AS the English writer George Orwell well understood, you can invariably rely on members of the Western intelligentsia to make profoundly silly comments and to ignore difficult facts. The responses by barrister Julian Burnside and journalist/historian Paul Ham to the Islamist murders in Paris illustrate the point.
In the immediate aftermath of the most recent terrorist attacks in France, 7.30presenter Leigh Sales interviewed the Paris-based Ham. In response to the first question, Ham recounted how he had attended “the huge meeting in the Place de la Republique last night” following the attack on Charlie Hebdo . He added that this area “is the symbol of the revolutions of 1830, of 1848, of 1870 and it is the strongest, most powerful recognition of the values the French hold dear — of equality, of liberty, of fraternity”.
Well, that is how most French like to depict French values. However, there are other — albeit much smaller — memorials that tell a different story. Not far from the Eiffel Tower there is the Vel d’Hiv monument. It stands on the site of the indoor cycling track Velodrome d’Hiver, which was used to intern French Jews rounded up in 1942 from the occupied and unoccupied (that is, Vichy) zones.
There is another memorial, at the Cite de la Muette, the formal name of the Drancy apartment blocks in the northeast of Paris. As Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton document in Vichy France and The Jews, “over 67,000 of the close to 75,000 Jews deported from French soil” left from Drancy. Details of the Jewish children, men and women deported from the Velodrome d’Hiver and Drancy are located in Memorial de la Shoah in Paris’s Marais district. When I visited two years ago, it had a high level of security.
The Velodrome d’Hiver and Drancy were not mere instances of Nazi Germany’s oppression of France. The French Jews who were sent to their deaths in Poland and elsewhere were rounded up by French police, guarded by French officials and deported on French trains.
It was at the Vel d’Hiv monument in 1995 that the conservative president Jacques Chirac publicly acknowledged the collaboration of French officials in the deportation and murder of French citizens. Chirac was the first French leader to do so.
In his interview with 7.30, Ham seemed unaware of the deep strain in French society of anti-Semitism that conflicts with the symbols of liberty, equality and fraternity. It found particular expression in the 1920s and 30s in Charles Maurras’s extreme-right Action Francaise movement.
As such scholars as David Pryce-Jones and Herbert Lottman have pointed out, in the occupied zone in northern France, collaboration between the German invaders and the invaded French was a bipartisan endeavour.
Indeed, Lottman’s book The Left Bank has a chapter titled “Everybody Collaborated”. He points out, with respect to the leftist intellectuals Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, that “the German occupation coincided with their celebrity”. While based in Paris, de Beauvoir worked for Philippe Petain, the leader of the Vichy regime.
Pryce-Jones’s Paris in the Third Reich depicts how French intellectuals and artists of both Right and Left enjoyed a privileged life in the early 1940s. Neither group protested about the deportation of their fellow French citizens.
Yet during his 7.30 interview, Ham spoke of France’s history of “being able to laugh at oppressors”, seemingly unaware of the nation’s shameful capitulation between 1940 and 1944 along with the nation’s past rampant anti-Semitism.
Last Monday, Burnside was interviewed by Hamish McDonald on ABC Radio National Breakfast. By this time, the Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo had been followed by the Islamist attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket. The former was clearly a political-religious target since the satirical magazine had been firebombed in 2011 by Islamists angered by its irreverent depiction of Mohammed.
The Charlie Hebdo murders were a dreadful act of terrorism. But it was a targeted attack. Not so the victims of Hyper Cacher. They were randomly chosen by an Islamist terrorist simply because they were Jews buying food at a kosher supermarket just before the Sabbath. The fact is that French Islamists have added a new dimension to traditional French anti-Semitism.
Burnside managed to speak at some length about contemporary France, despite acknowledging he was “not sufficiently in touch with the details of French politics to be able to express a useful view” about the impact of terrorism on France. To the Melbourne barrister, however, it was all about moral equivalence.
Cherif and Said Kouachi, having shouted “Allahu Akbar” when attacking Charlie Hebdo, shot a policeman after leaving the building. It so happened that the brave policeman was a Muslim but there is no evidence the Kouachi brothers knew this. Two days later, fellow terrorist Amedy Coulibaly (who had shot a police woman a couple of days earlier) deliberately targeted a kosher grocery store.
Yet Burnside told McDonald that “the objective fact is that one of the casualties was a Muslim policeman” while “another in a related episode in the kosher grocery (was) a Jewish man”. This is not at all true. The policeman was targeted because he was a member of the French police force. Whereas four customers were murdered at Hyper Cacher simply because they were Jewish. The latter act was an anti-Semitic, race-based murder — despite Burnside’s attempt at a fudge.
It was much the same with a tweet Burnside sent out from Paris on Sunday. First up, he went into denial by claiming that the Sydney siege was not a terror attack, despite the perpetrator having said that it was. Then Burnside declared: “Charlie Hebdo was a terror attack, but the Paris march decisively rejected Islamophobia.” In his tweet, Burnside did not even mention the anti-Semitic attack. Nor did he make clear what he means by Islamophobia. Yet, in the events surrounding the Charlie Hebdotragedy, no Muslims were killed or kidnapped by non-Muslims. And the only believers deliberately murdered were Jews.
The recent events in Paris demonstrate that anti-Semitism in France has taken a new direction. Yet Ham does not seem to understand the nation’s historical anti-Semitism while Burnside is in denial about anti-Semitism’s force in contemporary France. As Orwell understood, “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that”.