Sixty Years of Intellectual Anti-Israel Bias in France

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Simon Epstein, Hebrew Univ. expert on anti-Semitism: French anti-Semitism is not a recent phenomenon,"the origins of French intellectual anti-Israelism date back almost to the creation of the Jewish state."

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

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Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“In the present century, France has stood out in a negative light, not only because of the many violent assaults on Jews and their institutions, but also due to the frequent anti-Semitic intellectual and media attacks on Israel. The origins of French intellectual anti-Israelism date back almost to the creation of the Jewish state. To gain a perspective on present problems, one must have a better understanding of the historical development and nature of French intellectualism.”

Simon Epstein teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a former director of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism. Since 1982, Epstein has published various books and articles on anti-Semitism and racism.

“In November 1947, the Soviet Union voted at the United Nations for the creation of the Jewish State. Therefore, French communist intellectuals initially had a positive attitude toward Israel. When after a few years the Soviet Union started to adopt anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic positions, the views of many French communists also shifted.

"In January 1953, the daily Pravda broke the news of the indictment of nine doctors, six of whom were Jews. They were accused of having caused the death of leading Soviet figures by incorrect diagnoses and treatment and of planning further ‘assassinations.’ At the same time, the Soviet press intensified its campaign against 'Cosmopolitanism and Zionism.'

“French communist intellectuals organized a major solidarity rally in Paris in support of the official Soviet position on the 'doctors plot.’ The organizers saw to it that there were enough Jews among the many speakers on the podium.

"The message of the speakers was frightening. Many of them explained that it was normal to suspect doctors of poisoning people - one only had to look at Mengele's role in Auschwitz. If he was capable of what he did, why should other physicians not use poison? A Jewish physician was among those who publicly took this stand. As a medical doctor, he bore witness that the charge was not absurd. He also based his position on the misconduct of German physicians during the Second World War, stating that it could not be definitely excluded that Jews or Zionists decided to poison Soviet personalities. In later years however, he greatly regretted his words. The Russian physicians have since been rehabilitated.

"The moral aberration of these 'witnesses' was so great because France, unlike the Soviet Union, was a free country. The speakers spoke voluntarily. Communist organizations also arranged a large media campaign. Intellectuals wrote articles about the 'criminal doctors,' or signed petitions against them. Again, Communist organizers saw to it that many Jews were among the signatories.

"Within the party there were Jewish organizations which were mobilized for protests on the 'doctors' plot.' Many anti-Semitic themes used then resurfaced in anti-Israel campaigns following the Six Day War in 1967.

"The initial intensity of these campaigns was much lower than in the pre-war decade. Anti-Zionist publicity was almost entirely fed by Communists. They however always recognized – like the Soviet Union – Israel's right to exist. In the 1950’s, Communists dominated the French Left. Trotskyism was insignificant, expanding only twenty years later after the events of May 1968, when Communism began losing power.”

Epstein explains: “The fascination Marxism exuded onto major parts of the French left led to a much larger percentage of intellectuals being attracted to it than elsewhere in the West, with the possible exception of Italy. The multiple deviations of French intellectualism derive from its general characteristics, i.e., a tendency toward extremism. The French intellectual's position is by necessity one of representing absolute morality and imparting the feeling that his analysis is the only justified one. He must be confrontational and define enemies; nuances and intermediary positions are not permitted.

"Another characteristic concerns the way the intellectual expresses himself. Language, which is very important, must always be complex and contain highly rhetorical aspects. Thought departs from reality and is embodied in theoretical constructions aspiring to an absolute world. The combination of these features stimulates major intellectual distortions.

"Since the 1970’s, many French thinkers have been interested in the role of words and the multiplicity of concepts. They have generated schools of intellectuals whose words are incomprehensible. When standing before an audience, they produce endless abstractions without using simple words. This leads to an absurd intellectualism, which also exists in the social sciences elsewhere, but was initially developed in France.

“In the current century, the intellectual anti-Semitic outburst greatly increased in intensity. An initial deafening silence surrounding the violent anti-Semitic incidents in the first years was accompanied by a stream of verbal attacks on Israel which rehash arguments from earlier anti-Zionist campaigns. Moderate intellectuals compared Sharon to Milosevic; extremists compared him to Hitler. Nowadays when people still comment on ‘the new anti-Semitism,’ I wonder whether they are unaware of these many decades of history."