Jewish historian-turned-politician Esther Benbassa has never been afraid to speak her mind, whether discussing the environment, antisemitism or Israel. Red lines matter for this Greens senator in France’s upper house
Esther Benbassa. “It’s shameful to live in a country where people go hungry. And when you don’t have food to eat, you don’t think about recycling.” Photo Antonin Ménage
Esther Benbassa has good reason to celebrate. One of the few lawmakers from the Greens in the French parliament’s upper house, her small, historically divided party scored a stunning victory in last month’s local elections, taking the major cities of Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg. Paris and Marseille, meanwhile, were won by socialists with a green agenda.
Despite her party’s success – it previously only controlled the Alpine city of Grenoble – she’s trying to remain realistic. Or as she puts it in a phone interview with Haaretz, “I’m an active pessimist.”
A reporter at French news website Mediapart overheard Benbassa, 70, cautioning her ecstatic colleagues as they celebrated in a hip Parisian bar that the new mayors “had their work cut out.” The elections were marked by a record low turnout as almost two-thirds of the electorate chose not to vote.
Instinctively rebellious, known for speaking out against discrimination and for the rights of minorities, Istanbul-born Benbassa – an Israeli citizen and renowned historian of the Jewish people – has for the past decade been an outspoken standard-bearer for the kind of radical brand of green politics that could yet prove the redemption of France’s moribund left.
“When I would say there cannot be environmentalism without social justice, they used to make fun of me. Now I’m working all the time, I’m writing all the bills,” says Benbassa, taking time off between marathon Senate sessions via video to talk to Haaretz. “The future is green, but social too – because it’s shameful to live in a country where people go hungry. And when you don’t have food to eat, you don’t think about recycling,” she adds.
The lawmaker believes we need to make a switch to what she calls popular environmentalism. “Greens can’t just be for 20 percent of the population – the hipsters who eat organic and left Paris for their second homes the day quarantine started. We win when we distribute organic food to people in social housing,” she says.
‘I’m not a radical’
Born in Turkey in 1950 to a family of middle-class Sephardi Jews from the Balkans, Benbassa was always encouraged to look West. Her Francophile father made sure she learned French at age 5 and, when the family moved to Israel in 1965 – following family members who had emigrated there in the ’40s – she remained in a French school system.
After graduating summa cum laude from Tel Aviv University in French literature and philosophy, in the early ’70s she was given the opportunity to study abroad: Between France and the United States, she eventually chose what had always been a sort of third homeland.
Esther Benbassa protesting on the street of Paris. Photo Antonin Ménage
Battling her way through France’s traditionally nativist and chauvinistic academic world, she became the first woman to occupy the prestigious chair of modern Jewish history at the Sorbonne. Known among scholars for her work on the history of Sephardi Jews and the Jews of France, she also wrote several acclaimed books with her partner – writer, journalist and professor of medieval Jewish thought Jean-Christophe Attias – on Jewish identity, Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the place of Israel in the Jewish psyche.
More recently, she has written about discrimination in France, sexism in French politics, and the necessity of remaining positive and tolerant in the face of the radical Islamist attacks that shook France in 2015. The latest book she worked on, “Us and Them,” was published last month and is a collection of essays she “directed” that reviews the way we live with animals.
Unsurprisingly, there is a fair share of controversy in her work. Her award-winning 2007 book “Suffering as Identity: The Jewish Paradigm” argues that “the 19th century gave rise to a Jewish ‘lachrymose’ historiography,” obscuring the foundationally positive and active aspects of Judaism. She denounces the “treatment of the Holocaust in the State of Israel as a form of civil religion.”
Richard Prasquier, the then-president of the umbrella organization of French Jews, CRIF – with which Benbassa has regularly traded barbs for its close relations with the Israeli government – called the book “discriminatory” in a 2007 interview. “This is not the kind of self-hate we see among some Jews, but it’s very close,” he told French magazine L’Express.
And then there are her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as reflected in her short 2009 book “To Be Jewish after Gaza,” where she introspectively interrogates the sacralization of the State of Israel by Diaspora Jews.
“The fact I support the Palestinian cause means I’m not the most loved person among French Jews,” Benbassa reflects. “But I’m not a radical. I’m very attached to Israel, I go to Israel regularly, my family is buried there. My support for Palestine is the support of a humanist, of someone who wants peace.”
Benbassa’s love of political street-fighting has made her a fixture on the French media landscape. With three nationalities and a deep love for all her identities, this self-assured, self-described “Juive du monde” (“Jew of the world”) is perhaps the epitome of what most irks France’s far right, with its ever-louder aversion for immigrant-friendly multiculturalism.
She herself attended a demonstration in Paris against police brutality last month, during which some people were heard shouting antisemitic slurs. Benbassa notes that the first media outlet to report this was a far-right publication, and that there was definitely “an agenda” in releasing the video.
Still, she says, as soon as she saw the footage, “I asked the organizers to condemn it. Even if it was the act of one person, it’s one person too many. I am intransigent on these things. Another video of Assa Traoré [one of the organizers and the sister of Adama Traoré, who died in police custody in 2016] came out, telling the crowd: ‘We are all Christians, we are all Jews, we are all Muslims.’ When I tweeted it out, I wrote: ‘Anti-racism is indivisible, just like the French Republic.’”
Esther Benbassa taking part in a Yellow Vests protest in Paris.Photo Jean-Christophe Attias
OK, but this is not the first time something like this has happened during demonstrations in France. There were other instances of antisemitism during the Yellow Vests protests, for example.
