PARIS - Guerilla scenes, an intolerable gratuitous violence, hundreds of angry youths looting shops… this is not Aleppo in Syria, but central Paris.
On May 13, violence broke out in one of the French capital’s ritziest neighborhood as supporters gathered to celebrate the soccer team Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) winning the French League 1 championship for the first time in 19 years.
Cars and scooters were set on fire; shop windows and bus shelters were destroyed. Thirty people were injured, including three police officers.
Three days later, the public outcry still hasn’t died down. In part because the incident has been playing out around the world, with shocking images being relayed over and over again by news channels. But mostly because people who go to an event with the goal of destroying and assaulting should not be let off easy.
There is no possible justification, no excuse that can be given, no acceptable mitigating circumstances. Justice must be irrevocable in condemning the authors or these actions, and in doing so have the unanimous support of all political parties.
Beyond the obvious blame
There is no doubt that responsibility bears with the club and its owners, but also the French soccer league, the city of Paris, the police department, and the Interior Ministry – who have all failed to various degrees. As in every democracy, these institutions will have to answer for their failings – first to the French public, then to the local residents who bore the grunt of the violence.
But beyond this sad assessment, we should use the May 13 riots as a teaching moment – to ponder on the evolution of the soccer world, and our society in general.
The Qatari-owned PSG has become a shiny showcase, a temple of bling and playground for millionaires wearing shorts, with top-models on their arms and garages full of Ferraris.
It is quite significant that the owners of the PSG had chosen the Trocadero, in the posh 16th arrondissement of Paris, as the place for their celebration – so that the players could brandish the League 1 championship trophy with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. They managed to impose their choice on the city’s powers that be, who are guilty of giving in to the PSG bosses. But then again, who can resist the mysterious powers conveyed by Qatari money? Well, the PSG wanted the image of their victory to be seen around the world – and they got their wish.
A huge rift
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that youths without bearings, who are hostile to all forms of authority, would seize the opportunity of this parade of riches in Paris’s most ritzy ghetto – which will never be theirs – to unleash their inner violence.
The rift between both worlds has become so big that such a clash was unavoidable. Soccer used to be a sport for the masses. It has turned into a tawdry spectacle, for a bourgeois audience.
The PSG’s long violent history finally caught up with the new owners of the club. The first smoke bombs were thrown by the “ultras,” hooligans who have been banned from PSG matches due to stringent security rules implemented in the past three years, just before the Qataris bought the team. These efforts to keep out the bad apples should most certainly continue.
But a second and more Paris-specific factor is the inability of PSG to identify with its natural environment. A project initiated a few years ago to turn the club into a club for the whole of Paris and its poorer suburbs quickly failed. Meanwhile, Mamadou Sakho is the last player on the team that is actually from Paris – and he is the lone survivor of a shipwreck, an oddity drowning in a team of foreign mercenaries. This is another reason why supporters feel alienated by a team that they can't identify with at all.
As symbol of this – irreparable – rift is the commentators that were saying, after the May 13 riots, that none of this would have happened if the celebrations had been held in the cushy protection of the Parc des Princes PSG stadium. At home. Among friends.
An artificial graft
Hooliganism has plagued stadiums all across Europe and last Sunday, like every weekend now, matches were interrupted in Italy because of racist supporters heckling players.
But France is a country with a very short history when it comes to soccer. The absence of a real soccer and a history of its habits and customs transmitted from one generation to the next, like it is the case in the United Kingdom, for instance, only exacerbates the artificial character of the graft.
In France, this sport has no real educational power. English soccer teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are historical institutions that can shape youth consciousness. PSG, on the other hand, sprouted like a sort of ephemeral mushroom – a hallucinogenic one at that. In the era of soccer-biz, it is not a game anymore, for some it is a show, for others it is a lucrative investment.
The damage is profound, especially since there is no other sport with such a global impact as soccer, which has always served as a repository for human passions. It is a melting pot where boils everything that is good or bad in society. It should not come as a surprise, then, that it is a repository for France’s worse problems – this fractured, crumbling country in the midst of an identity crisis and dangerous social tension.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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