

Azria also complained that the propaganda and viciousness he hears on French media go in one direction only; the media ignore “the fact that Muslims have been killing millions of Muslims in repeated slaughters.” 

He said, “That’s what anti-Semitism is; it is directed just to the Jewish population.”

Azria pointed to three trends that have contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism in France. 

Thirty to 40 years ago the Left was pro-Israel, viewing Israel as a fellow socialist society. Any physical confrontations Azria experienced as a Jew were from “guys from the far Right.” Today, he said, “with the disillusions of the Middle East, Palestinians were able to present themselves as victims, and the Left embraced them.”

In the last 10 to 15 years, meanwhile, “the Muslim population has also become a carrier of anti-Semitism.” French Muslims outnumber Jews 10 to one. 

An extremist brand of Islam, preached in Arabic by imams from such countries as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, is heard in French mosques and in social media. 

The third prong of anti-Semitism is coming from the Right. With Europe’s continuing economic crisis, nationalists have been promulgating the old canards — particularly via social media — that Jews control the banks and the media.

AJC has responded to the crisis, said Jason Isaacson, AJC director of government and international affairs, by reaching out to the Muslim community. In one example, AJC supported the mother of a French-Muslim soldier killed in a 2012 attack in Toulouse by the same gunman who attacked a Jewish day school a week later. AJC also sponsors that woman’s program that takes Muslim youth to Morocco, teaching them about a society where historically, different religious communities lived respectfully side by side. 

AJC has also been promoting a series of steps that European governments can take to protect their societies from extremism. These include counter-radicalization, security for Jewish institutions, promotion of honest assessments of the problem, and enlistment of support from the moderate Muslim leadership.

The moderates “are out there,” Isaacson said. “They are frightened, they are hiding from the terrible fight they will have to have in their communities.”

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