Europe is at war, but if its leaders, along with President Obama, refuse to explicitly identify the enemy as “radical Islam” – then it’s a war that can’t be won and “we will lose”.
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This is the somber assessment of the Anti-Defamation League’s National Director, Abe Foxman. “If French President Hollande continues to say that what happened last week in Paris has nothing to do with Islam, then we're going nowhere,” Foxman told Haaretz. “If Obama cannot articulate the words ‘radical Islam’, then it’s a lost cause. What are they going to say at this meeting that the U.S. is convening in Washington on February 18? That the subject is radical extremism? If we cannot articulate what it is then we won’t be able to deal with it either.”
“One can say that we are dealing with extremist radical Islam or that the religion has been hijacked in a way that does not sully or defame Islam. But if we have trouble saying that this is extremist Islam, why should Muslim moderates speak up?”
Why do you think the president is so reluctant? “Political correctness,” Foxman replies emphatically. “In other places it might be fear, but I think in the U.S. it’s political correctness. We are so concerned not to hurt the image of good Muslims that were not willing to single out the bad Muslims.”
And what about Obama’s decision not to attend or to send a senior administration representative to the mass rally held in Paris on Sunday? “Well, that was a screw-up,” Foxman replies. “Nobody asked the question who’s going, and nobody answered. I don't think it was critical, I don't think there is anything behind it: it was just incompetence.”
Foxman however is much harsher on some of the leaders who did show up at the protest. “There was a very significant element of hypocrisy there. Standing in the front row, for example, was the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu: there are more journalists in jail in Turkey today than in China. Half the leaders that came to express their outrage don't themselves respect or permit freedom of speech.”
Foxman, who is slated to end a 27-year tenure at the head of ADL in the summer, has a nuanced approach to the controversial cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, the magazine in which offices 12 people were murdered by terrorists on January 7. “Most of us who embrace freedom of speech believe that people should be able to write and paint and draw whatever they want; but even those who believe in unlimited freedom can also think there should be a sense of restraint and sensibility. You have to seriously exercise the right to be extreme. We [at the ADL] have been critical of Charlie Hebdo in the past, not by saying they don’t have a right, but by asking: is this something that you have to do at this time?”
“It goes without saying,” he hastens to add, “that as offensive, as disgusting or as irresponsible as it may be, nothing ever justifies violence.”
I ask Foxman about the laws in France and other European countries that prohibit Holocaust denial, for example: aren’t they an infringement on free speech? “If the culture and the legislative and the history and the experience and the legal system permit you to limit speech, that's fine. Those are their laws and I support that too. But I come from the American tradition where our Constitution says it's okay to be a bigot and we will protect your right to be a bigot. We have laws against hate crimes - but not against hate. We have no laws against bigotry and prejudice, which Europe has, and yet we have much less; we’re not immune – but we have much less. Why? Because in our society, there are consequences to being a bigot: society puts a price on it, and you will not succeed, in business or in politics. The prime example is Mel Gibson: he was the number one producer, director and actor, the people’s choice, but when he turned out to be a bigot and said anti-Semitic things, there was a societal response that took care of him.
“Laws are not enough. Laws are an expression of an attitude, but society needs to put a price on it. And in Europe, unfortunately, it is still expedient in many countries to be anti-Jewish or to be anti-Muslim or to be anti-whatever.”
Foxman says that to combat extremism “it is not enough to march in a demonstration or to wear a bandanna with “Je Suis Charlie” embroidered on it. France and Europe need to fight for their values, for their freedoms.” But have they not passed the point of no return, as analysts claim? “Some people have described the attack on the magazine and on the kosher supermarket as France’s 9/11. The question is will France act now like the US acted then: we changed our value system, we changed how we live, we changed how we travel, how we conduct business. The U.S. Constitution guarantees ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ but after 9/11, good Americans woke up and said - you know what? If you don't have life - who cares about liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
“Separating and segregating the Jews and only protecting them is not going to resolve the issue,” Foxman adds. “This is not about Jews anymore, nor is it about Muslims: this is about France, about Europe, about democracy and about freedom. Unlike in the past, thank god, Jews have a place to go, whether it's Israel or Canada or the U.S. or Australia. But if France doesn't heal itself, ultimately, the Jews will leave.”
