by Dr. Inna Rogatchi
Michael Rogatchi co-authored this article.
Since October 2015 France has been galvanized by what is known as the Bensoussan Trial.
Just a few months ago, in October 2016, there was a crowded celebration in France. The Swiss city of Mulhouse, bordering France, was celebrating the unveiling of a statue of Alfred Dreyfus, who was born in the city, in commemoration of the 110th anniversary of his rehabilitation. It took them a while, we thought at the time.
Today, witnessing the scandal around the trial of distinguished scholar George Bensoussan, it is hard to withstand the temptation to recall the Dreyfus Affair and rename the present case the Dreyfus-Bensoussan Affair.
We know George Bensoussan personally, and we were honoured that he hosted and was our co-speaker at the French national premiere of “The Lessons of Survival” film at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris in the spring of 2015. We also know his academic work and many books on the Holocaust in which George Bensoussan has proved himself as an outstanding historian, very honest scholar, and very deep thinker who has contributed to a large extent to the understanding of the Holocaust as a process.
George Bensoussan also is a highly reputed authority in the specialized area of Jewish communities in Arab countries. He is hard-working, thoughtful, productive academic who has contributed to humanitarian causes in a big way.
Observing the current macabre-trial-in-progress, one cannot help but think of just two possibilities regarding this incomprehensible, completely irrational behaviour of the French public organizations and the juridical authorities alike: either Dreyfus Affair’s essence has never died in the country of the officer who was utterly loyal to his country but had ‘sin by default’ - that of being born Jewish; or the atmosphere, functioning and way of life of French society in the 21st century is prone to a recurrence of the one of the most shameful episodes of its history today.
It looks as though the current resurrection of the Dreyfus Affair is perceived by a certain part of the French public and juridical institutions with shocking enthusiasm. Since October 2015 France has been galvanized by what is known as the Bensoussan Trial.
The Stalin show-trials are alive and well
The chronicle of the scandal around the distinguished historian George Bensoussan is in the public domain. To recapulate briefly, in October 2015 the head of the editorial department of the Memorial de la Shoah was invited by the famous French philosopher and member of the French Academy Alain Finkielkraut to participate in a radio programme and discussion. In a course of the discussion, Bensoussan, who was born in Morocco and knows the reality of life in the Arab world first-hand, referred to previous passages on the topic of anti-Semitism among the Arab families in France which were said publicly, on record, in a film shown on the French TV3, by Smain Laacher, professor at Strasbourg University, Algerian by origin.
In his portrayal of the anti-Semitic atmosphere which has become the norm in the Arab milieu of France, but still is regarded as a taboo in the country, Laacher in extensive elaboration described the phenomenon of what he called ‘domestic anti-Semitism’ in Arab families, with such details as “one of the parents’ insults to their children when they want to reprimand them, is to call them ‘Jews’ “. Laacher also said on the record, in the movie broadcasted on the French TV3, that “anti-Semitism in Arab families is first of all domestic (...), it is in the air that one breathes” – all this according to the transcript of the film.
In the radio program discussion which became threatening for him, George Bensoussan praised professor Laacher for his bravery, and mentioned, re-phrasing Laacher: “ as Laacher very bravery said ( ...), in France, in Arab families ( ...) anti-Semitism is imbibed with a mother’s milk”.
It took only three days before the group of pro-Islamic activists brought their claim against George Bensoussan to the French media watch-dog, CSA, accusing the historian of propagating ‘biological racism”. The snowball of absurd accusations started to roll along with maddening energy and speed. The absurd does have the characteristic of multiplying in no time. George Orwell was a great expert on that.
The pro-Islamist organization Le Collectif Contre l'Islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France, CCIF) wasted no time in bringing the case against George Bensoussan to the Paris prefecture which, in a significant move, decided to prosecute.
That, in our view, was and is the essential point of yet another shameful public trial in France, so astonishingly similar to the Stalin show-trials, in so many details.
There are many organizations involved by now in the Bensoussan Affair, and the French public is also observing the intensifying battle within French Jewry divided on the position regarding the arrogant witch-hunt of the distinguished Jewish historian.
But in our opinion, these are not essential things to concentrate on, even only because all of this is hardly surprising.
