In the wake of the horrific terrorist killings in France, my heart took many turns. First there was shock, soon replaced by grief, then anger, followed by resolve. Now it may be time for reflection.
The response from the French and then the Israelis to the two attacks raised some important issues for Jews living in the Diaspora and also in Israel.
I have been struck by the irony of Israel’s offer of the Jewish state as a safe haven for Jews. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, the heroic chairman of the Jewish Agency whose task is to bring Jews to Israel, have reiterated the familiar and all-important offer: Jews are welcome in Israel. We want you here. This is your home. It is here that you are safe.
Such words stir the heart of every Jew who remembers the desperation of Jews fleeing Germany and later German-occupied Europe — Jews who were unwanted everywhere else.
But does this promise still hold true? We shall return to that question.
What has changed in the aftermath of the recent events in France — the murderous attack at Charlie Hebdo, the killings of innocent shoppers at the Jewish supermarket, the worldwide march of solidarity, the declarations by the French leadership that France is at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam” and the statement that France without its Jews is not France? What is new in the remorse expressed by the French prime minister that his country has not done enough to combat anti-Semitism?
Or perhaps everything.
Permit me to explain.
This is, of course, not the first time that free speech has been attacked by radical militant Islam. Previously, in fatwas, in killings and in violent rioting, the extremist Islamists have tried to silence those they deem to have insulted Islam. From the death sentence declared against Salman Rushdie to the threats on the life of a Danish cartoonist, from massive street demonstrations in Egypt following the release of a minor video by a marginal, unimportant American Protestant to the killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the Islamists’ politics of rage have defined radical Islam. And rage leads directly to violence.
Simply put, outrage is being used to legitimize and justify murder, and in the eyes of many Muslims, murder has become a reasonable response to what they see as the desecration of their religion and the Prophet Muhammad. Nothing new here.
Let’s look specifically at the most recent violent outbreak.
For a dozen years, I have been writing about anti-Semitism in France, suggesting that we should distinguish between anti-Semitism in France and anti-Semitism of France. Those who are of France have accepted the values of the French Revolution — liberty, equality and fraternity — and they have few problems seeing Jews as part of France. These French citizens interact daily with Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists and think nothing of it. They may be outspoken in their opposition to the policies of Israel, but they do not see that as license to attack their Jewish neighbors.
On the other hand, there is also a sizable population of Muslim immigrants and their descendants who live in France but feel themselves untouched, and even alienated from, or appalled by, the values of France. These people have no stake in the values of French society. Despite having by now dwelled in France for some two generations, they nevertheless do not feel part of France, but consider themselves in exile from their true home in the Middle East. Their alienation from the society in which they dwell is fueling their attraction to the values that are wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East, where the politics of rage dominate. Poverty and lack of opportunity created their alienation, but religion fuels their rage; religion justifies their anger and sanctions their violence.
But even as we look the politics of outrage in the eye, let us be clear that our battle is against militant radical Islam and not against all Muslims. We were touched and heartened by the report that Jewish lives were saved in the Hyper Cacher attack by a Muslim employee. Expressions of solidarity on both sides are important. Nevertheless, it is not sufficient for politically correct people, including our president, Barack Obama, and even his predecessor, George W. Bush, to proclaim that the politics of rage does not define the views of a vast sector of Islam today, and moderate Muslims must be the first and loudest to reclaim the voice of their faith. Without a powerful, even outraged objection from moderate Muslims to the violence, we are engaged in a one-sided discussion among Western Christians (and sometimes Jews) who assure one another that true Islam is actually moderate. And when the people making the case for Islam do not even understand the religious differences between Sunni and Shia, the discussion is not only not credible but also hardly relevant.
Before the killings in recent weeks, when militant Islamists attacked Jews, much of France seemed to turn a blind eye to the violence: A swastika on a synagogue was petty graffiti; mugging a rabbi or a pious Jew en route to synagogue was a minor crime; the murder of yeshiva students was a one- or two-day news story; and the idea that anger at Israel was behind an explosion of anti-Jewish violence — that what happened in Israel, in Gaza and in Lebanon was sufficient reason to attack the Jews in one’s neighborhood — these actions by radical Islamists were allowed for too long by the French as understandable, largely because Israel’s actions infuriated many Europeans as well, and the French in particular.
Only when this same violence turned against a French non-Jew on the streets of Lyon or Marseilles was attention paid.
Bridging the divide between the Muslims in France from everyone else who identifies with France will require a fundamental rethinking of French policy. It will require an admission of a fundamental problem in France’s attitude toward its immigrant workers, most especially its lower-class immigrants, who are essential to the nation’s workforce but were never integrated into French society or French culture.
The problem, a longstanding one, cannot be solved in the short term, and it will not go away without a dramatic change of attitude.
But what has changed, perhaps?
