French historian and philosopher Georges Bensoussan joins a long and growing list of Western thinkers who have been put on trial for outspoken criticism of Islamic beliefs.
The French historian and philosopher Georges Bensoussan is best known for his studies of matters relating to the Jewish world, on topics such as the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab countries after the declaration of Israel's independence in 1948 and the signal defeat of Arab armies which invaded the new state between then and 1949. He himself was born in Morocco in 1952, but moved with his family to France in his early years.
After a doctorate in history from the University of Paris I in 1981, Bensoussan became director of a journal for Holocaust history (Revue d'histoire de la Shoah) and went on to develop a training service for Holocaust education. Over the years, he has published several well-researched books on the Holocaust, Zionism, and related topics. Juifs en pays arabes: Le grand déracinement 1850-1975 (2012) covers the too-little known history of the way in which nearly a million Jews in Arab countries were reduced in fewer than thirty years to about 5,000. His intellectual and political history of Zionism, Une histoire intellectuelle et politique du sionisme 1860-1940 (2002), counters the modern use of the term Zionist as a pejorative.
A leading opponent of Europe's oldest form of racism is one of the last people fit to be labelled a racist.
Given these credentials as a leading opponent of Europe's oldest form of racism, one might very well expect that Georges Bensoussan would be one of the last people fit to be labelled a racist. And you would be correct. But on January 25, Bensoussan was obliged to present himself at the 17th chamber of the Tribunal Correctionel of Paris to face a charge of "provocation of racial hatred" ("provocation à la haine raciale"). A more honest description of the charge would have read "provocation of 'Islamophobia'." It is not racist to accuse Muslims of wrongdoing; Islam is a religio-political system, not a race. This conflation of two very different things already causes endless confusion and miscarriages of justice.
The charge against Bensoussan was brought by the Collectif contre l'Islamophobie en France (CCIF) an Islamic activist organization that seeks to defend Muslims from perceived attacks ("Islamophobia") in the secular system of the country. Such scattershot accusations fail to make a distinction between genuine hatred for Muslims and fair and balanced criticism of some of their behavior and their religion.
The charge against Bensoussan was brought by the Islamic activist organization Collectif contre l'Islamophobie en France (CCIF).
Leading the accusation in court was a hijab-wearing woman, Lila Cherif, in charge of the CCIF's legal team. On the public gallery sat an assemblage of anti-racist organizations: SOS-Racisme, a much criticized French and international group, the prestigious Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l'Antisémitisme (LICRA), the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Mouvement contre racisme et pour l'amitié entre les peoples (MRAP) – which is part of the Platform of French NGOs for Palestine that supports trying to destroy Israel economically – and the anti-Israel League of Human Rights (Ligue des droits de l'homme).
Nowadays, there are several principal international definitions of anti-Semitism – the US State Department's "Working Definition" of Anti-Semitism, the original EU Monitoring Centre's Working Definition, and the most widely recognized International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's Definition. All three definitions include anti-Israel speech, writing and actions as fully anti-Semitic, and it is on this basis that some of these self-styled anti-racist groups may be described as anti-Semitic. In that context, their presence in the public gallery may have much to do with antagonism to Bensoussan's work in claiming anti-Semitism in his writings.
According to Raphaëlle Bacqué, in Le Monde on January 26, the specific charge against Bensoussan is based on a couple of statements he made in 2015 during a radio broadcast in an episode of Répliques, a much-respected program that discusses current affairs, often linked to new publications by those interviewed. The first statement was as follows (author's translation):
Today, we find ourselves at the heart of the French nation in the presence of another people, who take a backwards view of a certain number of the democratic values which we have carried. There will be no integration so long as we cannot rid ourselves of the atavistic anti-Semitism which is hidden like a secret.
He then went on to say:
An Algerian sociologist, Smaïn Laacher, with great courage, has just said in a film broadcast on France 3: 'It is a shame that, in order to maintain this taboo, to know that in Arab families in France – and everyone knows this but nobody wants to say it – anti-Semitism is sucked in with a mother's milk.'
Days later, Laacher, a lecturer at the University of Strasbourg, denied that he had said this.
According to Algerian sociologist Smaïn Laacher, Arab antisemitism is "in the beginning domestic," then "legitimated ... externally."
Writing in the investigative journal Mediapart, he sternly declared "I have never said nor written anything of this ignominious nature." He condemned Bensoussan for suggesting that Algerian anti-Semitism was created naturally, meaning racially. "How could anyone believe for half a second that in these [Arab] families that anti-Semitism is transmitted in the end through blood."
