Criminalising anti-Zionism in France

If France indeed has high standards of freedom of expression, it should not be criminalising a political opinion.

France rally
People attend a national gathering to protest anti-Semitism at Place de la Republique in Paris on February 19, 2019 [Reuters/Philippe Wojazer]

On February 16, French pro-Israel writer Alain Finkielkraut faced a barrage of insults during a “yellow vests” protest in Paris, with the words “Dirty Zionist!” and “Go back to Tel Aviv!” triggering a sharp reaction from both the French political class and the intelligentsia, who expressed shock and indignation at what they described as a blatant display of “anti-Semitism”.

President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that night: “The anti-Semitic insults [Finkielkraut] has been subjected to are the absolute negation of who we are and what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them,” while former Prime Minister Manuel Valls commented: “the right wing, the left wing, Islamism, the hatred of Israel, indifference, relativism unleashed anti-Semitic passion. We must persevere, condemn, prohibit.”

Subsequently, the French police opened an investigation to identify the perpetrator of the verbal attack in order to prosecute him.

On February 19, a Jewish cemetery was defaced in the French village of Quatzenheim. A public rally was held on the same day, bringing together former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, current Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and a large number of other French politicians. They all denounced what they identified as rampant anti-Semitism threatening the French Jewish citizens.

News reports then surfaced of draft legislation that equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the latter already considered a crime under French law. On February 20, confirming the government’s intent, Macron declared that he was considering pushing forward legislation that would designate anti-Zionism as “one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism.”

However, the draft law has little to do with the events of that week and much more to do with the growing consensus among large sections of France’s political and intellectual classes that anti-Zionism should be equated with anti-Semitism.

Ever since his election in 2017, President Macron has been insisting on lumping the two together. “We will not give in to anti-Zionism because it is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” he declared a mere two months after getting sworn into office.

But the government and the fear-mongering class of intellectuals and writers that support it fail to understand, deliberately or not, the very dangerous implications of passing such a law.

Anti-Zionism constitutes an expression of a political opinion – a denunciation of a political ideology – while anti-Semitism is a form of racism; the first one is a political opinion and hence should be defended under France’s widely celebrated high standards of freedom of expression; the second can express itself in the form of detestable crimes and should therefore be criminalised (as it already is).

Undoubtedly, all forms of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination should be condemned. That said, what has been going on in France for years is merely selective denunciation reserved only for incidents involving French Jewish citizens or symbols; in such cases, the state, political parties, intellectuals and the media are all immediately mobilised to condemn and express their solidarity. No such gestures are made when the victims are Muslim or Afro-French citizens.

In France, a country internationally renowned for being a defender of human rights, racist and Islamophobic insults indeed never seem to trigger political outrage.

A recent example that is quite revealing of the dismal state of affairs in France is a comment by Valls, claiming that: “There is, in the very heart of Islam, this disease that devours Islam, which is anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism is rooted in the Muslim culture”! 

No one came out in condemnation of such wholesale generalisation and smearing of a religion, adhered to by almost two billion individuals around the globe. There was no intellectual outrage, no star-studded protest in Paris and no call to draft a law against such heinous expressions of Islamophobia.

But apart from the obvious double standards that draft anti-Zionism law is a product of, it also, if passed, would pave the way for criminalising criticism of Israel. What constitutes anti-Zionism is open to interpretation and therefore this type of legislation can be used to silence any and all critics of Israel.

Would, for example, supporting BDS (the peaceful movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel) be considered anti-Zionist and therefore anti-Semitic? And would a tweet criticising the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli bombs land you in jail?

Even before this law was proposed, the growing culture of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in France, led to the fierce lynching and demonisation of any voice that denounces Zionism and/or Israeli crimes and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.

What happened to academic Michel Collon is a case in point. Collon came under attack by the pro-Israel lobby in France after publishing a book in Belgium titled “Israel, Parlons-en” (Let’s talk about Israel) in which he denounced “Israel as a colonial and racist power, based on theft of land, ethnic cleansing, apartheid”. He was accused of being an anti-Semite simply because of his criticism of Israel.

It is also important to point out that this draft law comes in the context of an ever-dwindling public space for dissent against dominant political narratives, which are backed by the French political establishment and promoted by the French mainstream media.

Years ago, when referring to the economic and political powers that own major media groups, eminent French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, posed the question: “Masters of the world, do you know what you are doing? Do you know all the consequences of what you are doing?”

Today, this question seems as relevant as ever. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.