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A snapshot of France and her Jews at the crossroads

I was in Paris on the Shloshim (ceremony marking the 30th day of the passing of a loved one) of the murder of four Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket on a Sabbath eve last month.
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February 12, 2015

I was in Paris on the Shloshim (ceremony marking the 30th day of the passing of a loved one) of the murder of four Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket on a Sabbath eve last month.

President Obama and his spokesman Josh Reader can parse their phrases any way they choose, but there was nothing random about those killings that took place against the backdrop of the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo.

This is the situation that I found on the ground.

First:  Massive security. French President François Hollande, who thank God, recognizes that his Jewish citizens are targeted by Islamist terrorists, has put 10,000(!) soldiers on the streets of France, including a group of battle-ready troops at the entrance to the building hosting the gathering. In fact, the European office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is located in the same building. Some nights, as many as five soldiers sleep there. 

Second: The question of the hour is – no longer whether to leave, but when and to where.

Even before the latest murders, thousands of French Jews had already left – many of them to Israel. They had had it with taunts, hate crimes, bullying on trains, shootings in Toulouse, kidnappings, home invasions, rape and murder. They had absorbed unending media bias against Israel, anti-Semitic taunts from Dieudonné, a judicial system that would not deal with anti-Semitism in a serious way. And they felt a wall of apathy from non-Jewish neighbors, over 30 percent of whom agree with the Le Pens of France who would be happy to see the Jews just leave and that hopefully the Muslims would follow suit.

It is difficult for us Americans to understand the sense of isolation many French Jews feel. Even in the sea of a millions of protesters at the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march on Jan. 11, there was only one balloon that included all these words in the “Charlie” slogans:

Nous sommes tous Charlie, flics, Juifs.

“We are all Charlie, Police, Jews”

The lone sign hovering above the millions who took to the streets that included the word Juif was written and held aloft by members of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Third: Not everyone is leaving. To be sure, not every Jew is going to leave France. The Chief Rabbi reminded my colleague Dr. Shimon Samuels and myself, that no country in the diaspora is free from Jew-hatred and that he and others will stay to fight back against the hate and rely on the government institutions to protect them from terrorists.

Fourth: Can France Protect Its Jews and Itself From Islamist Terrorists? President Hollande and colleagues are certainly trying. They understand it’s no longer just about the future of French Jews, but about France’s future as a secular republic. Our discussions with senior French officials were devoid of any delusional political correctness. There is a new awareness of the centrality of the Internet as a key weapon for ISIS and its supporters. The deft manipulation of social networking aids recruitment drives across Europe and mass-markets hatred against anyone – including Muslims – who oppose their vision of a worldwide Caliphate. Which brings me to the last point.

Fifth: Hate has put down roots. Last June, during a face-to-face meeting with President Hollande when he confirmed to us that 1,000 French citizens had trained with ISIS in Syria and now posed a new threat to France and the entire continent, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center dean and founder told Mr. Hollande: Beyond dealing with this new terrorist threat, unless and until France’s 6,000-plus Imams and other Muslim leaders, weigh in on the right side of this epic struggle, this war may not be winnable. The hate preached by some Imams has put down roots. I got a small dose of it when Dr. Samuels and I were rushing to a meeting at a kosher restaurant near the Elysée Palace. Passing a pub with a lunchtime line spilling out onto the sidewalk, I briefly locked eyes with a young, attractive hijab-clad Muslim woman. Her indifferent glance transformed into utter contempt when she saw my yarmulke. 

Hate is learned, and ISIS is but one of its only teachers. That woman’s anti-Semitism will not be erased by government decrees. Such hatred can only be deconstructed by Muslims themselves. It is hard to blame any French Jew for not waiting around to find out how this all plays out. 

Just before the formal Shloshim memorial began, I had a private moment with members of the family of one of the four Jewish martyrs murdered at the Hyper Casher market. They spoke little English; the little French I know is an abomination. But in times of tragedy we Jews don’t need random words. Our collective destiny spans the millennia, renders borders and languages meaningless. Our tears were our bond; our message clear: Am Yisrael Chai!


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

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