Do Jews Have a Future in France?

10th Jan 2015

That an assault on Jews would follow an assault on cartoonists came as no surprise. Indeed, there was a grim, if not explicitly expressed, foreboding in the aftermath of Thursday’s attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that the Jews would come next. For satirists and Jews are markers of modernity, and it is modernity that the Islamists who committed these heinous atrocities detest most. It was tragically fitting, then, that one of their first victims would have been Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim police officer posted to guard the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Here, in one horrible act, was the beauty of Western coexistence and secularism over the 7th century hell these monsters want to drag us back: a Muslim police officer giving his life to protect cartoonists who had come under threat for mocking Islam.

The Paris neighborhood of the Marais has long been home to both the city’s vibrant gay and Orthodox Jewish communities. A resident of the Marais once playfully told me that, looking out his door every morning, he unfailingly sees “a heavily bearded man dressed in black” on one side and “a heavily bearded man dressed in tighter black” on another – the leather crowd at times indistinguishable from the ultra-religious one. Whatever their many differences, the two groups have co-existed peacefully for decades, lending the Marais a distinct charm and color.

Upon hearing about yesterday’s events in Paris—the murder of four hostages at a kosher grocery and the subsequent shuttering of Jewish institutions across the city, the gory sequel to Thursday’s slaughter of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo offices—my thoughts turned immediately to an evening last September when I was strolling through the Marais’ windy and narrow streets. I came across the Notre Dame de Nazareth synagogue, a grand, 19th century building constructed in the Moorish revival style that serves the city’s Sephardic Jews, those who come from North Africa.

The rabbi happened to be walking out of the synagogue with his wife. After dispensing with the facts of my Jewish background and American citizenship, I promptly asked, “What’s the situation?” Our shared patrimony obviated any need for further elaboration; as a European Jew addressing an American one, he knew exactly at what I was aiming. “There is no future for Jews in France,” he said.

If the Rabbi is right, and I fear he is, than it means that there is no future for Jews in Europe. For France is home to the continent’s largest Jewish community, numbered at over half a million. But it is declining rapidly. Emigration to Israel from France doubled in 2014 from 3,400 to 7,000 people. According to Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the number of Jews leaving Western Europe for the Jewish State increased 88 percent last year. These numbers do not fully account for the Jewish flight from Europe, as significant numbers are leaving for America and other lands. This week’s events will surely lead to even higher rates of emigration.

It is hard to deal with a problem, however, when you studiously avoid naming it. This is a curious characteristic of Europe’s anti-Semitism predicament, in which too many are hesitant to identify victims and perpetrators, that is, when they even concede that such categories exist. Writing live from the hostage scene for the Jewish website Tablet yesterday, French journalist Marc Weitzmann noted that, “On TV and on the radio up to this moment, no one—no one—is mentioning or discussing that the hostages are Jews. No one. It’s strange.”

Weitzmann then shared this chilling anecdote regarding the attack on Charlie Hebdo. “I spoke to a person who teaches history in a high school in one of the suburban Cités,” Weitzmann wrote. “He told me that this is a complete disaster. Teachers are afraid to mention the events. He told me that in his school, students are asking to debate the massacre—and they are justifying it. Thirteen-year-olds, 14-year-olds saying, ‘You shouldn’t insult the Prophet. The killing is justified.’”

Rather than focus on alarming views that appear to be prevalent among young French Muslims, many in the media would rather talk about the inevitable “backlash” that Muslims will endure. Concomitant with nearly every story about jihadism in Europe is a warning about the far right taking political advantage of the situation.

As if by rote, The New York Times could not help but insert early into its story about yesterday’s terror that the events “set off soul-searching about the integration of Muslims in France’s impoverished immigrant suburbs.” But it is not French assimilation policies (or the lack thereof) that are to blame for this week’s deadly acts. There are plenty of “impoverished immigrants” all over the world who do not condone, never mind perpetrate, acts of violence over cartoons. And 72 peecent of French people, according to Pew Research, have a “favorable” impression of Muslims, putting the lie to the claim that France is “Islamophobic.”

What’s responsible for this week’s murders in France is the same thing that’s responsible for the murder of some 2,000 innocent people in Nigeria, and over 100 students in Peshawar: violent Islamism. It is an ideology that is to blame, an ideology that is embraced by millions of people, many of whom have no intention of committing violence against infidels, heretics and other enemies of the faith but nonetheless tacitly condone it. And it is this ideology—not a phantom neo-Nazism—that is driving today’s Jews out of Europe.

“The Jewish community feels itself on the edge of a seething volcano,” says Shimon Samuels, the Paris-based Director of International Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “A culture of excuse exonerates the perpetrators as ‘disaffected, alienated, frustrated, unemployed.’ No other group of frustrated unemployed has resorted to such behavior. Until politicians and media define the problem as jidahism remote-controlled from mosques in France and not only the Middle-East the cancer will not be isolated and destroyed.”

The longer this unwillingness to name and confront the problem goes on, the more succor well meaning elites inadvertently lend to those who would paint the world’s Muslims with one single, simple, bigoted, broad brush. Yes, extreme right parties like France’s National Front will likely benefit from the events of this week. But their rise has been fostered as much by the unwillingness of many mainstream politicians, on both left and right, to speak clearly about the challenges facing France on this front. This failure on the part of responsible political leaders has allowed irresponsible voices—like the National Front’s Marinne Le Pen—to fill the void.

Things will get worse, before, or even if, they get better. “Unfortunately, it looks like the calm before the storm,” the Wiesenthal Center’s Samuels writes. As I read the grim headlines from Paris, I was reminded of another encounter in another European city, Berlin, specifically at the Opernplatz where the Nazis staged one of their most infamous book burnings in 1933. One of the authors whose works they incinerated was the great German poet, Heinrich Heine, whose epigraph now lines a memorial marking this historically ominous event: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” And where they drive out and kill Jews, they will ultimately drive out and kill you, too.

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