The Cowardice of French Anti-Semites

The Twitter hashtag #Unbonjuif, or “a good Jew”—a magnet for French anti-Semitic jokes—has become the third highest trending hashtag in France, Le Monde reported Monday. Its popularity is astonishing considering that the hashtag has only been around since Oct. 10. Here’s how the tweet-motif works: the sentence starts with the hashtag, and you fill in the blank. So, “A good Jew…” The jokes range from crude (“A good Jew has a multipurpose nose: knife, drill, javelin, and harpoon”) to unintelligible (“A good Jew is constitutionally different from the rest of us, studies show, because their spinal columns are in their noses”).

This picture taken on January 27, 2010 in Paris shows the internet homepage of the microblogging website Twitter. (Loic Venance / AFP / Getty Images)

There are plenty of alarming oven and gas jokes in the Twitter list, but the trend that I find the most bizarre of all is that an enormous proportion of them—hard to count, but I’d guess 1 in 8—are about big noses. Really? Is the Jewish big nose joke even still a thing? Holocaust jokes didn’t exist before the 20th century. Jewish nose jokes, however, have been around since at least the Middle Ages: religious paintings of the time frequently depicted Jews (other than Jesus) with large noses. I don’t know what it means that 700 years later, this joke has proved so resilient.

Expressions of anti-Semitism, like Holocaust denial, are illegal in France and punishable by fines or imprisonment, as you will remember from John Galliano’s trial this year. But French authorities were able to arrest Galliano because he was in a Paris bar when he made the remarks. It’s nearly impossible for the French to do anything about rootless cosmopolitan entities like Twitter. Furthermore, Galliano could be identified. Someone hiding behind one or more pseudonymic Twitter handles can not be identified.

Jewish organizations like the powerful SOS Racisme and the Jewish advocacy group Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) have called upon Twitter to step in, arguing that the social media site is complicit in a violation in French law.

This is not the first time that the French have used Twitter to circumvent French media laws. The French government exercises a strict media blackout in the days leading up to elections. French media outlets are forbidden to print tallies in advance of final results. But during the 2012 French Presidential election, a number of French journos found a puckish way to get around this, by Tweeting coded messages to indicate who was ahead. “The moose are eating Gouda cheese,” for example, means that the French expats casting overseas votes in Canada were voting for François Hollande—a play on words; Gouda cheese is from Holland. “I see a moving van outside 55 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré” meant Nicolas Sarkozy is behind—the French Elysée presidential palace is at that address.

Many other European countries have seen their press restrictions overridden by the wilderness of the Internet. In Germany, the copyright holders to “Mein Kampf” have refused publishers permission to publish the book. This year, however, it is being published in Germany for the first time since World War II. It’s not clear why, but perhaps they felt the restriction was futile since Germans could easily obtain the manuscript on the internet.

I would like to think that the French will stay firm in its restrictions on anti-Semitic expression, no matter how much the Internet makes the restrictions seem pointless, because they are most certainly not pointless at all. Symbolically, it is crucial that they continue the clampdown, if only to drive home the point that those who resort to the anonymity of Twitter to be unoriginal jackasses are total cowards.