Europe After Paris: Q&A With Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer

Our senior correspondent, who reported from the French capital in the days after the tragic attacks, tackles readers' questions.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Anshel Pfeffer answers readers' questions about security in Europe in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris which claimed at least 129 lives – and what ramifications the tragic events could have across the continent. Pfeffer reported for Haaretz from Paris in the hours and days after the attacks.

From Anshel: Good afternoon, or morning, depending on where you're reading this. Thanks to all those who sent questions. Let's start with those regarding recent events in France and Belgium, before going on to broader issues.

Q. Are French security services prepared to deal with this new terrorism threat?

A. One security expert in France described things to me in this way: "Our services are capable of dealing with counter-espionage and organized crime, where you wait patiently for the other side to make a move and only then respond. In counter-terrorism you can't wait, because that means people will get killed and it needs a different mindset, legal procedures and training which take years." That said, the French services are very professional, but hampered by a lack of resources (particularly personnel) and the difficulty of sharing information with other countries in Europe where terror attacks are being planned and prepared. Nothing is new about these problems, but they take years to fix and the French (and other European nations) are working on this. The fact that many terror attacks have been prevented shows that they are getting some things right.

Q. Did new encryption technology allow ISIS to go undetected?

A. No. There has been a lot of reports on how ISIS cells are using all manners of encryption, from the Telegram messaging app and PS4 game consoles. It's mainly true but none of this is unbreakable or undetectable. It adds layers of work for the agencies involved in electronic surveillance and tracking but don't forget that their software and computing-power is growing all the time as well. It's kind of a high-tech arms race but I certainly wouldn't say that ISIS has gone undetected.

Anshel PfefferCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Q. Do European intelligence services have the ability to prevent future attacks? Will they begin taking intelligence from Arab state governments more seriously?

A. European security services are preventing attacks daily. A lot of the reporting done on this that makes them look the Keystone Cops is ridiculous. Their inadequacies are, as I wrote above, mainly a shortage of manpower and problems of coordination within Europe. As for intelligence from Arab state governments, I think that it is taken seriously, but then so much intelligence that comes from foreign sources is little more than vague indications. And, of course, there is always the concern that it is "tainted" by various political and regional interests.

Q. Do you think France has anything to learn regarding security from Israel?

A. Without a question. They can learn methods, technology, intelligence-sharing. Hopefully they will also learn what not to do.

Q. Are fears that civil liberties may be infringed upon by new security measures at all based in reality?

A. The short answer to that is yes. The balance between security and civil liberties is shifting and we should be vigilant about that. There are efficient measures that can be taken to combat terror in Europe that will only have a relatively minimal effect on civil rights, but you have to accept that they will have some effect and that in the transitional period, there will be overreach by the security services. I think that one of the main fields where there will have to be changes is in the field of metadata collecting. In the media environment since the Snowden revelations, this is particularly controversial, but weighed against what can be achieved using metadata, when employed wisely, I think this is a relatively acceptable sacrifice.

Q. What is the long-term prognosis for European cities as you can see it today? Are we looking at a radically changing security environment?

A. It's impossible to make such a prediction. Every national government and every city will react differently. I remember being in London ten years ago on the day of the 7/7 bombings when it seemed that the entire city, denied of public transport, was just sitting around, waiting things out in the pub. Paris last week also stuck to its normal routines – the bars and brasseries were packed as normal (though what you saw on television was the Eiffel Tower blacked-out). On the other hand, we just had a three-day shutdown in Brussels, and Boston also shut down while the manhunt was on for the Marathon bombers. I think that it's not fair to criticize either reaction, but I admit I prefer the Keep Calm and Carry on Drinking attitude of Paris and London and hope/believe that won't change despite the prospect of further attacks.

Q. With regards to the European security environment, you say that each government will react differently, so let's focus on France. Do you think the French government is likely to undergo a massive overhaul of its security operations?

A. French President Francois Hollande announced last week that the number of government employees working in counter-terrorism will be doubled over the next two years, so I think that certainly counts as a massive overhaul. The real question however is conceptual. Can the current setup of the security services be adapted to the changing nature of the threat? I don't think the French have a complete answer for that yet. Like every other government, they suffer from inter-agency rivalries and as a central member of the European Union, any decision they make has to some degree be coordinated with the other EU members who aren't doing a very good job of working together of late.

