French youths give complex answers on anti-Semitism

PARIS — Is "dirty Jew" a serious insult in France?

The answer may not be so obvious in the milieu of urban French youth.

In fact, in a recent survey of 400 French youths between the ages of 15 and 24, only 44 percent believed it was indeed a "very serious" offense.

Yet an overwhelming majority of the respondents — 87 percent — agreed that "anti-Semitic acts are scandalous, and those found responsible should be very severely punished by the state."

The survey is part of a new study of anti-Semitic aggression co-sponsored by France's largest Jewish student union and the militant anti-racist organization SOS-Racism. It attempts to make sense of such contradictions in the perceptions of the younger generation toward Jews and the issue of anti-Semitism.

The 242-page "Antifeuj," which hit the shelves of French bookstores last month, documents 405 anti-Semitic incidents in France between Sept. 1, 2000 and Jan. 31, 2002.

Bringing together the efforts of several established academics and politicians of all stripes, the book represents one of the most exhaustive analyses to date of what many are calling "the new face of French anti-Semitism."

As the title is intended to signal, what is groundbreaking about this latest contribution is its youthful perspective on a wave of anti-Jewish aggression committed predominantly by adolescents and young men of Maghrebin, or North African, descent.

Feuj is slang for Jew in an urban youth argot that — taking its cues from the rap and hip-hop music hits — creates new terms by inverting the letters of words, such as Juif.

In the same slang, "dirty" is used to qualify just about anything, which may help explain why youths apparently tolerate the expression "dirty Jew."

For example, after a high school student was reprimanded for uttering the phrase in a classroom last December, several of his classmates defended him by claiming that African and Arab teens constantly refer to each other as "dirty blacks" and "dirty Arabs."

Antifeuj examines whether incidents like these constitute somewhat innocent transgressions or whether they reveal what some Jewish leaders and scholars consider the "banalization of anti-Semitism."

One of the book's principal authors, Patrick Klugman, president of the Union of French Jewish Students, has been an outspoken advocate of this latter viewpoint over the past year.

Under Klugman's leadership, the student union has taken on media giant Yahoo over neo-Nazi Web sites, and pressured the French Ministry of Education to investigate extreme right-wing influence in one of France's largest universities.

Last November, around the time he announced the Antifeuj project, Klugman was adamant about the spread of anti-Semitic attitudes in French primary schools, high schools and universities.

"'I don't like that 'feuj' is a phrase that all French Jews under the age of 25 have heard," he wrote in an editorial in the French daily Le Monde. "It's the kind of subconscious anti-Semitic expression that feeds off of boredom, idleness, mistrust, and bitterness."

Like many other Jewish community leaders, Klugman has been critical of the French government's inaction in the face of anti-Semitic aggression.

President Jacques Chirac and several top-level officials in the Socialist government repeatedly have denied the gravity of the threats against Jews, which has led some Jewish leaders around the world to label France an anti-Semitic country.

French Jews have been less willing to condemn French society as a whole, and Klugman and the president of SOS-Racism, Malek Boutih, are no exceptions.

"France is not an anti-Semitic country," they state in their preface to Antifeuj. "This book is an act of confidence in France, our country."

The results of the Antifeuj survey may bolster their confidence.

In addition to the clear-cut repudiation of anti-Semitic acts, 80 percent of the youths said they would have "no problems" living in the same apartment as a Jew.

A similar number of respondents seemed largely uninfluenced by the anti-Semitic myth of excessive Jewish power over the economy, media and world politics. Only 18, 21 and 22 percent of the respondents expressed some agreement with the three respective versions of this idea.

Somewhat surprisingly, in the midst of an unprecedented upsurge in anti-Semitism throughout Europe in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these numbers may indicate that notions of Jewish influence or conspiracy actually are waning among the young generation in France.

When a similar question about Jewish power over financial affairs was posed to a more general sample of French citizens in May 2000, 45 percent of respondents concurred with the statement that Jews have "too much influence."

Reflecting on this disparity, Antifeuj concludes that the new generation "seems to have grown up with values of tolerance."

That doesn't exclude Maghrebin youths.

Muslims of North African origins who participated in the survey viewed Jews as having too much power (24-38 percent) and were more likely to have problems living near Jews (59 percent). But they also were more assertive about the rights of Jews to practice Judaism unmolested, and just as supportive as their Christian peers of harsh punishments for anti-Jewish aggressors.

Based on this evidence, the authors conclude it would be a "grave strategic error" to stigmatize the whole Muslim community as anti-Semitic.

This is something that Antifeuj takes great pains to avoid, refusing to apply ethnic labels to the "youths" who committed the hundreds of acts it describes.

"I don't want to encourage racism in the heart of my own community," Klugman said. "To say that the majority of acts are committed by youths of Maghrebin origin is apparent, a reality, but when a young Arab throws a Molotov cocktail, what should be important — that an Arab threw a cocktail, or that a cocktail was thrown?"

Despite these encouraging signs, Antifeuj implores French youths to wake up and take action.

As the authors explain, the book is dedicated "mostly to the French youths who may not know how easily hands that write 'Death to the Jews' can start killing Jews."