But that is not what Bensoussan had said. He had not mentioned blood, just transmission through a mother's milk.
Underneath Laacher's response, however, a commenter named Aimelle turned Laacher's remarks upside down, writing as follows:
Here is a record (including the "ums" and the repetitions of what M. Laacher said in the documentary (at the 56th minute):
"It is a monumental hypocrisy not to see that this anti-Semitism is in the beginning domestic, and quite evidently, is without doubt reinforced, hardened, legitimated, almost naturalized with various distinctions um... externally. He will find it at home and will sense no radical lack of continuity between home and the external environment. Because the external environment, is, in reality, the most often [experienced]. It is to be found in what are termed the ghettos, it feels as though it is in the air one breathes, it is not at all strange. And it is difficult to escape from it in those places, particularly when you find it in yourself."
Certainly, he does not say "sucked in with a mother's milk" – an expression which, in French, is a metaphor employed to define something one acquires "in the atmosphere," "in the language," "on the tongue." But the idea is much the same.
Bensoussan argued that "sucked from a mother's milk" and "transmitted through blood" are not the same. His argument was based on Laacher's own statements in that television documentary. Why Laacher reacted so fiercely to Bensoussan's use of his own argument that Arab culture fosters anti-Semitism, so far as to deny he had ever said anything like that, is not easy to determine. Was it simply because he did not want to be associated with views that might so easily have been interpreted (as they were in Bensoussan's case) as racist in nature?
According to Bensoussan, anti-racism has turned into an instrument to silence 'the majority of the French people.'
In an interview with Alexandre Devecchio for Le Figaro, published on the day his trial opened, Bensoussan argued that anti-racism has been turned into an instrument that may be used to silence "the majority of the French people." He speaks of "delinquent anti-racism" ("l'antiracisme dévoyé"), and goes on to cite Elizabeth Badinter, an academic and, according to Jane Kramer writing in The New Yorker, France's "most influential intellectual," who has spoken of "collaboration through anti-racism," using "collaboration" in the French 1940s sense of collaboration with the enemy.
He himself says this illuminates that
anti-racism, this legitimate struggle, has been progressively made a delinquent as the religion of anti-racism, indeed an instrument of intellectual terrorism has become today the greatest channel of the new anti-Semitism.
To make things more difficult for Bensoussan, the charge of "racism" was tangled up by the CCIF, who added to it a charge of being an "Islamophobe." This, ironically, is quite unrelated to the Laacher complaint, which is based on Arabs, not necessarily Muslims. But for Muslim activists, it is possible to attack on both fronts, conflating race and religion.
Because, as Bensoussan states, anti-racism is a form of religiosity in France (and indeed in other Western countries), using that charge serves effectively to intensify public outrage against any questioning of Islam within important sectors in a country with growing sensitivities about race-crime on the one hand and fear of Islamic terrorism exemplified by the attacks in Paris and Nice.
The CCIF's charge of "Islamophobia" is almost certainly not so much about Arabs but about perceptions of a refusal by Muslim immigrants from North Africa to integrate into French society, with its core Enlightenment values of liberté, égalité, fraternité, the country's motto.
Bensoussan has written two books on this subject: Les Territoires perdus de la République (2002) and Une France soumise: Les voix du refus (2017) ("Lost Territories of the Republic" and "A Submissive France: The Voices of Refusal")
In a long analytical interview with Caroline Valentin concerning Bensoussan's most recent book, Mathieu Bock-Côté (writing in Le journal de Montréal) summed up the issue:
France is the principal theatre of the Islamist offensive in Europe. In saying that, we are not only thinking of the attacks which have marked the last two years, but of the creation on French territory of a veritable counter-society which does not speak its name and dissociates itself more and more from the nation. The desertion of the elites, criticism of French identity, cultural and physical insecurity, the increase of unreasonable compromises in schools and hospitals: it is in order to analyze and denounce this sloppiness that this book has appeared just now.