The core of the matter as we see it, is a prompt decision of the Paris prefecture back in November 2015 to prosecute the distinguished historian in criminal court for paraphrasing another academic. Not only France, but the rest of the world ought to know the name of the prosecutor and anyone else who has contributed to the legal decision that has led to the Kafkian realities occurring in Paris in late January 2017 when the trial took place. George Bensoussan himself perceptively attested to it as ‘intellectual terror.’
We have a chilling feeling upon realizing that George, his friends and people in similar positions in France all are living in a literally Kafkian reality.
Remarkably, the film in which sociologist Laacher went on in a long tirade explaining the roots of the current anti-Semitism in Arab families in France had been aired in France back in 2015 two weeks after George Bensoussan talked about it, without any consequences for Laacher. Moreover, he had published several articles in the leading French media, including Le Monde, both before and after the radio programme in which George Bensoussan mentioned him, with very much the same analyses, with no reaction from any of those enthusiastic organizations and activists, and no prosecutor’s interest in him at all.
In the process of the public defense of Bensoussan, several more well-known academics of Arab origins were named who are honestly analysing the phenomenon of the anti-Semitism in Arab families in their works and who all are publicly expressing the same opinion, facts, and analyses; none of them had ever become the subjects of any reprimand.
The court hearings in Paris in the end of January 2017 were surreal, with witnesses for the prosecution stating that ‘anti-Semitism, indeed, is rooted in many Arab families in France, but not in every family’; with experts prosecutors issuing delusional opinions like ‘while Arab families indeed are calling their children Jews, it is not regarded as an insult, but rather a norm of a language and life conditions.’
It seems that in modern France, both Kafka and Orwell are grossly outdated. But not Emil Zola, not his the trial, at least. The Bensoussan trial, in fact, is a 120 year old copy-cat of the first Zola trial, that other shame of France.
George Bensoussan: Emil Zola 120 years later
When people compare renowned Jewish historian Bensoussan to Dreyfus, it is a quick and understandable click of the mind. In fact, the essence of the criminal case and trial of Bensoussan and the way it proceeded is astonishingly similar to the first trial of Emil Zola back in 1898 when that great French writer decided to come to the defense of Dreyfus.
The criminal case against Zola had been brought just in a few days after the publication of his now famous J’Acusse article on the front page of the Aurora journal. Like the Bensoussan case, the accusations were brought against both Zola and the media (in the Bensoussan case, the radio discussion of French Culture programme).
120 years ago, three passages were taken from a very big Zola article to sue him for defamation and libel. Today, two phrases were the reason for the claims against Bensoussan.
Zola was convicted to the maximum punishment for the accusation, one year in prison and a 3,000 franc fine, a huge sum back in 1898.
How progressive France has become today, one can be relieved: George Bensoussan was not in sent into exile awaiting the verdict, as Zola was; and during his trial, the prosecutor demanded a modest enough penalty of 1 500 Euro. So shall we laugh and shrug off the persecution of the historian as absolute nonsense? Absolutely not.
What about the very reason for prosecuting him, a distinguished historian, with an impeccable record of deep and honest research and many books to his credit, a man of high international reputation - in criminal court for a metaphor? Why did George Bensoussan had to have a criminal record, independent from the verdict of the trial? What about his and his family's nerves, health, and emotions? What about the moral consequences of this ongoing witch-hunt, persecution and trial?
What about the very fact of prosecuting a person for a alluding to another person’s statement?
Under the circumstances, it feels really farce-like to mention anything about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and any freedom of the individual in France today. We can see all these ‘freedoms’ as prisoners in the grotesque realities of the present-day French legal system and public atmosphere.
It is also far from farce to learn that well-known academic has been forced to start to collect money from his friends and supporters to be able to pay the legal expenses in the over 16-month continuing absurd litigation.
Dead-end of the human rights cause in France
The French media are full of articles describing the case, in the very same way they did with both the Dreyfus and Zola trials. From that coverage, one is astonished – or not – to see that there are several French visible human rights organizations, including LICRA, the Jewish left-wing body, which are attacking Bensoussan alongside with the pro-Islamic Collective Against Islamophobia, as well as the French Human Rights League. There are also the Muslim SOS Racism organization, called by Le Monde a ‘human-rights body which was developed into political movement’ and Movements Against Racism and Friendship with People.
Public organizations can be affiliated in any way they choose, but it is ironic to see an originally Jewish human-right body as LICRA transformed into what it is today. In general, the tendency of organizations proclaiming their devotion to human-rights, but acting in screamingly biased ways is a worrisome growing phenomenon everywhere, not only in France. What is really serious here is the fact that in France such activities not only find their ways to criminal courts, but are heard there with alarming sympathy.
