When Vichy France's puppet government headed by Philippe Pétain rounded up thousands of Jews for deportation to Nazi camps, it was to protect his imaginary sovereignty. France was under Nazi occupation, but Pétain cared so much about his country's pseudo-sovereignty that he would carry out the deportation instead of letting his Nazi masters take the trouble to do so.
Almost 75 years later, while speaking at an event commemorating the shameful incident known as Vel D'Hiv Roundup, the French president Emmanuel Macron went a little further than expected to repent Pétain's sin. With him at the site, from where those 13 thousand Jews were dispatched to their death, was a guest deemed unwelcome by many Jews in current-day France: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier. In an apparent bid to please his guest, Emmanuel Macron declared that criticising Israel's foundation is a “reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” a racist slur or prejudice used to single out Jews.
Many Jews considered Benjamin Netanyahu's presence at the event to be irrelevant. While Israel came into being after the Second World War, which was marked by the atrocious Holocaust, and was designed to be a shelter for Jews in accordance with the Zionist blueprint, too many followers of this religious group living across the world don't like to think that Israel represents them. That's the first and foremost difference between being a Jew and a Zionist.
With ultra-right forces rising across many parts of Europe, France has recently seen a renewed tide of anti-Semitism. Therefore, it was imperative for Emanuel Macron to address the problem; and there couldn't have been a more opportune moment than the 75th anniversary of the Vel D'Hiv Roundup to pledge his commitment to fighting this bigotry.
What Macron did wrong, however, was that he simply blurred the line between a form of political criticism of Israel, called anti-Zionism, and hostility to the Jewish people in general called anti-Semitism.
If a Palestinian inheritor of an Arab family expelled during Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus) wants to criticise the foundation of Israel as a cause of his family's endless misery, should she or he be condemned as anti-Zionist aka anti-Semite?
Maybe that's an extreme and obvious example, but there are clearly defined distinctions between the two terms. Anti-Zionists might include anti-Semites, but these two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.
Sadly, in his speech on July 17, Macron also failed to detect another racial prejudice taking place right under his nose. His guest of honour of the day, Netanyahu, invoked an Islamophobic attack in the guise of denouncing “political Islam” and “radical Islam”.
In an event marking a sad day in the Jewish history, Benyamin Netanyahu reserved a prominent portion of his speech for this. He appeared desperate and forceful to reinforce the “Islam-hates-the-West” notion by repeating those words over and over again.
For a right-wing, opportunist, and anti-Muslim politician like Netanyahu, this was a measured move intended to foment the Islamophobic sentiment sweeping across Europe, fuelled by a series of terror attacks and the European refugee crisis.
In fact, Netanyahu should have been the last person for Macron to stand by while addressing anti-Semitism. This demagogue has repeatedly refused to denounce anti-Semitic acts or tone by some European and American right-wing leaders he deemed his allies. Most recently, he sided with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when the latter launched a blistering campaign with subtle anti-Semitic tones against George Soros, the Jewish billionaire who poured millions of dollars into liberal causes including fights against “Israel's racist policies”.
Also, he was silent when the US administration simply omitted any reference of Jews in its statement marking the Holocaust. Netanyahu's administration and his ambassador to the US rather enjoyed a cosy relationship with Steve Bannon, the White House's chief strategist, whose alt-right movement embodies many Nazi rituals.
Macron should have asked himself why many of those ultra right-wing leaders, one of whom he defeated in the last presidential election, hold Israel so dear and at the same time invoke anti-Semitic prejudice to appease their equally deplorable followers. The fact that the political project (Zionism) representing Israel may tolerate and assimilate proponents of anti-Semitism speaks volumes about the differences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Emmanuel Macron is no progressive. He's an outright liberal in terms of economic policies. On the front of social and political liberalism, however, we are beginning to see a different face of this liberal darling. Most disturbingly, he has recently said of Africa having a “civilisational” problem and that the benefits of foreign aid were nullified because of African women having “seven or eight children.”
Considering France's own colonial venture in Africa, which the colonialists would see as "mission civilisatrice" (Civilising Mission), liberal political commentators are almost in consensus that his remarks were indeed racist.
In a country that hasn't gone through an intense and critical reflection on its brutal colonial operations in many parts of the world, Macron's comments didn't raise alarm bells in France. But after hearing his racist remarks against Africans, one genuinely wonders whether he is in any position whatsoever to determine the border and the definition of a racist prejudice such as anti-Semitism.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.