As France protests rising antisemitism, Catholic leaders encourage dialogue

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France protest antisemitism
(CNS photo/Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

PARIS (OSV News) — The Oct. 7 killing of about 1,200 people in Israel by armed Hamas militants represented the biggest killing of Jews since the Holocaust. It also started the war that has killed nearly 16,000 Palestinians, according to Hamas-run health ministry, followed by massive pro-Palestinian protests around the globe. And it sparked unprecedented instances of antisemitism.

France is home to the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe and has become the center of religious discord.

Little more than a month after the attack in Israel, the French Interior Ministry said 1,247 antisemitic incidents had been reported since Oct. 7, nearly three times the total for all of 2022. These incidents included the star of David, a symbol of Judaism, being marked on Jewish people’s homes — which reminded the older French generation about the horrors of German occupation when Jewish houses were similarly marked to point out whom to later exterminate.

More than 180,000 people across France, including 100,000 in Paris, marched peacefully on Nov. 12 to protest against rising antisemitism. The march in the capital was attended by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and representatives of several parties from left to far-right, but the representatives of the Muslim faith did not take part, according to news reports.

President Emmanuel Macron also did not attend, but expressed his support for the protest and called on citizens to rise up against “the unbearable resurgence of unbridled antisemitism.”

“A France where our Jewish citizens are afraid is not France. A France where French people are afraid because of their religion or their origin is not France,” he wrote in a letter published Nov. 11 in the daily Le Parisien.

Roots of French antisemitism

The day after the marches, Macron received religious leaders Nov. 13 at the Elysée Palace, to discuss the problem. The meeting involved the president of the French bishops’ conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins Beaufort of Reims. Macron asked them to work to “defend universalism and republican values” by “multiplying educational actions” in favor of peace, particularly among young people. The meeting was attended by the rector of Paris’ Grand Mosque, Chems-Eddine Hafiz; Grand Rabbi of France Haim Korsia; Archbishop de Moulins Beaufort; and Christian Krieger, the president of the Protestant Federation of France.

“Some antisemitism persists in France, but it must be presented with nuances,” Father Thomas Hallsten, an American priest, told OSV News. He worked for Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, specializing in researching the actions taken by French Catholic religious communities in favor of the Jews during the Holocaust.

“The generations whose grandparents lived through the German occupation during the Second World War know perfectly well what happened to the Jews,” the priest said. “This is a powerful safeguard against antisemitism.”

“In recent years, animosity toward Jews has become more pronounced among the younger generations of Arab-Muslim immigrants,” Jesuit Father Marc Rastoin told OSV News. Father Rastoin is a researcher specializing in Judaism in Paris at the Centre Sèvres, a Jesuit institute for higher education and research.

“In the Arab world, it is very difficult to distinguish between Israeli politics and the Jewish religion,” he added. “Young French Muslims easily identify with the population of Gaza and the Palestinians as a whole.”

The Catholic role

In this context, the Catholic Church is trying to play a conciliatory role. Several of its representatives took part in the marches against antisemitism, while trying to be balanced in its analysis of the conflict.

“International Jewish organizations have worked for years to make people forget the difference between antisemitism and disagreement with Israel’s policies,” Father Rastoin told OSV News. “We must make the twofold effort to refuse the equation between the Palestinians of Gaza and Hamas, and the equation between Israelis and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Jews, both inside and outside Israel, opposed his policy of refusing dialogue and negotiation,” Jesuit father said.

“As Christians, we have a deep spiritual relationship and empathy with the Jewish people,” Father Rastoin pointed out. “But as Christians and human beings, how can we not be touched by all the civilian victims in Gaza, many of them children?”

Father Rastoin deplored, however, the fact that some people use the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s war in Gaza. “We can consider that Israel is going too far in its response and deplore war crimes,” he said. “But when we know the reality of the programmed extermination of Jews during the Holocaust in Europe, it is not decent to use this term,” he stressed.

Caroline de Sury

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.