One cannot help but remember the phrase of Pascal Bruckner, well-known French philosopher and writer, from his classic work “The Tyranny of Guilt”: “Europe relieves itself of the crime of the Shoah by blaming Israel (...)”. In the same work, Bruckner also wrote of what he called ‘quiet re-legitimization of the hatred of the Jews” masked under the disguise of ‘the Palestinian question’.
In the decade since the publishing of that modern classic, its author Pascal Bruckner has felt his verdict turned on himself, literally: in the same way as George Bensoussan, he was tried in the Paris courts in January 2017 for his words during a TV appearance at ARTE in 2015 where he called for naming the people and organizations who were ‘collaborators in the murders of twelve journalists at the Charlie Hebdo office’. As in the case of George Bensoussan, many French intellectuals of the highest calibre went to the defense of Bruckner. In his case, the court rejected the claims. His supporters celebrated ‘the victory of the freedom of expression’ in today's France in an exalted way, which is really shocking. We are not discussing North Korea here, are we?
The verdict on the George Bensoussan case is expected on March 7th, 2017.
Farce? No, Alarm.
The unbelievable facts of the George Bensoussan trial, the deeds of the Paris prefecture, the actions of the organizations claiming defense of human rights, the atmosphere in that large European country where today a distinguished academic is actually being tried for a paraphrase, could be called ‘a farce’ if it all would be written in a form of a political fable, a mini-anti-utopia. But as it all is reality, it does indicate, along with the trial of Pascal Bruckner, an alarming breach of real human rights and freedom in one of the biggest Western countries.
Not surprisingly, many well-known figures in France were outraged in what the member of the French Academy Alain Finkielkraut called ‘a trial of an opinion’. They are defending George Bensoussan actively and tirelessly.
We are joining their ranks and are calling to all our friends and colleagues, all those people who does not feel indifferent towards the reincarnation of Zola and Dreyfus trials to protest the trial of George Bensoussan strongly and to support the renowned historian and very good man with all our strength and determination.
It would be worthwhile to recall some critically important historical facts that have become the direct consequence of the Dreyfus trial back in the end of the 19th century: The Antisemitic League of France was officially launched as a legitimate organization in 1889 thus paving way for legitimized racial hatred – and we do know the price that French Jewry and thousands and thousands Jewish people who were in France paid for that during the Second World War.
Of the other consequences, The League for defense of Human Rights, the first ever organization for defending human rights was established by several leading defenders of Dreyfuss led by senator Ludovic Trarieux, former French Minister for Justice, in 1898, as their way of organized defense of Dreyfus. All of them had been electrified by Emil Zola’s J’Accuse which directly prompted their action.
The Dreyfus Trial resulted in an awful public ceremony of the officer’s degradation, and the general atmosphere of hysterical and violently anti-Semitic France at the time, made a profound, shocking impact on journalist Theodor Herzl who covered the trial for the Austrian Neue Freir Presse. Significantly, Herzl completed the first version of the book which has become the manifesto of modern Zionism, in the few months following the Dreyfus trial.
In the final version of Der Judeenstaat, Herzl wrote: “If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of anti-Semitism and let the Parisian crowd chant 'Kill the Jews!', where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem, because the Gentile world will not allow it - as the Dreyfus affair has demonstrated so clearly”.
People who act with such bias, such open hatred, and such bigotry towards historian George Bensoussan in France today seem to be genuinely unaware of the real strength of history which always pays back tangibly to those who ignore it.
For those who would like to support George Bensoussan, please follow the link - https://www.leetchi.com/c/solidarite-avec-historien-georges-bensoussan
Detailed coverage of the Bensoussan Affair can be found here - https://www.facebook.com/HistorienGeorgesBensoussan/?fref=ts
Inna and Michael Rogatchis are co-founders of The Rogatchi Foundation – www.rogatchifoundation.org, and is internationally renowned artistic and philanthropic couple. Inna Rogatchi is writer, scholar and film-maker; Michael Rogatchi is renowned artist. Both are active international public figures.
Dr. Inna Rogatchi is president of the Rogatchi Foundation. Her forthcoming book is "Stars of Despair, Stars of Hope: Personal Reflections on the Holocaust in Modern Times".
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Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.