The European Union: Continuously Creating Problems for Israel and the Jews – Interview with Shmuel Trigano

by Manfred Gerstenfeld. From Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss, 2005.

Shmuel Trigano, professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre, considers that  the  development  of the European Union has created major problems for the Jewish people. “It has gradually become clear that many Europeans are only willing to recognize the Jews as Holocaust victims, not as free people in a Jewish state. Europe’s specific, supposedly moral demands of Israeli policy, negate Israel’s political realities as a state. The accusation of state terrorism to describe the Israeli reprisals after Palestinian war acts or the iniquitous advis­ory opinion of the International Court of Justice prove this clearly.

“Many of the world’s Arabs and Muslims want to destroy the state of Israel. More than a few Europeans help them in various ways. Some claim that a Jewish state has no place in political postmodernity.” Trigano  says such assertions are made against a background of the European unification process  that questions the validity of the nation-state.

“In France, the state has created a nation while in Germany, the nation has created a state. That is why the European unification process has more severe con­ sequences in France than in other countries. If the state loses its sovereignty, then the nation risks collapse. The national connection at the basis of European identity has been shaken loose and is surrounded by uncertainty. The doubt concerning citizens’ identity has led to a crisis in European society. Europe also has major problems regarding the integration of many millions of Muslims. They are an aggravating factor at a moment of crisis when Europe itself and its member countries are in disin­tegration.”

In Trigano’s view, Europe’s attitude toward the Jews and Israel has become an indicator of what is basically wrong with the continent and of the crisis in which it finds itself. “Jews are being manipulated and have to pay its price. European public opinion projects its own fears onto Israel, which has to face the Arabs. Europe tries to exorcise these fears by condemning Israel. This crisis in European identity is likely to have further unforeseen profound con­ sequences for both the Jews and Israel. These develop­ments have to be followed closely so as to rapidly analyze and expose them.”

Associations with the Napoleonic Empire

Trigano has a negative view of the EU from a much wider perspective. “Never before has an entity such as the Euro­ pean  Union  existed.  There  have  been  three  European empires before, under  Charles the Great, Napoleon,  and Hitler, characterized respectively by evangelization, domination, and terror. That is not reassuring. The EU’s ambi­tions  mainly  create  associations  with  the  Napoleonic Empire because of its bureaucratic-political  character. This indicates that the unification is a rather regressive process. “The EU is even at a disadvantage  compared  to the Napoleonic  Empire  insofar  as  the  latter  at  least  had  a charismatic leader and a political center. The EU only has a  bureaucratic  administrative  headquarters  in  Brussels. There is no charismatic personality heading it to personify it. The geographical  distance of many components from the center is very  great. So are the cultural, social, and linguistic differences between its member states, which are piled together in a chaotic way.

“Every empire needs an enemy. Europe defines itself in opposition to the policies of the nationalist American state. Two leading European intellectuals, the  Frenchman Jacques Derrida and the  German  Jiirgen  Habermas, when trying to define positive  elements  of Europe’s nascent identity, came up with very little. All they could suggest was that the anti-American demonstrations in Europe were the beginning of an emerging European public  opinion.  Anti-Americanism  has  the same effect as the nationalist fever: hating others in or­ der to crystallize national identity. This is  paradoxical since the unification was supposed to go beyond these identities. In fact, the European identity is being created by anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and to a large extent anti-Semitism.

“Any comparison of Europe’s identity and that of the United States is mistaken. The European predecessors of the Americans came to a continent that they thought empty and called it ‘the New World.’ The United States is a society of immigrants with a single language. Europe, however, is heavily burdened by its diverse national histories, several of which are criminal. Even today France is hardly interested in what happens in, for instance, England, a country only forty kilometers removed from its frontiers.”

Questioning Europe’s Future

Trigano questions the future development of the Euro­pean Union. “Even to create a federal Europe seems very difficult. The concept of the EU might have been valid for the elimination of customs barriers. Europe, however, has no common cultural or political identity. Nor has it common values.

“The European Union remains an artificial construct. As long as it remained  a customs union, this was not so obvious. Any sociologist knows that both collective entities and identities exist, which one cannot construct through voluntary engineering. The European political ambition cannot succeed because there is no transnational Euro­pean identity, while democracy cannot work in such a large and diverse territory.

“Some experts like the French sociologist Daniele Her­vieu Leger say that Europe is in a post-Christian period already. The postmodernists and the elites of the Euro­pean bureaucracy claim that Europe is characterized by its desire to be a multicultural entity in favor of human rights. If one takes a closer look, one sees that such an approach to human rights assumes the disintegration of national identity.

“They claim that European politics have to be based on the individual without any collective dimensions. However, one also sees that Europe does not treat Mus­lims as individuals, because it fears Islam and its adher­ents. Also the Jews, who are confronted by the recent anti-Semitic crisis, are still considered an alien commun­ity in society.”

