Fifty years ago, the student revolt broke out on campuses all over western Europe. The revolutionary fervour of the times spawned a generation who believed that a better world was possible if only we dedicated ourselves. In Communist Eastern Europe there were student demonstrations against state-sponsored anti-Semitism. There were occupations and sit-ins at LSE, Leicester and other universities in this country – the post-war generation was protesting about a plethora of issues. Victory over Hitler had not cured the world of its ills.
Jewish students were disproportionately involved. At its epicentre in Paris, it has been estimated that between one third and one half of the radical leadership were young Jews.
Many Jewish students carried with them the memory of the mass arrests of French Jews during the Nazi occupation, their confinement in the Vélodrome and their deportation to Auschwitz from Drancy. The complicity of the Vichy police weighed heavily on all French Jews.
The round-ups and beatings meted out to Arabs and other immigrants during the 1960s – the period of the Algerian struggle for independence – brought back such memories of their parents’ treatment. This was accentuated by the brutality of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) in attacking demonstrations and injuring many students. It was not for no reason that the slogan ‘CRS=SS ‘was scrawled on many a wall.
The French government had turned its back on Israel during the uncertain days before the Six Day war and initiated an arms embargo. Anti-Semitism was in the air. At the end of 1967 President de Gaulle had charged that ‘the Jews were an elitist people, sure of themselves and domineering’.
Following Israel’s collusion with the imperial powers, Britain and France, during the Suez campaign in 1956, Zionism lost much of the moral imperative that it had possessed amongst students in 1948. Young Jews became fully paid-up members of the revolutionary Left in all its myriad groups. In 1968 its central representative was Daniel Cohn-Bendit – ‘Danny the Red’ – despised by the French Right as both a German and a Jew.
In the Trotskyist Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, 11 out of the 12 members of its political bureau were Jews. The standing joke at the time was that meetings of the group were not conducted in Yiddish because Bensaid (the sole Sephardi) would not understand.
Many of the Ashkenazi students were the children of East European Jews who had left behind the anti-Semitism of their youth, but had passed on their recollections to their sons and daughters. Despite the passing of two decades after the liberation, this older generation carried with them the fear of another Shoah. The student revolt was a break from this. As one student later commented: ’68 was the explosion of life rather than just survival’.
Jewish students revelled in the intellectual debates at the Sorbonne and the almost Talmudic dissection of Marxist theory. Yet this sense of borderless freedom was short-lived. After weeks of tense standoff, De Gaulle rallied the Right – and the armed forces as well, just in case. The Right streamed onto the streets, waving the tricolour and shouting ‘Cohn-Bendit à Dachau!’.
Many have since spent their entire lives trying to recreate that wave of enthusiasm. They ignored causes such as that of Soviet Jewry or the victimisation of the Jewish remnant in the Arab world. Anti-Semitism, it seemed to the broad Left, only emanated from the Right.
There were also many young Jews who, while identifying with the radicalism of 1968, resented the Left’s blindness when it came to Jewish matters. They later found themselves as leaders of the World Union of Jewish Students. At the WUJS conference in Arad in 1970, a motion was passed which linked Zionism logically with the right of Palestinian Arabs to national self-determination – a two state solution. The official face of Israel was not amused.
In the half century that has elapsed, some have retained their left wing convictions. Others have become pillars of the establishment. As Hannah Arendt cuttingly commented: ‘The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution’. All believe that 1968 was a watershed in the common desire to repair a troubled world.
Jewish Chronicle 27 April 2018