“What happened to [Alain] Finkielkraut is appalling,” she says, referring to the French-Jewish philosopher who was attacked by Yellow Vest protesters in Paris in February 2019 and called a “dirty Zionist shit.”
“But it is not representative of the Yellow Vests. There have been very few incidents, during these protests or others. Listen, I am an idol of the Yellow Vests. They respect me. They know that if something they say is out of place, I’ll make a big fuss.”
Still, the numbers show that antisemitism is on the rise in France. What do you think this is due to?
“I think that in the last few years, tongues have become untied. All kinds of racism are on the rise [here]. They say ‘Dirty Arabs’; they compare Black people to monkeys. And yes, Jews suffer from that too, obviously. Before, antisemites would hide; now they shout from the rooftops.
“Jews in France also pay the price for the continued conflict in the Middle East. Some Jews live in fear, for sure. The Jewish middle class has moved to wealthier neighborhoods, and left the [historically poorer and more diverse] suburbs – and it’s definitely because they didn’t feel at ease there. That is a reality.
“My position is that the greater problem we have with racism in France is systemic. A man that looks Arab is eight times more likely to be stopped by the police. This is not the case for Jewish people, thank God – but we know the police in France. We know what they did, as an institution, during World War II, for example.”
Noting that “Jews tend to minimize the nativist kind of antisemitism currently on the rise,” Benbassa recounts appearing on a popular TV news show recently alongside far-right politician Julien Odoul. “He referred to my politics as ‘anti-France.’ That expression was coined in the 1930s to talk specifically about Jews!” she says. “We underestimate right-wing antisemitism because politicians restrain themselves. We shouldn’t underestimate it, because it’s silent but ready to bubble over.”
Do you think there’s a link between the protests against police brutality and the debates around the erosion of democracy sparked by the coronavirus response, in France like in Israel?
“Of course. Ever since the 2015 terrorist attacks and [then-President François] Hollande’s government, France has become addicted to the state of emergency. Now, [President Emmanuel Macron] wants to extend the coronavirus emergency until the fall, because they’re trying to pass major reforms and they’re afraid of what could happen on the streets. Macron leads an unstable and unpopular government, so he uses the state of emergency and repression as a crutch.
“The state of emergency erodes the democratic process. This virus could last for years! The danger is the long-term imposition of a vision of the state as the ultimate protector. In Likud’s Israel, I fear this could mean Israelis only become more obedient and Palestinians poorer, less protected – especially as little can be expected from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which are themselves authoritarian regimes.”
What do you think the impact of the coronavirus could be politically?
“It’s mixed. I’m an active pessimist: I keep fighting, but there are bad days ahead. Crises kill progressive thought, kill minorities and kill initiative. In France, we’ve seen a depoliticization of the debate, which is interesting, but it also means the protest movement is out of control, by its very nature. I’ve never seen demonstrations like the ones we’ve had in France lately: 25,000 people came out against police brutality in a single day. I don’t know of a political party today that can gather even 10,000 people.
Some people talk about isolation as being an eye-opener. Could it mean people move toward a more environmentally conscious lifestyle?
“I don’t think the coronavirus is going to change much in terms of habits, in Israel or in Europe. After the Spanish flu we had the Roaring Twenties – people wanted to live, have fun, consume. Why would it be different this time? And the economic downturn is specifically bad for the environment, because focusing on restarting the economy will only encourage productivist tendencies. The government will want to invest in industry rather than in an ecological transition.”
Unlike in Europe, there’s little in the way of green politics in Israel today.
“There’s something of a paradox in Israel: Some Israelis have gone to India and the Far East, eat organic, ride bicycles. But next to this small fringe of bobos [bourgeois bohemians], a whole swath of the population has not been educated to be environmentally aware. Even though the protection of nature is a formative Israeli theme, an integral part of the Zionist project – the long hikes they would take us on when I was young, the fascination with nature reserves, was never translated into a real environmental policy.
“Israel needs to move away from its destructive, productivist model. The great Israeli mythology of strong, young, tanned men and women working the land in an efficient and environmentally friendly way has morphed entirely; respect for the land has been replaced by an industrialized version of happiness.”
Do you think your brand of social-justice environmentalism has a role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially as the region grapples with the climate emergency?
“The environment would benefit greatly from a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would allow Palestinians to manage their own resources, like water, and it would prevent Israel from hiding the worst abuses of its productivist system – like the garbage that is currently dumped in the West Bank.
“I believe the peace process should be inspired by a local, traditional vision of land management, which is still alive in some parts of Palestine.”
Do you think annexation is a historic moment for the Jewish people?
“I don’t see it that way. I believe in the two-state solution. As a historian, I’m not in favor of the binational state – I see how it failed in the ’30s, and I don’t believe the spirit of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians has grown since then.
“We could use this crisis to go forward and find solutions. Not just one solution, but multiple. History shows that Jews have always lost from being narrow-minded, that Jewish culture has always been less productive when Jewish people were looking inward instead of outward. We should go toward open-mindedness.
“Who cares about Judea and Samaria?” she asks, referring to the West Bank. “What difference does it make to a young person creating a startup? Taking control over this land is not history, it’s mythology.”
What about the Diaspora?
“The annexation will create more of a fallback, a retreat into identity politics and communitarianism. The Diaspora sees Israel as a model. The creation of Israel enlightened people, gave them a sense of security. It’s understandable. The Jewish community in France is even more conservative than the most committed of Likudniks. French Jews expect everything from Israel. It’s an umbilical relationship.”