Attitudes toward the Jews

Trigano refers in more detail to the current situation of the Jews in Europe. “The Jews have always been out of phase with realities on the European continent. Modern Europe, which is fundamentally Christian, is now passing into another stage. In medieval times, one aimed to make the spirit superior to the body, which also had as its goal making Christianity superior to Judaism. In modernity, materialism dominates spirituality. Each time the Jews are on the wrong side of the equation.

“There are many examples of this. Centuries ago the Jews were the only people of the then-imperial West en­ closed in ghettos. There was on the one side an imperial ‘universal’ Europe, on the other a solitary and peculiar people, the Jews. At the beginning of modernity, with the appearance of Protestantism the West became like the Jewish people, a nation. Then it wished to classify the Jews only as a spiritual, religious group.

“The religious foundations for much of Europe’s attitude toward the Jews were laid by Christianity, and in particular by the apostle Paul. He proclaimed that those who converted to Christianity – the new Israel – had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Thus those Jews who did not convert became an excluded collective.”

Trigano has developed this thesis in a book titled The Chosen People, the Excluded People. 1 He says: “Paul split ‘Jew­ishness’ into ‘body’ and ‘spirit.’ In his view, the Christians personified the spirit while the Jews were the body. This was the founding concept of European society. Whoever seeks to understand the correct definition of a Jew gets a false perception from Paul. The apostle, who came from within the Jewish people, turned the Jews into his victims and doomed  them to pariah status.

“That the Jews were out of phase with Europe became very clear once again during the French Revolution. Then the Jews were emancipated. The state no longer consid­ered them an autonomous community but viewed them only as individuals. Napoleon turned the Jewish commun­ity into ‘a church of the Jewish faith’ with obligatory mem­bership. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, and again around 1840, European anti-Semitism
ex­ploded. This transformed the Jews – against their desires – again into a people, despite their formal status as individual citizens.

“France in particular has, since the French Revolution, sought to see the Jews as individual citizens. The Shoah, however, undeniably turned them into a community with links to the Jewish people worldwide. One cannot undo history. Even beyond anti-Semitism, which attacks the Jew­ish people, the Jews are a people; a reality that cannot by changed by law or declarations of the state.”

The Holocaust: Central Event in European History

 “The long-term consequences of the European attitude toward the Jews became particularly clear during the Holocaust. Jews were persecuted because of their ethni­city. Their mass murder became possible in a specific Euro­pean reality at a certain time. After the war, as a result, the memory of the mass murder became a central event in European history. The presence of the Jews now calls up associations in Europe of murder, and has grown to be a historical burden  for the continent.

“Jews have become a symbol of death for the European conscience. One might say that society has put the memory of the dead Jews into a sarcophagus to be carried from now on by the living Jews. This has a double effect. The living Jews have been burdened with being the symbol of the Shoah, and they are simultaneously criticized because they have become that.

“If, as many Europeans do, one sees  primarily Europe’s dead Jews, that makes the living Jews, to a certain extent, invisible. In the present European system there is little place for the living Jews. In dialectical terms, the Shoah’s memory has become sacred while the people who symbolize it are more and more isolated in today’s Euro­pean societies, partly due to the rising anti-Semitism.

“To some extent, Jewish leaders have  adapted  to their environment and accepted that the memory of the Shoah is a dominant factor of Jewish identity, even more so than the cause of Israel, the Jewish state. One occa­sionally finds individual Jews who do not want to be members of the Jewish community or the Jewish people, who refuse any links with Israel, yet see the memory of the Shoah as central in  their life. This is both the root and a legitimization  of a  trend  that  has  impacted  part of the Jewish elite. They violently criticize Israel in the name of the ‘victim aspect’ of the Shoah. They also con­demn the Jewish community.

“In the last few years we have seen a major reemer­gence of classic motifs of anti-Semitism in the European discourse. This goes far beyond the adoption of this dis­ course of hate by European Muslims. Before the Second World War, of which the Jews were the most specific vic­ tims, their enemies called them warmongers. Today, one can often hear that the State of Israel is the Trojan horse of American imperialism in the Middle East and that the Iraq War is fought for Israel’s benefit.

“One speaks again about a worldwide Jewish conspir­acy. This fits into the general anti-American sentiments. It also has to be seen against the background of European envy of the United States. The latter is to a certain extent the new Europe, in the sense that it has taken over world leadership.”

France as a Paradigm

Trigano mentions France as a paradigm. He has been saying for several  years  that  the  fact  that Jews belong to a specific community remains highly problematic for French society. This unease implies that Jews do not have the right to exist in France other than as anonymous individuals.

“Creating a communal life and a collective identity leads to a confrontation with society at large. The latter is unable to accept a Jewish community as a structural element of its culture.2 This has now been aggravated by the rampant physical and verbal anti-Semitic violence in France. This, in turn, is linked to the unsolved problem of the integration of the Arab and Muslim immigrants. They are considered a community alien to the republic. As a result of that, all communities have become suspect.” In   2001   Trigano founded           the    Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish affairs. In its first publication, titled ‘The Jews Targeted by the Inti­fada,’ he wrote: “For the last year, the French Jewish communities have been confronted by a worrying situ­ation. The enmity against Israel, which significant sectors of opinion – and not only the media – express, is accom­panied by an ongoing series of incidents, of which indi­vidual Jews and Jewish institutions are the subject: from the burning of synagogues to physical and verbal aggres­ sion against Jews.” 3

In 2004 he was more explicit about that period, saying that French Jewish citizens were unable to comprehend the violent acts being committed against them in the name of developments 3,000 kilometers away. Equally outra­geous was that when they called for help during the first months of the aggression, nobody listened. The Jews saw that initially the French government and French society did condone the violence.

