What if you called for a demonstration and no one came?
That wasn’t quite the case in France, but French Jewish officials are trying to explain why a May 16 rally against anti-Semitism that was expected to rival a 1990 march of 400,000 people ended up drawing a disappointingly small crowd.
Called by the country’s leading anti-racist group, SOS Racisme, and officially supported by France’s Jewish communal organizations and mainstream political parties, the demonstration drew a paltry 10,000 marchers, according to police estimates. Organizers put the figure closer to 25,000.
Either figure is a far cry from forecasts by march organizers, who had hoped for a display similar to that of 1990, when President Francois Mitterrand led huge crowds along Paris’ traditional protest route from Place de la Republique to the Bastille, birthplace of the French Revolution.
The 1990 march had been called following a particularly horrific desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras, in southern France. Similarly, the May 16 demonstration came after swastikas and Nazi symbols were scrawled at a Jewish cemetery near the German border and a memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers from World War 1 was attacked.
Many political leaders and religious dignitaries indeed turned out, but French civil society — and most of its Jews — largely avoided what had been billed as the biggest demonstration in years against anti-Semitism.
The march had the official support of leading Jewish groups — including the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, the Consistoire Central and B’nai B’rith — but they and various anti-racist groups were unable or unwilling to mobilize support for the rally.
Patrick Klugman, spokesman for SOS Racisme and a member of CRIF’s national executive, said the demonstration still could be regarded as a success “on the political and media level.”
“Taking into account that we organized this within a week and the fact that the far-left tried to destroy the demonstration, this was a success,” Klugman told JTA.
Malek Boutih, former president of SOS Racisme, sought to put a brave face on the demonstration.
“For the first time, an organization which is not part of the Jewish community has organized a demonstration against anti-Semitism,” he said in an interview. “It marks a change of tone in the French scene. Anti-Semitism is not just a problem for Jews, it’s a problem for French society.”
Many anti-racist organizations and far-left groups opposed holding a march solely against anti-Semitism, pressing for a show of force to combat “all racisms.”
Klugman, though, was just as concerned at the lack of mobilization by the Jewish community, noting that some important communal organizations — such as the Union of French Jewish Employers and Professionals — had boycotted the rally.
In a statement in advance of the march, the union said the absence of “a designation of anti-Zionism as a fundamental constituent of the new anti-Semitism” would prevent “a far larger number from going to demonstrate and empty the struggle of its real substance.”
Claude Barouch, the union’s vice president, said, “We don’t want to be a part of giving out certificates to people who can then say they are against anti-Semitism, when they’ve done nothing for three years. Where was SOS Racisme when kids were forced to change schools and rabbis were being attacked?”
Speaking last week on a Jewish community radio station, journalist Claude Weil-Raynal also attributed the low turnout to the organizers’ refusal to tackle the issue of anti-Israel sentiment.
“The politicians were there, but the Jews of the suburbs weren’t,” Weil-Raynal said. “They know that Jews are attacked because of their connection to Israel.”
Yet even Jewish organizations that didn’t call for a formal boycott avoided active involvement, Klugman said.
Lauding CRIF and the Union of Jewish Students for their “genuine support,” Klugman accused the Consistoire Central, France’s largest Jewish religious organization, of offering nothing more than lip service.
Frederick Attali, the Consistoire’s executive director, admitted that the organization had done little to help.
“We officially supported it but we didn’t send out letters to communities,” he said. “When they’re prepared to make the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, we’ll be there.”
Indeed, a CRIF-organized demonstration against anti-Semitism in 2002 — which also called for solidarity with Israel — brought some 100,000 people into the streets, though the number included few non-Jews.
This time, the Consistoire’s president, Jean Kahn, skipped the rally to attend a commemoration at a Jewish war memorial in eastern France.
“The community is closing in on itself and has no confidence in politicians who weren’t around when we needed them,” Attali said.
Haim Musicant, CRIF’s executive director, said he thought Jewish groups that were apathetic to the march made a mistake.
“I think the message didn’t get through, or perhaps it’s a question of political awareness, that this was a demonstration by the whole body politic and religious organizations to condemn anti-Semitism,” he said. “You can’t cry out that you’re alone, you’re isolated, nobody’s doing anything, and then refuse to welcome it when they do something.”
Klugman said he was “sad that the Jewish community appears to be indifferent when it’s non-Jews” who want to tackle anti-Semitism.
“We have large sections of the community who live today in a kind of ideological and territorial ‘no man’s land,’ listening to Jewish community radio and not caring about what the wider community thinks or does,” he said. “I don’t recognize the Jewish community I love.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.