Anti-Semitism and Islamist Fundamentalism in France

02/24/2015 10:50 am ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

PARIS -- One month after 17 people were killed in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the sense that things may not go back to "business as usual" is palpable.

Perhaps these atrocities will serve as a wakeup call for France, after years of similar incidents -- the murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murders in Toulouse in 2013 and at the Jewish museum in Brussels committed by a French man in 2014. After all, nearly four million French people went into the streets to express their outrage, and seven million copies of Charlie Hebdo have since been sold. A number of governmental and legal initiatives are in the works, including beefed-up intelligence, steps against radical Islamist indoctrination in prisons, educational programs and more than 100 proceedings against people charged with publicly condoning acts of terrorism.

Most importantly, our leaders seem to understand the problem. French President Francois Hollande has made the fight against racism and anti-Semitism a "great national cause." And Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in an historic speech, declared: "Today we are all Charlie, we are all policemen, we are all French Jews," and pledged to address terrorism in a spirit of "firmness, serenity and unity."

But others are not shouldering their responsibilities. To avoid wasting more time and more lives, we must look reality in the face.

First, there are the passive bystanders, the cowards who did not and still do not see the reality of Islamist fundamentalism and anti-Semitism, or who see it but look away, refusing to name it, leaving this monster the space to grow more and more every day. They are ordinary French people, journalists, politicians, even former ministers, political commentators and intellectuals from across the political spectrum.

Second, much worse, are the active accomplices. Some of France's local or national politicians have allowed themselves be associated with anti-semites and terrorists. Most representatives of the new Anti-Capitalist Party as well as some officials from the Green and Communist parties participated in last summer's pro-Palestinian demonstrations that were banned by the government because they were considered dangerous and antisemitic. They walked alongside Islamic State, Hezbollah and Hamas flags at Place de la République and elsewhere where swastikas appeared, Israeli flags were burned, and "death to the Jews" was chanted in the streets.

Third, mainstream local and national politicians for years have pandered to extremist voters in order to achieve and stay in power. They give in to the fundamentalists, populists, Salafists, anti-semites and their thuggish, gangster, drug-dealing accomplices.

As Malek Boutih, Member of Parliament and co-founder of the biggest anti-racist organization in France recently reminded us, for over 20 years these politicians preferred to buy social peace by leaving some of these neighborhoods in the hands of dubious Islamist organizations and other hate mongers.

We have to clean up in our own ranks. We cannot continue to let supermarkets of drugs prosper in our cities where gangsters and Islamo-Nazis are holding hands. This is the case in cities led by the left, the right and the center.

Elected officials also have named convicted Palestinian terrorists honorary citizens of their cities. Thirteen mayors have made Marwan Barghouti an honorary citizen, despite (or perhaps because) he was sentenced to five sentences of life imprisonment for the murder of five Israeli civilians, and for his involvement in four terrorist attacks.

Even worse, the Mayor of Bezons (a city of Val-d'Oise) made Majdi Ihrima Al-Rimawi an honorary citizen of his city. Al-Rimawi is in prison, sentenced to 80 years for involvement in the 2001 assassination of Israeli Minister of Tourism Rechavam Zeevi. When the Administrative Court of Pontoise overruled this action, the mayor named 4,500 Palestinian prisoners honorary citizens.

By glorifying terrorists, calling them "resistance fighters," elected officials go much farther than simply expressing support for the Palestinian cause. These terrrorists' crimes are no less horrific than those of Amedy Coulibaly, the Kouachi brothers, Mohammed Merah or Mehdi Nemmouche. Extolling them adds fuel to the fire that will encourage more indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians.

If more than a hundred cases have been filed against French citizens for condoning terrorism these past few weeks, shouldn't the French courts look into the actions of these elected officials as well?

After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, the government identified education as key in the fight against antisemitism, racism and extremism. But if we want our children to make the distinction between right and wrong, if we want them to understand and protect themselves from fundamentalist ideology, we need to condemn elected officials who play with fire.

How do we prevent our youngsters from "importing the conflict," a term that is regularly being used by our political leaders when they denounce antisemitic violence, if our mayors excuse and even glorify hatred of Israel and Jews? The moral confusion of this kind of behavior undermines the very idea on which the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and even terrorism is based on.

If we really want the genius of France to prosper, if we want to fight terrorism, anti-Semitism and racism, if we want our children to understand the values of the republic, such as tolerance and pluralism, we need to mount a firm attack on this kind of behavior, especially when it comes from our political leaders. Maybe then will be able to renew the French spirit that made our country great.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is Director of the American Jewish Committee's Paris Office (www.ajc.org).