Of all the intonations, expressions and statements flowing from the mouths of politicians and ordinary citizens in the aftermath of the terrorist killings of seventeen people in France last week, the most forthright and sincere one, in my opinion, came from France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls who proclaimed: “France without Jews is not France.”
What did he mean by this? Was it only in reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistent invitation to French Jews to flee France and come to Israel where they would be greeted with open arms, safe from anti-Semitism in France?
It was partly that, yes, but it was also a sincere conviction, that France’s Jews are an integral part of the community, that they are both Jewish and French, that they should not be the victims of despicable acts because they are Jewish and that their lives warrant greater protection.
Even before last week’s terrorist attacks which left four Jews dead in a kosher grocery store, France’s Jews have been targeted heinously and viciously and more Jews than ever are packing their bags to leave for Israel. I say “more Jews than ever” because many letters we get from the States, in particular, presume that ALL of France’s Jews or a huge percentage are fleeing France. So let’s get the real figures: there are approximately 600,000 Jews in France; of these last year approximately 7000 left for Israel. This is roughly 1 per cent – 1 per cent too many, certainly, but nothing like the much bigger figures that are being bandied around.
I am not Jewish but have many Jewish friends and am interested to see the different opinions they have on the question of making aliyah (emigrating to Israel). Two friends, both American Jewish women who has lived in France for decades, downplay the reports of massive flights, stating that those who leave more often do so because they are going to retire or because they have family in Israel or because they’ve been thinking of it for a long time or because they are very religious and think they would have a better religious life in Israel. So, of the 1 per cent of those leaving, we may be down to 0.5 per cent of people leaving because of anti-Semitism in France and fear for their lives.
I do not write this to downplay those fears nor to downplay anti-Semitisim which is real and which exists but I do think it necessary to take a cold look at the facts first. As for anti-Semitic acts, who perpetrates them? “The French”? Which French? If you look at the deplorable anti-Semitic acts that have taken place over the past years, you will see a pattern which is that the perpetrators are almost always young French men of Arab origin. They live unhappy lives many times in broken homes, are mostly unemployed, are or have been delinquents who in too many cases have been converted to radical Islam during their prison stays. Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old criminal of Algerian descent, was one of those. In March 2012, he first gunned down two uniformed soldiers, then killed four, including three children, at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school. And what was his motivation? “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” (Yet one of the soldiers he killed was, like him, a Muslim). One cannot underestimate the weight of the Israeli-Palestine conflict when it comes to current anti-Semitic acts. The conflict in the Middle East is played out every day in France – with the tragic results that we have seen.
I think the French Prime Minister was right to say that France wouldn’t be France without its Jews. But acts follow words and the government has a huge job cut out for it to protect its Jewish population. The government should also protect its Muslim citizens, the majority of which is peaceful and law-abiding. The desecration of Mosques and anti-Muslim acts such as the throwing of a pig’s ear into the garage of a Muslim should not go unpunished.
No one asked me for my opinion but I’d start by educating young people about Israel and Palestine, putting it at the center of the school curricula. Ironically, French teachers for several years have taken high school classes to visit the deportation camps and talk about the Shoah but for the young Muslims of African or North African descent this is giving special attention to people who don’t need it – and they aren’t listening. It is indicative that during the minute of silence for all the victims of the terrorist killings last week – journalists, policemen, and Jews – students in some 70 schools around the country refused to comply. I have this for a fact from a young woman who teaches in a tough district. So, first of all: education. Education would put an end, one can hope, to the dangerous stereotypes such as “the Jews are rich” which result in odious crimes (I think of the truly awful Ilan Halimi affair in 2007 ). The people committing these crimes are barbarians of the same order as the Kouachi brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo supposedly in the name of Islam; the barbarian African and North African kidnappers of Ilan Halimi were motivated by nothing other than the sheer crass stupid stereotypes that invade the areas in which they live (“Jews are rich”). To think that a young salesman of portable phones is “rich” because he is Jewish defies the imagination. Yet, it happened and he died a martyr’s death.
I’d also do what wasn’t done after the Muslim riots in 2005 where the motivation wasn’t religion, but frustration at being shut off in poor areas with nothing to do and no hope. This was an opportunity of the first order to focus on youth training and jobs but the efforts were feeble and nothing ever came of it.
Secondly, and this is being discussed, isolation for the Islamist delinquents in prison so they cannot use their jail time to foment plots.
Thirdly, some kind of herculean effort to stop the drain of young French men and women of Arab descent from joining their “brothers in arms” in Syria – and a law forbidding them from ever re-entering France if they do choose to leave.
The French police have managed to prevent several plots from taking place. They dropped the ball on the Kaouchi brothers (they say it’s impossible to put surveillance on everyone). The government should hire more policemen, put one behind every suspect, in short, put its money where its mouth is.
The march on Sunday, January 11, was beautiful. My husband and I were there. The spirit of it was: let’s all be together to show our unity. People of every race and color and creed – Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, people who are religious, people who are not, were all there to show by their presence their love of liberty. The curtain fell on a magic moment of national unity.
It would be nice if it signalled “The End” and all was well. Unfortunately, we’re just at the beginning, with so much left to do.
And now I’m going to write something I had not intended to write before I began this article: if I were a Jew in France, would I be afraid? Yes, I would. Would I pack my bags and leave for Israel? Perhaps not immediately but in the back of my mind I would be ever watchful. And when the day came that being constantly vigilant weighed upon me and my family, then, yes, perhaps, like the Jews who are scared, I would leave. I would keep in mind, though, that one of every five who leave returns to France. And I would know that going to Israel is not necessarily the solution as long as Israel and Palestine are in a stand-off. In fact, as long as that is the state of things, none of us, whether Jews, Catholics, Muslims or atheists will be safe, anywhere.