“At the same time Israel was painted as a monstrosity; a Nazi state intent on killing children. It was frightening to turn on one’s television, read one’s papers, and see the same ideological discourse of disinformation about Israel. “These developments led many French Jews to under­stand that their place and citizenship in the country was in question and that the authorities were willing to sacrifice the Jewish community so as to maintain social peace. This attitude was reinforced by the pro-Arab policy in the Iraq war.”

Trigano added that the situation of the Jews in France was aggravated as many media expressed views that the violence and hate was quite understandable in view of Israel’s actions. This implied that the  fate of  French Jews was determined by Israeli policy and French criticism of it.4


Trigano says that the ongoing anti-Jewish  aggression in France has created a trend toward ghettoization in the French Jewish community. A study by the sociologist Eric Cohen in 2003 found that 15%-20% of French Jews want to leave the country – indicating how perturbed Jewish identity in France has become.

“Many conscious Jews withdraw from their social contacts with non-Jews,  because  they  do  not  want  to be confronted with extremist criticism of Israel. A large number of Jews feel secure only in a Jewish environ­ment. The number of teachers and pupils shifting to Jewish schools is increasing, largely because of the hostil­ity many encounter in French public schools. The opin­ ions of Jewish intellectuals are illegitimate in advance. Jews now often seek non-Jews to express their positions in public.”

Trigano explains that the problems are manifold. “Few culprits of anti-Semitic incidents have been brought to court, and even  fewer have been condemned. On some occasions the Jews who were victims of anti-Semitic attacks even had to pay damages. The judges are human beings, who read newspapers and must see how the media attacks Israel and the Jews.

“The traumatic feelings remain with French Jews al­ though the public authorities  are now trying to combat anti-Semitism. Perhaps public awareness of the problem has come too late. In France, self-censorship concerning anti-Semitic discourse has been ruptured. Once one finds frequent anti-Semitic expressions in public, a democratic government cannot change this using authoritarian mea­sures. Generally speaking, there is little sympathy in French public opinion for the Jews and Israel.

“France has regularly  shown  that  the  condemnation of anti-Semitism runs parallel with an anti-Israeli policy. This was demonstrated once again in 2004 when France pushed the European Union to vote against Israel in the UN General Assembly on the security barrier issue. This took place after President  Chirac’s  speech  in Chambon sur Lignon in which he strongly condemned anti-Semi­tism. The pro-Palestinian  attitude can only exacerbate the be destroyed. This loss of moral respectability is a sign of European  disintegration.”

A Test for Europe

“Attitudes toward Israel have turned into a test for Europe. The sociological analysis of Europe, its identity and its future, leads to practical conclusions. The many mistakes Europe made in the Yugoslavian war should be a warning sign for Israel. To some extent Europe has helped foster the advance of the Muslims  into Europe by supporting the establishment of a Bosnian state.

“Europe has a major nuisance value for Israel. The French called for international separation forces in the Gaza Strip in 2004. It would be a dramatic mistake for Israel to introduce international forces in the region. This is one of the principal objectives of the Palestinian strategy. The Yugoslav scenario is the preferred one of the Euro­peans. It identifies Israel with Serbia, the more so as Sharon is often compared to Milosevic.”

Trigano concludes: “Europe would do much better if, instead of attacking the United States and Israel, it focused on its own problems. It has two choices. One is to under­stand the profound message that what is happening to its Jews is a warning sign for itself. The other is to isolate the Jews and let them try to sort out their problems themselves, dooming them to the fate of the scapegoat. The latter would be a fundamental mistake because the attacks against European Jews are in the meantime a substitute for those to come against European society at large. As far as the Jewish people is concerned, Israel is the litmus test. If a catastrophe happens and it does not continue to exist, Jewish history ends.”



  1. Shmuel Trigano, L’E(xc)lu, Entre juifs et Chretiens (Paris: Denoel, 2003) [French].
  2. Interview with Shmuel Trigano in Manfred Gerstenfeld, Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: JCPA, Yad Vashem, World Jewish  Congress,  2003),  208-216.
  3. Shmuel Trigano, “LesJuifs de France, vises par !’Intifada,” Observatoire du monde juif , 1, 1 November 2001 [French].
  4. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Shmuel Trigano, “French Anti­ Semitism: A Barometer for Gauging Society’s Perverseness,” Post­ Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 26, 1 November 2004.
  5. See Bat Ye’or, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Madison: Fairleigh Dickin­ son L’niversity Press, 2005).

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