The Proper Response for French Jews
By: Avi Strauss
Much uproar and soul-searching has spread in the wake of the terror attacks in France, first at the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, and then at the kosher supermarket, HyperCacher. With 6 Jews amongst the dead, and the fact that a Jewish store was targeted, the angst and fear is, perhaps, most pronounced for France’s Jewish population, which numbers approximately 550,000, making it the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third largest worldwide.
As with most tragic and sudden events, leaders, politicians and journalists have all jockeyed for position in constructing a narrative and laying the foundation for a collective response. However, conflicting perspectives have wrought diametrically opposed suggestions for France’s embattled Jewish minority.
Some advocate for extra security at Jewish sites, increased policing of hate speech, and better intelligence on terror cell activity and communication as the only proper response to these heinous crimes. They suggest that to do otherwise would be to surrender to Islamic extremism. Some, including French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, went so far as to suggest that the fate of the French Republic would be at risk if there were a mass exodus of France’s Jews. They point out that France was the first democratic country to grant Jews full citizenship and their flight would mark a failure of the republic. In a country which places equality for all citizens as a value of utmost importance, the emigration en masse of one group would expose such equality as a façade.
Others, however, have reacted differently. If French Jews feel unsafe, if the tides of anti-Semitism seem to be on the rise on French soil, and if history indicates that this is the beginning of a more vicious part of a repeating cycle in the Jewish exile, then emigrating elsewhere may be their best option. Personal security must take priority over all else, and no idealistic stand against terrorism can be justified in the face of real safety concerns.
But what is noticeably absent from the grandstanding of intellectual elites and other generally non-Jewish politicos is historical context and true understanding and connection to the concept of Jewish victimization. Yes, it may be easy to opine on the situation when your ethnic or religious group isn’t disproportionately or baselessly targeted, but this is no time for such removed, third-party analysis.
As a historical minority, Jews are keen as to what being stigmatized, harassed, and terrorized feels like, and how quickly favor in the eyes of a non-Jewish nation or government can turn sour. Since the Jewish people’s national origins in the Torah, when we quickly went from a good life in Egypt to experiencing a harsh slavery at the hands of a new ruler, our history has been filled with these terrible changes of fortune. Peace with Alexander the Great turned into religious persecution under Antiochus. Political freedom and success in Spain and Poland descended into oppression and exclusion. And most prominently, the Holocaust magnified this very real, repeating cycle.
I am not suggesting that this horrific turn is inevitable in France, nor that the French government will target a segment of its population, but I think the Jewish people are quite familiar with fatal attacks at the hands of aggressors and oppressors who want their blood for no other reason than their being Jewish. This vicious cycle is ensconced in our historical consciousness.
I want to distinguish between the two attacks in France. While the connections between the terrorists have been well noted, the motivations for the two attacks are distinct. Charlie Hebdo was targeted for its direct affront to Islamic laws and taboos, and its insults to Mohammed. But the Jewish victims of the supermarket attack were murdered for no other reason than their religion, that they were shopping for Kosher food. And even if the attack could be connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as President Jimmy Carter suggested, anti-Zionism is no excuse for anti-Semitism. Therefore, terrorist attacks aimed at the Jewish population of France must largely be attributed to anti-Semitic sentiments that are becoming more frequent across Europe.
Given the circumstances, the Jews of France need not ignore their safety for the sake of the government or country that, at least in recent times, has passively forsaken them. Although the Jewish presence in France is over a millennium old and the French have been mostly hospitable, the good times have passed for more turbulent ones. According to the Jewish Community Security Service, while there were 82 reported incidents of anti-Semitism in 1999, there were 423 in 2013 (the last year data was available), and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. We all also recall the horrific attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, which killed four Jews. Additionally, in a poll conducted by the Paris-based Siona Organization, nearly 75% of French Jews acknowledged considering leaving France, with 30% citing anti-Semitism as the main reason for mulling the possibility. It’s no surprise that last year 7,000 French Jews emigrated from France and settled in Israel (more than from America, which has nearly 13 times as many Jews) and the Jewish Agency estimated 15,000 more will do so this year.
It is understandable that non-Jewish commentators and editorialists seek to inspire French Jews to rise above the attacks. They tell them that France is their home and that to flee would be to grant the terrorists victory. But no call to arms can assuage the very real danger so many French Jews feel. The argument to stand strong in the face of terrorism may be valid for Charlie Hebdo, but that is because their stand is for the right to freely speak, write about, and criticize anyone and everyone, a sacred right in a democratic nation. Ironically, what the Jewish victims face is persecution for holding their own religion sacred and for practicing the freedom of religion. The Jewish population can take the situation into their own hands by moving to places more secure for Jews than France. The lopsided slaughter and mistreatment of Jews in France is a far more powerful incentive to leave than the concept of reflexively defending the ideals of a multicultural democracy that cannot seem to control the expanding surge in hate-filled and violent events against a minority. The Jewish population obviously appreciates the tremendous security deployment of troops and police to defend them, but how long should they stay besieged in a place they are told by others to call home?
Perhaps it is true that France’s democratic character is on the line, but the French democracy is not where primary Jewish interests lie. Should they choose to stay, by necessity or because of patriotic duty, then more power to them. But should they feel that they are no longer welcome or should they fear further attacks, then the pursuit of security and safety, especially given past precedent and current trends, should certainly supersede those other concerns.