French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday he plans to criminalize anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, in response to a surge in hate crimes targeting Jews.
Macron announced the new definition as part of a set of measures to combat anti-Semitism, which he said had reached a level that was “probably unprecedented” since the Second World War.
Speaking at a dinner for a French Jewish association, Macron said the government would adopt the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to help public officials respond to anti-Semitism, which is illegal in France.
While the intergovernmental organization’s definition doesn’t explicitly mention Zionism, it says anti-Semitism can take the form of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
“Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism,” Macron said. “Behind the negation of Israel’s existence, what is hiding is the hatred of Jews.”
The move has sparked debate in France, after a group of lawmakers proposed a bill Monday that would make anti-Zionism a criminal offense. Some critics have warned against conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, saying it could suppress legitimate criticism of Israel, and would be an undue restriction of free speech.
“It’s historical illiteracy, or worse, stupidity,” said French journalist Dominique Vidal to France 24. “The confusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism allows [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], who is concerned about his own image, to silence his opponents.”
But backers of the move say the change is necessary, pointing out how anti-Semitic agitators widely refer to their targets as Zionists, rather than Jews, to avoid legal problems.
France has been shocked by a string of high-profile anti-Semitic hate crimes in the past month, drawing thousands of people onto the streets of French cities Tuesday for a demonstration of solidarity with the Jewish community.
On Saturday, prominent French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was verbally attacked by yellow vest protesters in Paris, who called him a “dirty Jew” and a “dirty Zionist” as he walked past their demonstration. A man was arrested over the attack.
On Tuesday, nearly 100 gravestones were found defaced with swastikas in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France. In recent weeks, vandals have also scrawled the word “Juden” on a Parisian bagel shop, painted a swastika on a portrait of the late politician and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, and cut down trees planted to commemorate a Jewish youth murdered by an anti-Semitic gang.
The attacks came a week after the French government said there had been a 74 percent surge in reports of anti-Semitism in 2018, up to 541 from the 311 registered in 2017.
Macron’s proposed new measures will also include laws to force social media companies to take down online hate speech and identify the authors as quickly as possible. He criticized Twitter in particular for taking too long to remove hate speech, and failing to help investigators prosecute those responsible.
They will also include moves to disband three extreme-right groups — Bastion Social, Blood and Honour Hexagone, and Combat 18 — which have fueled anti-Semitism. Macron also said radical Islamism was a driving force of anti-Semitism in France’s multicultural neighborhoods.
Israel’s Netanyahu expressed his appreciation for Macron’s move to recognize anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism in a phone call, his office said Wednesday.
Cover image: French President Emmanuel Macron waves as Georgia's President Salome Zourabichvili leaves the Elysee Presidential Palace after their meeting on February 19, 2019 in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)