Wednesday 25 January 2017 will go down as a sad day in the annals of the French Republic. It was the day when France’s freedom of thought and expression went on trial: one of France’s leading historians, Georges Bensoussan, 64, was hauled up before a criminal court accused of ‘incitement to hatred.’
Arraigned against him was the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, together with various other ‘anti-racism’ groups. The hearing went on for a gruelling 12 hours. At the end, a weary Bensoussan announced: ‘for the first time in my life I am having thoughts of leaving the country.’
The drama had begun 18 months earlier. During a TV discussion broadcast on 10 October 2015, Repliques, Bensoussan commented that France could not hope to integrate its Maghrebi immigrants unless it recognised that these immigrants imbibe antisemitism ‘with their mother’s milk’.
Georges Bensoussan, the son of Moroccan Jews, is one of France’s leading historians and editorial director at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. The author of an 800-page volume on the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries, Juifs en pays Arabes: le grand deracinement 1850-1975, he claims that he was merely paraphrasing the words of a ‘brave’ Algerian sociologist, Smain Laachar. “Everyone knows it but nobody will say it,” Laachar had declared of Arab/Muslim antisemitism.
Laachar has since denied having said or written this ‘ignominy’. He said it was outrageous for Bensoussan to have claimed that antisemitism was transmitted by blood. To accusations that he is ‘essentialising’ against all Arabs, Bensoussan has countered that Arab antisemitism was not transmitted biologically but culturally:
Every Arab family knows it. It would be monumental hypocrisy not to see that such antisemitism begins at home… People are being selectively indignant. In France today, a section of young French youth of Maghrebi extraction is having trouble integrating and the old prejudices in North African Muslim culture are being revived — conspiracy theories centered around the Jew, aggravated by the fact that the Jewish community has been successful in France.
Bensoussan has charged his critics with ‘intellectual terrorism’. So-called human rights and anti-racist groups had been co-opted in the Islamist struggle to intimidate those who swim against the tide of political correctness. It was notable that the journalist Mohamed Sifaoui, who had, in the past, inveighed against Islamism had, on this occasion, turned devil’s advocate. He reproached Bensoussan of ignoring the positive aspects of Arab-Jewish interaction. Instead of building bridges, the historian was tearing them down.
But Bensoussan has his prominent supporters. Alain Finkielkraut, presenter of Repliques, was a witness. Written testimony from Boualem Sansal, the outspoken Algerian author of An unfinished business, was read out.
Some have likened the Bensoussan trial to that of Galileo, whose discovery that the earth revolves round the sun put him on a collision course with established orthodoxy. It is a carbon-copy of the barely-reported case brought against the philosopher Pascal Bruckner in 2015. Bruckner had called for a file to be opened on certain groups he claimed were collaborators with Islamist terrorism. He was acquitted.
Even if Bensoussan wins the case — the verdict will be announced in March — anyone who states politically-unpalatable fact clearly runs the risk of falling foul of the ‘thought police’. Freedom of expression all too easily can become ‘hate speech’ in France today. The Bensoussan case is another attempt to shut down debate. It’s not the first. And it probably won’t be the last.