Comments by French Jewish Thinker on Recent Muslim Riots Stirring the Pot

A prominent French Jewish intellectual has come under attack for criticizing the public reaction to recent Muslim riots as too sympathetic. Critics called Alain Finkielkraut racist for emphasizing the ethnicity and religion of the rioters in a Nov. 18 interview with Ha’aretz.

Finkielkraut, 56, was quoted as saying that “in France there are also other immigrants whose situation is difficult — Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese — and they’re not taking part in the riots. Therefore, it is clear that this is a revolt with an ethno-religious character.”

Contrary to the widespread opinion that the riots could not be “reduced to an unalloyed reaction to French racism,” Finkielkraut argued that they were attacks not against France “as a former colonial power” but “against France as a European country. Against France, with its Christian or Judeo-Christian tradition.”

The comments by Finkielkraut, a former leader of the left-wing 1968 student uprisings who in recent years has been characterized as a “neo-conservative” because of his support for Israel, launched a French version of the “culture wars” that have periodically raged in the United States over the past few decades.

The controversy erupted week when excerpts from the interview were translated into French and appeared in Le Monde newspaper. The truncated version of the interview caused an immediate sensation, and a lively debate arose in the French media over the “Finkielkraut Affair.”

On Nov. 24, the Movement Against Racism filed charges of racism against Finkielkraut. Racism is a criminal offense in France.

Finkielkraut apologized on the Europe 1 television station last Friday, saying his comments had been taken out of context.

The Movement Against Racism then withdrew the charges, though Mouloud Aounit, the group’s secretary general, said he doubted the sincerity of Finkielkraut’s apology.

Finkielkraut, 56, is the son of Polish Jewish immigrants to France, survivors of Auschwitz whose parents died there. His theories on the Holocaust denial have helped make him one of the most respected philosophers in contemporary France.

He said he was perturbed by the riots not only as a Frenchman, but as a Jew. As he told Ha’aretz, “When an Arab torches a school, it’s rebellion. When a white guy does it, it’s fascism. I’m ‘color blind.’ Evil is evil, no matter what color it is. And this evil, for the Jew that I am, is completely intolerable.”

Finkielkraut also said the French educational system breeds a “post-colonial mind-set” that offers sympathy for the rioters and, he claimed, is “creating an infrastructure for the new anti-Semitism.”

Laurent Joffrin, editor in chief of the newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur, said that Finkielkraut “is certainly not a racist. But in speaking like one, he reinforces the dangerous propaganda popularized” by racists, and “only exacerbates the tensions.”

Some Jewish community groups were outraged by the way Finkielkraut’s comments were “butchered” in the French media.

Writing on the Web site of the Union of French Jewish Employers and Professionals, Menahem Macina defended Finkielkraut. Macina accused Sylvain Cypel, author of the Le Monde article, of “a high degree of libel.”

Finkielkraut’s legal troubles aren’t over yet. In the Ha’aretz interview, he referred to the French comedian Dieudonne as the “guardian of [the new] anti-Semitism in France.”

Dieudonne, who has been prosecuted several times for anti-Semitic remarks, responded by pressing libel charges against Finkielkraut.

But Finkielkraut found one supporter in an unlikely place. In an interview published Monday with the Nouvel Observateur, Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan defended Finkielkraut’s sincerity and commended him for expressing views that “other French intellectuals, politicians, or journalists think as well but are simply more calculated” about expressing.

Still, Ramadan said he believed the interview revealed Finkielkraut’s “strange and dangerous evolution.”

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