The Media Today

A Catholic newspaper confronts its anti-Semitic history

August 1, 2023
This photograph shows the article "J'accuse" published in L'Aurore newspaper, in the Dreyfus museum, inside Emile Zola's house in Medan, near Paris, Tuesday Oct. 26, 2021. ( Ludovic Marin, Pool Photo via AP)

In 1998, La Croix, a Catholic daily in France, ran a front-page picture of Emile Zola, the celebrated French novelist. The splash marked the hundredth anniversary of “J’Accuse…!,” an open letter that Zola published in a different newspaper, L’Aurore, in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was wrongly convicted of selling secrets to the Germans in a case that triggered a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment in France. The front page also acknowledged La Croix’s own complicity in the episode, noting that it referred to Dreyfus as a “Jewish enemy” and issued a call to “gut” Zola for defending him. “We have to remember,” Michel Kubler, La Croix’s editor in chief in 1998, wrote, of the paper’s coverage of Dreyfus. “We have to repent.”

Last year, Isabelle de Gaulmyn, La Croix’s current editor in chief, received a copy of an old edition of the paper in the mail. It, too, was notable for its anti-Semitism: the front page featured references to “Jewish organs” among the French press and characterized Jews who had been expelled from Russia as “invaders.” The edition dated to June 1892—two years before the Dreyfus affair began. “I knew that La Croix had been against Dreyfus,” de Gaulmyn told me, “but I didn’t know that, from the start, [the paper dealt in] really systematic anti-Semitism.”

Recently, La Croix marked its hundred and fortieth birthday in its current form. It was founded in 1883 by France’s Assumptionist congregation and two of its members in particular, Father Picard and Father Bailly—“soldier monks” who launched the paper into a crowded market to fight for Catholicism at a tumultuous moment in French history. “In our opinion, the daily press is the plague of our age,” Picard wrote in an opening editorial. La Croix was only joining it “because it’s the only way to reach the enemy on the ground that he’s ravaging. The soldier who uses his sword to extend his homeland doesn’t apologize for it, he uses it.”

De Gaulmyn decided that, amid La Croix’s anniversary celebrations, the time was right to wrestle, in greater depth, with the paper’s anti-Semitic past. She ended up doing so in a four-part series that came out last month, based on conversations with historians—she built on the work of Pierre Sorlin, who, in 1967, published a book on La Croix’s early years—and archival research, a task that was sometimes hard to stomach, so harsh was the hatred she found. “After the French Revolution, the nineteenth century was complicated…it was the impossibility of going back to a monarchy; it was the end of a Christian regime and [the start of] a secular republic,” de Gaulmyn said. “Many Catholics were horrified. They had to find someone to blame, and in the end, it was ‘the Jew.’”

In the years after its launch, La Croix shifted from pushing anti-Judaism, rooted primarily in religious bigotry, to something like the modern definition of anti-Semitism, depicting Jews as a people conspiring to marginalize Catholics and destroy the economy. Some of the tropes that the paper published remain familiar today: it demonized the Rothschilds and ran a map depicting an octopus whose tentacles wrapped around various countries; later, the paper’s parent company picked up the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text that purports to reveal a Jewish plan for global dominance. In 1890, La Croix proudly declared itself “the most anti-Jewish newspaper in France.” By 1898, the year that Zola wrote “J’Accuse…!” about Dreyfus, the paper was calling for Jews to be kicked out.

In the early part of the twentieth century, La Croix flirted with Action Française (or “French Action”), a nationalist-monarchist movement that was founded in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair and came to be led by Charles Maurras. In the late 1920s, however, the paper’s editorial line changed—one result of a broader intervention by Pope Pius XI, who ordered the French Catholic Church to distance itself from Maurras and his movement. Over time, La Croix would turn into what it is today: a general-interest publication covering the news and convening opinion for a Christian readership, but with an open mind and broad outlook on the world.

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At least in the short term, though, de Gaulmyn found that the paper continued to use Jewish stereotypes and took discomfiting positions on the “Jewish question”; in the run-up to World War II, it warned of the dangers of Nazism, but it ultimately republished—and may even have supported—the early anti-Semitic policies of the collaborationist Vichy regime excluding Jews from many aspects of civic life. Whatever its stance, damage had already been done; de Gaulmyn notes that when the first Vichy commissioner for Jewish Affairs was tried after the war, he said, in essence, that condemning him would be to condemn La Croix, which (along with a sister title) taught him how to be a Catholic. Indeed, one of de Gaulmyn’s motives in undertaking her project was to give lie to the once-popular idea that turn-of-the-century Catholics were guilty only of anti-Judaism, and not the brand of anti-Semitism that would feed into the Holocaust.

De Gaulmyn told me that her work was inspired by similar excavations of past racism on the part of other newspapers, not least in the US, and also by American Jesuits who documented their historical ties to slavery and promised to raise a hundred million dollars to benefit the descendants of those they enslaved. In her series on anti-Semitism, de Gaulmyn stressed that the blight is not merely a historical one, pointing to growing modern-day anti-Semitism, in France and elsewhere, including in the name of Catholicism. She was surprised when a body that works on Catholic-Jewish relations recently sent her a book fact-checking questions such as “Are Jews responsible for the death of Jesus?” De Gaulmyn asks, “Are we still in that place?”

She sees parallels, too, between the Catholic Church’s historical anti-Semitism and more recent reckoning with institutionalized child sexual abuse—in both cases, she writes, Catholics can begin to reconcile with their history only by apologizing. When we spoke, however, de Gaulmyn told me that that alone is insufficient. “Today, among the bulk of Catholics, there’s no longer anti-Semitism, but there is great ignorance,” she said. La Croix and others, she added, must fight back by educating people, and by not using “essentializing” terms such as “the Jew” or “the Muslim” (the latter of which has become common in contemporary France). “When you’re a journalist, that’s a real danger: to put people into categories,” she said. “It’s very easy.”

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  • Vice Media, which entered bankruptcy earlier this year, announced yesterday that it has completed its sale to a group of former lenders including Fortress Investment Group and Soros Fund Management, whose bid for the company was previously ratified by a bankruptcy judge in New York. Deadline has more (and ICYMI, Semafor reported on Vice’s recent failure to pay staffers and freelancers even as it paid executives’ bonuses).
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  • And Steven Lee Myers and Kellen Browning, of the New York Times, examined how Russian propaganda has infiltrated the world of online gaming. Players have “adopted the letter Z, a symbol of the Russian troops who invaded last year; embraced legally specious Russian territorial claims in Crimea and other places; and echoed President Putin’s efforts to denigrate Ukrainians as Nazis and blame the West for the conflict.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.