After guiding Russia’s Vladimir Putin through the Palace of Versailles, and dazzling Donald Trump with the Bastille Day military parade, France’s new president played host to another divisive foreign leader on Sunday – and again pulled out all the stops to impress him.
Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to attend an anniversary of the infamous “Vel d’Hiv” round-up, in which more than 13,000 Jews were arrested by French police 75 years ago. He received a warm welcome from the French leader, who addressed him as “My dear Bibi” – a nickname commonly used by Netanyahu’s supporters back home.
The invitation raised eyebrows in France, where “Bibi” is seen as an uncompromising hawk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an opportunist. That opportunism was on full display on Sunday, when the Israeli leader seized on the solemn commemoration of one of the darkest hours in French history to take aim at his nemesis Iran, whose sole aim, he argues, is to destroy Israel.
Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism
Remembering the Vel d'Hiv round-up, 75 years on
Macron offered Netanyahu nothing new on Iran, other than promising to remain vigilant regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But he handed his guest a mighty gift when touching on the sensitive issue of anti-Israeli sentiment, stating that France “will be uncompromising with anti-Zionism, because it is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism.”
Israeli officials and some representatives of the Jewish community had long awaited such a statement, mindful that hatred of Israel has often served as an alibi for anti-Semitic offences, including terrorist attacks.
But no French president had dared make the parallel between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism before, least of all when commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. In fact French officials had so far been at pains to distinguish the two, determined not to tie the fate of France’s Jewish community to that of Israel and the Zionist cause.
In his statement, Macron did more than recognize France’s responsibility in the 1942 round-up, “in which not a single German took part”. He placed the Nazi-allied Vichy regime within a historical context that stretches back to the notorious Dreyfus Affair, in the late 19th century, and the anti-Semitic vituperations of part of the French political class in the decades preceding World War II.
Zionism – the movement that underpinned the creation of a free Jewish home in the Holy Land – is itself a product of this context. Its founder, Theodor Herzl, launched his bid to set up a “national home” for Jews after witnessing the very public disgrace of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer wrongly convicted of treason. If a country like France could accuse an officer of treason based on his “race”, Herzl argued, then Europe’s Jews were in urgent need of a safe haven to protect them.
Music to Netanyahu’s ears
Naturally, Macron’s words were music to the ears of the Israeli prime minister, who hailed his invitation to the Vel d’Hiv commemoration as a “very, very strong gesture”. In thanking the French president, Netanyahu put his own spin on the matter by stating that “One cannot say ‘I have nothing against Jews but I don’t want their country to exist’”.
But Macron’s gift to the Israeli premier is likely to carry a cost in other parts of the world, particularly Arab countries, where “Zionism” has come to mean imperialism, occupation, and the suffering of millions of Palestinians deprived of certain fundamental rights.
In 1972, then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat persuaded the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution likening Zionism to racism. To this day, his successor Mahmoud Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”.
By shattering a taboo on how to define anti-Zionism, France’s brazen new president has given further evidence of his audacity. In so doing, he has also given cold sweats to the diplomats who must now face the wrath of France’s Arab partners.