French Jewish scholar’s hate speech trial leaves anti-racism activists bitter, divided

French Jewish scholar’s hate speech trial leaves anti-racism activists bitter, divided

Georges Bensoussan in Milan in 2014. 

Photo by Moked/Federico Valente
Georges Bensoussan in Milan in 2014. Photo by Moked/Federico Valente

The hate speech trial of a prominent French historian charged with calling Arabs innately anti-Semitic is dividing French Jews and sowing dissent within the local equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League.

It is all happening over just two words: “mother’s milk.”

Georges Bensoussan, one of the world’s leading experts on Jews in Arab lands, used the two fateful words during a radio interview in 2015. Citing the work of an Algerian sociologist, he asserted that “in Arab families in France and beyond, everybody knows but will not say that anti-Semitism is transmitted with mother’s milk.”

Bensoussan later insisted he meant this as a metaphor for culturally transmitted bias. Nevertheless, his words prompted both the Collective Against Islamophobia in France and the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, or LICRA, independently to initiate a criminal trial against him for allegedly inciting racial hatred.

The verdict in Bensoussan’s trial, which began last month, is expected to determine boundaries of free speech in academia in a country where moderates fear both radical Islam and the surge of xenophobia it is triggering.

But the trial is already pitting anti-racism activists against one another, including within LICRA. One of France’s most revered thinkers, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, resigned from its honorary board in protest over what French media are calling “l’Affaire Bensoussan.”

Long frustrated over what they regard as politically correct censorship, right-leaning French Jews reacted with outrage over Bensoussan’s prosecution, using language even more heated than the hyperbolic rhetoric common in their favorite media.

Former Le Monde reporter Yves Mamou called the prosecution “a Jihad against the truth” and “France’s new Dreyfus Trial” in reference to the wrongful conviction for treason in 1894 of a Jewish army captain.

Sammy Ghozlan, founder of the center-right National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, condemned the prosecution as “shocking.”

“I think it’s deplorable how LICRA has lowered itself into this quagmire of a trial against telling the truth,” he added in an interview last week.

Ghozlan, a former police commissioner, said people with origins in Muslim countries in recent years have been responsible for most of the hundreds of violent anti-Semitic incidents recorded in France. At least eight people were murdered since 2012 in jihadist attacks on Jewish targets.

Discontent over Bensoussan’s prosecution spread to more centrist circles, exposing the left-leaning LICRA to criticism by Finkielkraut. Last year he received the country’s ultimate academic distinction when he entered the Academie Francaise pantheon of great thinkers.

On Jan. 29 Finkielkraut, a member of the dovish JCall group of French Jews who oppose Israel’s settlement policy, announced he would be resigning from LICRA over its decision to sue Bensoussan.

The move “dishonored” LICRA, he said during an interview with RCJ radio, accusing LICRA of “opting for inquisition” against Bensoussan.

“I call on all activists, followers and sympathizers to draw their own conclusions [about LICRA] from this ignominy,” he said. Finkielkraut called the prosecution of Bensoussan “an exceptionally grave event politically, judicially and historically.”

During the interview, Finkielkraut noted that Bensoussan in 2015 was paraphrasing the statements of the Algeria-born sociologist Smaïn Laacher, a non-Jew who said that anti-Semitism in Muslim areas is “in the air that one breathes.”

Laacher and Bensoussan were using metaphors, Finkielkraut argued, and neither “speak of any biological dimension to the culturally transmitted phenomenon they describe.” That refutes the “incitement to racial hatred” charge, he said.

But in an election year with the far-right National Front group leading in the polls, this technicality was soon eclipsed in the media by the trial’s broader implications on free speech and race relations.

The trial “is a way of avoiding investigative thought and any public expression on Islam except for praise,” Finkielkraut said in the RCJ interview.

In a scathing op-ed in the Marianne weekly, columnist Martine Gozlan called the trial “shameful” and an attempt to “silence free thought.”

It’s a recurring accusation by advocates of several French thinkers, Jews and others, who have paid a personal and public price recently for speaking out against Islam or in defense of Israel.

The list includes Michel Houellebecq, who has received death threats for writing a novel critical of political Islam; Bernard-Henri Levy, who is reviled by many members of his left-wing circles for defending Israel, and Finkiekraut himself, who was violently ejected from a public gathering recently because he is a “Zionist.”

Gozlan also noted that LICRA’s fellow plaintiff, the Collective Against Islamophobia, has been accused — including by LICRA itself — of propagating anti-Semitic disinformation against Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose wife is Jewish.

On Feb. 2 Philippe Karsenty, the French Jewish activist and deputy mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, echoed Gozlan’s sentiment in an op-ed he wrote with lawyer Pierre Lurçat.

“How could a group established to defend Jews come to assist a judicial jihad waged against a Jewish intellectual specialized in the history of the Holocaust?” they asked.

It was a withering attack on LICRA, a group founded by a Jewish journalist in 1926 in an effort to defend a Jew charged with the Paris killing of a Ukrainian nationalist. The Ukrainian was responsible for pogroms in Ukraine in which the Jewish killer’s relatives perished.

Amid growing criticism, the head of LICRA, Alain Jacubowicz, who is Jewish, broke his silence about the affair. In an op-ed published earlier this month, he accused Bensoussan of “benefiting extremists” with his statement on Islam.

Jacubowicz had a point.

Bruno Gollnisch, a Holocaust denier and European Parliament lawmaker for National Front, embraced Bensoussan’s cause. In a Jan. 25 op-ed published on his website, Gollnisch equated Bensoussan’s troubles to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was sidelined as the National Front’s leader after multiple convictions for hate speech against Jews and Muslims.

“There are truths we’re forbidden to speak,” Gollnisch wrote about both men.

Bensoussan in turn broke his own silence on the affair and replied to Jacubowicz in an open letter published Feb. 13.

Turning Jacubowicz’s claim against him, Bensoussan wrote that the popularity of a populist, anti-immigrant party like the National Front is being fueled by “a denial of reality, a suicidal strategy of blindness and silence.”