It appears that the French finally have come to the realization — or, perhaps more cynically, at least vocalized it — that the very nature of France, its self-image, its self-perception and its core values are at stake if Jews cannot feel secure living as Jews in France. Because the French people today want to believe that they are not the same as they were during World War II. In the aftermath of that war, the French populace was horrified by its own collaborators, those who helped the Nazis, including the French police who participated in the roundup and deportation of Jews, and Vichy France. The French today see themselves as a liberal, inclusive, democratic society. It therefore follows that if the Jews of France are truly once again vulnerable to outbreaks of anti-Semitism and violence without the protections of a civilized society, France today is not, in its very essence, true to its core values — values that had to be painstakingly rebuilt after the Shoah.
If this realization has finally come, then I say, better late than never. But let us hold them to it.
The concept of a war against radical Islam articulated so passionately in recent days by French President Francois Hollande may — and I stress the word may — spell the end of France’s appeasement to the politics of rage. Let us hold them to that as well.
Still, their immediate reaction was weak. The Grand Synagogue in Paris never should never have closed, even for a day, as many synagogues in Paris closed down and did not hold Shabbat services immediately after the attacks. The French government should have provided its Jewish institutions with adequate security immediately, and the president himself should have appeared in the pews that very first Shabbat on the evening of and the day following the attacks.
In Los Angeles, I went to services at Temple Beth Am on Friday evening and Shabbat morning, Jan. 9 and 10, and the Los Angeles Police Department was present outside the shul, simply as a demonstration of vigilance.
I doubt that France’s newfound avowal of commitment to its Jews will ally France with Israel. The government of France and significant segments of French society tend to see Israel in colonialist terms, as a country occupying another people’s land and as a problem that can be solved only by withdrawal and the establishment of two states. By contrast, Netanyahu sees Israel as battling the same forces of radical Islam as the French government and the people of France. Both may be right, but neither side accepts the other’s interpretation as correct.
So the Israelis have invited French Jews to make aliyah, promising safety and security in the Jewish state. This invitation comes despite the fact that, over the past decades, even with the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, both per capita and in absolute numbers, many more Jews have been killed in Israel because there were more Jews there than anywhere else in the world.
As I write these words, I shed tears because it wasn’t supposed to be so. We Zionists believed that the creation of an independent Jewish state with an army of its own would end Jewish vulnerability. But Jewish history is filled with irony. In reality, Israeli independence came just as the world became increasingly interdependent, and the State of Israel has not ended Jewish vulnerability, it has simply given us — Israelis and all Jews — new tools to combat that vulnerability.
More worrisome today, if Netanyahu is to be believed, Israel currently faces an existential threat of vulnerability, due to the development by Iran of nuclear weaponry that can be used against Israel, either by Iran or by other nonstate actors armed by the Iranian state.
If safety is what French Jews are seeking, will their lives really be any safer in Tel Aviv than in Paris?
The fact is, even as Jews consider leaving France, other Jews are leaving Israel. We don’t know why some Jews today are leaving Israel, getting European passports and moving to Europe, but the prospect of endless war in Israel is surely one contributing factor. Israeli Jews weary of war and perceiving a bleak future of unending battles are moving to Germany and other European countries — including France. This is true even as French Jews, feeling like targets of attack, are coming to Israel to take their place.
I was not as moved as many were by the fact that the victims of the Hyper Cacher attack — Yohan Cohen, Francois-Michel Saada, Phillipe Barham and Yoav Hattab — were buried in Israel rather than on French soil. They were not killed because they were Israelis; they were killed because they were Jews.
If safety is what French Jews are seeking, will their lives really be any
safer in Tel Aviv
than in Paris?
Their burial in Israel, therefore, may have reinforced the idea that Jews do not belong to France, but rather to Israel, and that their murders were a Jewish problem and not a French problem.
This cannot be the message that we offer up to the world. We must insist that France claim French Jews as their own, as citizens of France, not only publicly and loudly, but also sincerely, just as we must mourn them as Jews.
Comparisons to the 1930s are being offered now by those who understand neither the 1930s nor today. It is essential to remember that, in the 1930s, the attack against the Jews was government sponsored, by the most powerful people as well as by important interest groups native to their country. Today’s attacks are by disempowered people who impose their views through criminal acts of violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, the world powers, the leaders of Europe — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain, Hollande and Pope Francis among them — are condemning anti-Semitism loudly and clearly. One cannot compare the power of contemporary Jews and the reality of Israel with the abject powerlessness and statelessness of Jews in the 1930s. The refusal to equate today’s events with the Holocaust should not be license to minimize their importance, but rather to insist that we affirm how far we have come since then.
Walking home from synagogue in Los Angeles, I saw that my French neighbor displayed a sign, Je Suis Charlie, on his lawn, and I asked for a similar sign to place on mine. I would have felt better, much better, if my neighbor and his fellow countrymen all had exhibited two signs side by side: Je Suis Charlie, Je Suis Juif.
Only when both signs stand side by side — when the rights of French citizens are valued just as highly as the essential democratic right to free speech — only then will the situation of Jews in France truly change.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Click here to read his A Jew blog.