“Wie Gott in Frankreich leben”—“living like God in France”—was a popular Yiddish saying among Ashkenazi Jews for a long time. It suggested a certain fascination with France, implying that Jews living there are uniquely fortunate. Growing up in a traumatized post-Holocaust Germany and haunted by the imperative of “Never Again,” that rosy vision of France, despite the dark episodes of its historical treatment of Jews, no doubt played a role in my decision to make Paris my home.
France, to me, was the land of the Enlightenment, human rights, liberty, equality and fraternity — a place that provided opportunity for anyone of any ethnic or religious background to achieve what he or she desired. After all, while Benjamin Disraeli had to convert to become prime minister of England, Leon Blum, a publicly identified Jew, became prime minister of France. For years after I came to France I was awestruck to learn how many famous Jews had distinguished themselves in French society. Their Jewish identity was known and taken for granted, and yet they viewed themselves, and were viewed by others, as proud citizens of France.
But in the early years of the 21st century, I became less sure that the “Never Again” caution was irrelevant to France. Anti-Semitic violence has increased substantially over the past 14 years. Just to mention some of the better-known outrages, a French Jew, Ilan Halimi, was murdered in 2006; two years ago, three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher were murdered in Toulouse; a French terrorist has been arrested for the March murder of four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels; and a so-called “day of anger” a few months ago in Paris brought hundreds into the streets to yell vicious threats at Jews. In just the first quarter of this year, 169 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded.
Today I ask myself troubling questions. Does my public expression of Judaism endanger my safety and that of my children? Might showing my support for Israel generate threats? Am I being a responsible parent by raising my children in this country?
My fears reached a high point on the eve of Bastille Day and a day later on the anniversary of the Vel D’Hiv roundup of French Jews by the puppet Vichy government for transport to Auschwitz. On July 12 and 13, during a massive pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris, several groups spread out to synagogues in the middle of Paris to threaten the Jews inside, while in Aulnay sous Bois, outside the capital, a synagogue was hit with Molotov cocktails. The mobs chanted “Death to the Jews,” and a politician from the Green party said it was “not surprising that synagogues are attacked when they support Israel’s policy.”
We often hear that such events symptomize the importation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into France. The fact that they tend to occur in connection with pro-Palestinian demonstrations gives the theory seeming credibility. Yet there is nothing pro-Palestinian in attacking Jews because they are Jewish. No pro-Palestinian ideology can possibly justify the humiliation, the injuries, and the deaths. In fact, the Palestinian cause and the appeals to their “oppressed brothers” become pretexts for pure and simple Jew hatred when demonstrators cry, “Hitler did not finish the job,” while at the same time waving Hamas and Hezbollah flags. Unfortunately, the problem is far more profound. It is a combination of Jew hatred, extremism and the will to bring down our society and our values.
France has become a refuge for people with a deep aversion for democracy and Western values. This is not only a problem for the Jewish community but for France as a nation. Whether French-born or not, we are morally obligated to protect our core commitments: no toleration of hate speech, no leniency for extremists, no compromise with the decay and debasement of our public space.
There must be zero tolerance for anti-Semitism. Every anti-Semitic act needs to be morally and criminally condemned. Additionally, it will require recognizing and facing up to the changing sources of anti-Semitism. A certain guilt and political correctness has for too long prevented us from acknowledging that French anti-Semitism comes not only from the extreme xenophobic right and the radical anti-Israel left, but today, first and foremost, from a minority of the immigrant Muslim community.
France must recapture its unifying ethos even as it celebrates its diversity. Greater equality and social cohesion will reduce the impulse to lash out against Jews. There must be more and better education against group prejudice, focusing on similarities and shared values between religions and cultures. Intergroup dialogue is an essential aspect.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ unambiguous remarks that the “fight against anti-Semitism is the problem of the Republic, of all of France” should be embraced by all who truly care about France. We need more political, religious and civil society leaders who tell the truth. Entrepreneurs, writers, athletes, media personalities and students should speak out against group hatred.
It was long ago, on May 15, 1990, when 200,000 people demonstrated against anti-Semitism in the streets of Paris. That was the last great moment of French solidarity with the Jewish people. I think of it with great nostalgia and wonder whether anything like it can happen again.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is director of the American Jewish Committee office in Paris.