In the wake of the horrific terrorist killings in France, my heart took many turns. First there was shock, replaced by grief, then anger, followed by resolve. A few days later I realized I was going through a process similar to mourning. And now I ruminate as I search for meaning.
The responses to the massacres from the French and from the Israelis raise important issues for Jews who live inside and outside of Israel. There is irony there, in the offer of the Jewish State as a safe haven for Jews. “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 the Holocaust, the Jews after Evian—Jews with nowhere to go.
But is it true? Is Israel the safest place for the Jews? We shall return to that question.
Frankly, I do not believe that the 3.5 million person march in Paris, in solidarity with the victims of Charlie Hebdo and the shoppers in the supermarket, or the declarations of French leadership about being at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam,” or the statement that France without its Jews is not France means anything much. What is new in the remorse expressed by the French prime minister that his country has not done enough to combat antisemitism? Nothing!
But maybe I am wrong. Still, I never forget that the Islamists’ politics of rage have defined radical Islam. And rage leads directly to violence. In the eyes of many Muslims, murder—my terms, they call it killing, sacred killing—is a reasonable response to what they see as the desecration of their religion and the Prophet. For decades, fatwas, killings and violent rioting were used by extremist Islamists silence those they deem to have insulted Islam. From the death sentence on Salman Rushdie to the murder 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, unbridled rage, madness, leads to murder.
For the last dozen years I asked that we distinguish between antisemitism in France and the antisemitism of France. Those who are of France have accepted the values of the French Revolution: Liberty Equality and Fraternity, and 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, Muslim immigrants and their descendants who live in France feel themselves untouched, and even alienated from, or appalled by, the values of France. These people have no stake in French society. In France for some two generations, they do not feel part of France, and consider themselves exiles from their true homes in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Their alienation is fueling their attraction to the extreme values wreaking havoc in the Middle East and Africa, where the politics of rage dominate. Poverty and lack of opportunity created their alienation, but religion fuels their rage; religion sanctions their violence.
The focus on the battle is therefore against militant radical Islam that uses rage to drive its followers and not against all Muslims. We were touched and heartened when we learned Jewish lives were saved by a Muslim employee in the supermarket. Yet it is not enough for politically correct people, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, to proclaim that murderous rage does not define a vast sector of Islam—that it only speaks for the extremists. Moderate Muslims must be the first and loudest to reclaim the voice of their faith. But they don’t. We live in a world where extremism overpowers moderation. Moderates must fight with the same passion as the extremists for their moderation.
When there is so little outraged objection from moderate Muslims to this plague of violence perpetrated in the name of their own religion, we end up in dead-ended conversations with other Westerners, who assure one another that true Islam is actually moderate. And when those who make the case for Islam don’t know the differences between Salafi, Sunni and Shia, the discussion is not only not credible, but it is hardly relevant.
For the last ten years, as French Jews were attacked, murdered and raped by extremist Muslims, the French police and people behaved as if a swastika painted on a synagogue was petty graffiti; the mugging a rabbi or a pious Jew was a minor crime; the murder of Yeshiva students was fodder for the 24-hr news cycle. The French felt such hateful acts were the “understandable” result of anger at Israel. And that was ok with them because Israel’s actions infuriated many Europeans—and the French in particular. Only when this same violence was turned against a French non-Jew on the streets of Lyon or Marseilles, was attention paid.
Bridging the divide between the Muslims in France and the French people will require an admission of a fundamental problem in France’s attitude toward its immigrant workers, especially its lower class immigrants, who are essential to the nation’s workforce, but were never integrated into French society or French culture. It will take a long-term, focused fix, and one that does not allow for intolerance and violence.
So why was the response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre so atypical? Perhaps because the French may have finally realized, or cynically said out loud, that they felt a threat to the very nature of France, to its self-image, its self-perception and its core values because Jews aren’t secure living as Jews in France. That’s because the French want to believe that they are not the same people they were during World War II.
When the bodies of the Holocaust were being uncovered, French populists were horrified by their own collaborators, including the French police who participated in the roundup and deportation of Jews, and Vichy France. The French today see themselves today as a liberal, inclusive democratic society. It therefore follows that if the Jews of France are again vulnerable to outbreaks of antisemitism and violence without the protections of a civilized society, then France today is still not true to its professed core values, values that had to be painstakingly rebuilt after the Shoah. If that’s the case, better late than never. But let us hold them to those values.
There’s more. The declaration of war against radical Islam articulated so passionately by French President Francois Hollande may—and only may—spell the end of France’s appeasement to the politics of rage. Let us hold them to that as well. Because they haven’t been doing too well at it.
But do not expect this outpouring of concern for French Jews to make the French government strong allies of Israel. The French government and French society tend to see Israel in colonialist terms and as a problem that can be solved only by the establishment of two states. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees Israel as battling the same forces of radical Islam as the French government and the people of France. Both sides may be right, but neither accepts the other’s reading of the core problem.
In light of the attacks, and a doubling of French Jews making Aliyah in the last year, the Israelis are 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 antisemitism in Europe, both per capita and in absolute numbers, many more Jews have been killed in Israel because they were Jews 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.
If Netanyahu is to be believed, Israel currently faces a nuclear existential threat of vulnerability, either by Iran or by other non-state 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?
Fact: even as Jews consider leaving France, Jews are leaving Israel. We don’t know why some Jews are 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 are coming to Israel to take their place.
I found the burial of the victims of the supermarket massacre were not killed because they were Israelis, they were killed because they were Jews. Their burial in Israel 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. And we insist that American Jews be considered Americans.
False comparisons to the 1930s are not helpful. 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, Pope Francis and President Hollande of France among them, are repeatedly condemning antisemitism 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 to the Holocaust is not 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 as just highly as the essential democratic right to free speech—only then will the situation of Jews in France truly change.
By Michael Berenbaum