It is no secret that those who create this "counter-society" and disaffiliation from the French nation state are disproportionately Muslims – in this case mostly Muslims from North Africa – who refuse to integrate or are deterred by their communities from doing so. Many studies place the blame for this lack of integration on the French state and racial discrimination, and no doubt there is much truth in that. However, many modern surveys in countries like the UK indicate that Muslims are the hardest of all immigrant and minority groups to integrate, and that increasing numbers choose not to. A recent example is the December 2016 report by Dame Louise Casey for the British government which, among much else, concluded:
Polling in 2015... showed that more than 55% of the general public agreed that there was a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society, while 46% of British Muslims felt that being a Muslim in Britain was difficult due to prejudice against Islam. We found a growing sense of grievance among sections of the Muslim population, and a stronger sense of identification with the plight of the 'Ummah', or global Muslim community. (pp. 12-13)
Bensoussan's argument that Muslim communities contribute to the development of a society within society clearly attracted the attention of the CCIF, which introduced the notion that he is both a racist and an "Islamophobe." This opinion was reinforced when the lawyer for the CCIF instrumentalized anti-Semitism as a further means of defaming Bensoussan, saying that "What seems to us inadmissible is to attribute anti-Semitism to all the members of a group. That is essentialism." Essentialism here means defining an entire community with a single "essential" characteristic. To this, Bensoussan makes his strongest defence against that charge:
To say that one drinks in anti-Semitism from one's mother's milk means that it is transmitted culturally. I have not spoken of a transmission through blood, which implies a genetic transmission. And I maintain that in some Arab families in France, anti-Semitism is taught. I have not invented Mohamed Merah [who murdered seven people in 2012, including three children at a Jewish school, admitting to anti-Semitic motives]. I have not invented the Kouachi brothers, who, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, asked the printer with whom they took refuge if he was Jewish.
Bensoussan's claim of culturally-transmitted anti-Semitism in Muslim and Arab communities is strongly backed by two important polls. The Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Global 100 report on anti-Semitism worldwide gave figures for anti-Semitic attitudes in 16 Arab states, plus Turkey and Iran.
Bensoussan's claim of culturally-transmitted anti-Semitism in Arab-Muslim communities is strongly backed by polling.
The results are disturbing, ranging from 93% for the West Bank and Gaza, and 92% in Iraq, through ten countries scoring in the 80% to 90% range, four scoring in the 70%s, and Turkey and Iran at the bottom, with 69% and 56% respectively. The highest in Eastern Europe was 45% (Poland) down to 13% (Czech Republic); in Western Europe, there was only one high percentage, 69% for Greece, with figures from 37% for France down to 4% for Sweden.
These figures are bolstered by a 2011 Pew Global survey, which shows low figures for positive attitudes to Jews in Arab and Muslim countries: Turkey 4%, Egypt and Jordan with 2% and so on in two other Muslim states: Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim population) at 9% and Pakistan at 2%. That shows three Muslim countries – i.e. non-Arab states – with high levels of anti-Semitism. That in itself shows that this has nothing to do with genetics, but relates to culture, specifically Islamic culture.
Bensoussan himself has also drawn attention to a 2014 survey carried out in France:
This visceral anti-Semitism proven by the Fondapol survey by Dominique Reynié last year cannot remain under a cover of silence. Conducted in 2014 among 1,580 French respondents, of whom one third were Muslim, the survey found that they were two times and even three times more anti-Jewish than French people as a whole.
Why should this be surprising? Anti-Jewish feelings in Muslim countries and elsewhere are deeply embedded, with roots in the Qur'an, the hadith, Islamic law-books, and general social attitudes from the 7th century onwards.
Bensoussan has summed the matter up as follows:
I am speaking about a cultural notion, not genetic. To confuse milk and blood is bad faith or stupidity. Yes, in some Arab families in France, anti-Semitism is passed on. To speak of a biological anti-Semitism would take me back to deny thirty years of my work. What culture can do, culture can undo; we can leave anti-Semitism behind. But I have not invented Mohamed Merah nor the friends of his family who expressed regret that he had not killed more Jewish children.
The verdict in the Bensoussan case will not be delivered until early March.
If Bensoussan is convicted, the CCIF and its allies will start further prosecutions of other innocent people.
But whether he is found guilty or innocent, he has already joined a long and growing list of Western thinkers and politicians who have been put on trial and sometimes convicted for outspoken criticism of Islam or criticism of some Muslim behavior, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, "Gregorius Nekschot," Lars Hedegaard, Michael Smith, Geert Wilders and others.
If Bensoussan is convicted, the CCIF and other organisations like it will start further prosecutions of other innocent people and possibly succeed in shutting down debate about what is the greatest single threat to the stability not only of France and Europe, but the West.
It could scarcely be more grotesque to find that a man who stands up to the rampant anti-Semitism within the Muslim community is twisted into the shape of a racist and purportedly an "Islamophobe."
Denis MacEoin, a senior editor at Middle East Quarterly, is a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
Related Topics: Antisemitism, Muslims in Europe | Denis MacEoin
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