Review Essay

How to Be a Jew 
in France

Léon Blum and French Anti-Semitism

In This Review

Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist
Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist
By Pierre Birnbaum
Yale University Press, 2015, 232 pp. Purchase

Just two days after the terrorist attack at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, Amedy Coulibaly, a French-born militant who had pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), murdered four Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. Coulibaly’s heinous act was not without precedent. In 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen who had spent a year training with the Islamic State in Syria, opened fire in the Jewish Museum of Belgium, killing four. In 2012, Mohamed Merah, a French follower of al Qaeda, killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Such attacks are the most visible signs of a wider trend: for the past 15 years, anti-Semitism has seemed to be on the rise in France. Long-standing economic and social problems fan the flames of interethnic tension in the modest communities where, since the 1960s, Jewish and Muslim immigrants used to live together in peace. French unemployment is high, surpassing ten percent overall, but among the youth in France’s poorer suburbs, where such tensions are most palpable, it is a staggering 40 percent, and schools are in crisis. Coulibaly, Nemmouche, and Merah all came from such communities. All three were born in France to parents who had emigrated from France’s former African colonies. They were raised as secular Muslims in neighborhoods where racism, poverty, and struggling schools limited their horizons. They became petty criminals in their teens and, as young men, found their way to Islamist terrorist movements, carrying out their anti-Semitic acts in the name of global jihad. As more and more people from such neighborhoods have followed this path, policing has increased, but the underlying economic and social problems persist.

The Sunday after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, 3.5 million people marched in the streets of France carrying signs expressing solidarity with the victims; most read, “I am Charlie,” but some also declared, “I am Jewish.” That evening, Israel’s prime

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