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Open letter linking Islam to anti-Semitism sparks backlash in France

An open letter published over the weekend in French daily Le Parisien condemning a “new anti-Semitism” in France has stirred heated debate in the country, with critics describing the text as discriminatory against Muslims.

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The letter – which was signed by more than 250 prominent public figures, including actor Gérard Depardieu, businessman François Pinault, as well as former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni – appeared in the Sunday edition of French daily Le Parisien.

It drew a direct link between anti-Semitism and Islam, blaming Islamist radicalisation for a “quiet ethnic purge” of Jews, which it claims is currently happening in France.

“In our recent history, 11 Jews have been murdered – and some tortured – by radical Islamists because they were Jewish,” it read, later evoking the death of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was found stabbed in her home last month in what is being treated as an anti-Semitic attack.

The letter went on to argue that anti-Semitism is more prevalent in France than Islamophobia, claiming that the Jewish community is at greater risk of hate crimes than Muslims.

“French Jews are 25 times more likely to be aggressed than their Muslim fellow citizens,” it stated, alleging that tens of thousands of Jews had been forced to leave their homes in the Paris area out of fear for their safety.

‘Prejudice against Islam’

There was an almost immediate backlash to the letter, which was criticised for its treatment of Islam.

“More than anything, the (letter) translates the idea that contemporary anti-Semitism is above all else, Islamist, even Muslim,” Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, told FRANCE 24.

“The text not only reveals issues troubling French Jews, but also prejudice against Islam,” Wieviorka – whose sister, the historian Annette Wieviorka, was among the letter’s signatories – added.

France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, who also signed the letter, said he disagreed with the “comparison between the inherent threats of being Jewish and those inherent to being Muslim”.

“I was most reticent about the fact that it was [presented as] a sort of competition. Who was the most at risk?” Korsia told Franceinfo radio.

“As if it were necessary to measure the suffering of Jews against the supposed serenity of Muslims… as if it were necessary to compare Jews, [children] of France, to their ‘Muslim fellow citizens’, who are suspected of being more Muslim than fellow citizens,” wrote journalist Claude Askolovitch, in a scathing opinion piece for online magazine Slate published on Monday.

Meanwhile, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, warned against the letter’s divisive rhetoric.

“This letter, which unfairly puts French citizens of the Muslim faith and Islam in France on trial for anti-Semitism, presents the obvious risk of dividing religious communities,” Boubakeur said in a statement.

It’s not the first time, however, that Islam has been compounded with anti-Semitism in France.

Publisher Antoine Gallimard sparked controversy after announcing in January that he would no longer publish works by the novelist Céline –a notorious anti-Semite – because, “anti-Semitism is no longer the exclusive territory of Christians, but Muslims, and they’re not going to read texts by Céline”.

His comments prompted a strongly worded response by Holocaust historian Tal Bruttmann, who categorically rejected the idea.

“Anti-Semitism today is not the exclusive territory of Muslims,” he wrote on Facebook, in a post that still resonates three months later. “It’s not ‘Muslim anti-Semitism’ we have to fight against, it’s anti-Semitism, period. We shouldn’t reduce it to a single demographic of the population, as if they were the only ones responsible.”

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