For the time being, however, Foxman thinks that the reports of the imminent demise of French Jewry are premature. “I don't think that Europe is the best place for Jews to live in, but I don't see this as the end. You’re not going to see mass migration yet. This isn’t the Soviet Union or Europe in the 30s or even the 50s and 60s. There isn’t that kind of persecution and anti-Semitism. In France there is a question of security and of comfort: who wants to send their kids to a Jewish day school under guard of 20 gendarmes or police?”
“I think those who want to openly practice Judaism are re-examining whether this is the place for them or for their children; for others it may cause them to do the opposite, and to assimilate more, which is another facet of the problem.”
Foxman concurs with the criticism leveled at Prime Minister Netanyahu and others who called on French Jews to come to Israel in the wake of the terror attacks. “I agree with President Rivlin that the proper posture of the Jewish state is that we will do everything we can to help you live as Jews wherever you want to live, but at the same time, if we can't and you don't think it's enough, we will be there with open arms to welcome you. I don't think it's wise for the Jewish state to tell Jews: go, get out.”
I ask Foxman about the difference between the millions of Muslims in America and the Muslim communities in Europe. “We have a different culture of absorption and integration,” he replies. “America is a country of immigrants that puts a value on integration and assimilation; they used to speak about the melting pot. Immigrants come to America with a desire to become American, and the American desire is to integrate them, thus making them inevitably less Chinese, less French, less Russian or less Muslim. This is the American tradition. We have absorbed waves after waves of immigrants of foreigners who came with very different cultures and religions and who for the most part have become Americans. Some Jews will tell you that for this, we paid a price of assimilation.”
“Europe does not have that tradition. Look at Germany – it has third or fourth generation Turks who can’t speak Turkish, who’ve never been to Turkey and yet they're still Turks. There is no tradition in Europe to make immigrants Greeks and Norwegians and French and British. Even Algerians who are born in France, like some of the terrorists, are still Algerian.”
“That culture of incubating puts pressure on them, causes them to live separately, to be unassimilated, to be angry, and, in some cases, to turn to violence. Of course there are people in American who don’t like Chinese or Hispanics or other immigrants, but these problems are largely overcome once you say they are Americans. In Germany or in Greece, where there are demonstrations, they don't want them to be Germans or Greeks.”
And the result, of course, is the reaction, the rise of the Europe’s radical right. “The irony is that the supposed antidotes to the Muslim growth and power are not allies to the Jewish community or an answer to its concerns. In this case, the enemy of my enemy isn’t my friend; he’s also my enemy. When the extreme right speaks of immigrants, it is referring to Jews as well; when they go after halal food, they’re aiming for Jewish slaughter as well.”
“The recent elections for the European parliament, in which the radical right picked up 20 percent of the vote, casts a dark cloud over Europe. Many Jews might feel that they are caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Finally, I ask Foxman what he thinks goes through the collective American Jewish mind in relation to the recent events. “It’s mixed,” he replies. “Some people say America is different and it's true: in Jewish history it is unique. So they look at Europe and they say thank God for America, thank God for our values, thank God for their grandparents and parents who brought them here.”
“On the other hand they also feel very guilty, because one way or another, most of us came from there. There is a frustration about what we are going to do. There’s no doubt that American Jews are committed to help, and if the time comes, God forbid, that there needs to be there mass emigration, the American Jewish community will help Israel to be the home of Jewish people.
But are they not thinking to themselves, I ask, if it could happen there, it could happen here as well? After a pause and a sigh, Foxman, a Holocaust survivor himself, replies: “I will never say to you it cannot ever happen here. I don't think any Jew who understands history, who knows what happened in Germany, who knows what happened in Spain, will ever say to you it can never happen again. The answer is - it can happen anywhere: cataclysmic changes, economic upheavals, the Internet. All of these can move things. It's very unlikely here, but I will not say to you it can never happen. People who came from Europe won’t say it about Europe, and they won’t say it about America either.”