Q. Will the recent attacks spur French immigration to Israel? Do Jews feel safer in France or Israel?

A. How can anyone answer on behalf of French or Israeli Jews where they feel safer? I know many Jews in both countries who feel much safer where they live now and vice versa. Regarding the growing numbers of French Jews immigrating to Israel, it's important to remember one thing: no-one just decides to emigrate and does so the next the day. Emigration from a Western country is a process of decision-making, planning and implementation, which usually takes years. It doesn't just happen because of one terror attack, and from most French Jews I've spoken to, the reasons for leaving are much more financial (taxation in particular) than security-related. France has been going through some tough economic times, job prospects there aren't great and last year around 300,000 French citizens left the country. It's true that the proportion of Jews leaving is higher than their share of the general population, but French Jews have an obvious destination in Israel and nearly always have family already living there, so in some ways, it's easier for them to make the decision. Fear of terror attacks plays a part in their decision-process but so does fear of terror attacks in Israel.

Q. Given France's inability to integrate Muslim immigrants into society thus far, do you think it will become less habitable for French Jewry as more refugees enter? If it does become worse for French Jews, how does this complicate the stance French Jews should take on refugees given our own history in Europe? Seems like a lose-lose situation.

A. I think that talking of France's "inability" to integrate Muslim immigrants ignores the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of French Muslims who have acquired middle-class status and are well-integrated, as well as the fact that those who have been "self-radicalized" and embarked on a course of Islamist terrorism are a tiny majority. France is still eminently "habitable" for Jews; it's government takes their security very seriously, many of them have very comfortable lives there and Jewish culture and institutions are flourishing. That doesn't mean there are not security concerns and tensions with the Muslim community, but when has Jewish life in any part of the world been carefree?

Q. What's the point of representatives of German Jewry asking for an upper limit to refugees accepted (contrary to German constitution)?

A. Good question. And what's the point of a Jewish organization in the U.S. like ZOA coming out against accepting and welcoming Syrian refugees in America? I have a lot to say about this, most of it pretty nasty and I'll probably dedicate my column to this on Friday. For now, I'll just say that nothing in any version of Jewish values and history justifies not welcoming refugees fleeing what is happening now in Syria.

Q. What are the arguments for and against comparing recent attacks in Israel with those in France?

A. They are comparable up to the point that both are the result of religious fanaticism and target civilians. But terrorism is also political violence and therefore cannot be devoid of political context. While there are some ideological similarities, there are also major differences between the threat of jihadist terror in Europe and the attacks carried out within the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To pick apart the distinctions and connections would take a whole book, at least. Let's say they're cousins, not brothers. What will be interesting to compare in the coming months and years is the different reactions of European societies, less accustomed to dealing with terror attacks, and that of Israel.

Q. Are Jews in different European countries and in Israel facing the same level of threat?

A. Of course not. Each country has its own special circumstances and there are different ways of assessing levels of threat. On statistics alone, Israelis still have a higher chance of getting killed in a violent attack than European Jews and Jews living in Paris are safer than those living in Jerusalem. But statistics isn't everything. Israelis are more used to living with hamatzav, "the situation," whereas the changes to life in Europe, even if the actual chances of becoming a target are very small, are more jarring.

Q. How do you see the situation of the U.K. Jewish community vis-a-vis mainland Europe?

A. It's no coincidence we have yet to see a serious attack taking place against Jews in Britain. It's not because there haven't been attempts and plans to carry one out. Britain and its Jews have a number of things going for them. First, the intelligence and security services there (and the Special Branch of the police) are widely regarded as the most professional and best-prepared in Europe. Without going into too much detail, they have been effectively covering the threat for years now. Second, the level of cooperation between the U.K. government and the Jewish community on security matters is very high, so high that one official involved in that engagement said to me earlier this year "it's almost impossible to see what more we can do." Third, British Jewry is quite literally blessed with the Community Security Trust (CST), without question the most sensible and well-organized Jewish communal security group anywhere in the Diaspora. Fourth, Britain of course has an advantage on other European countries being an island and having more effective controls on the entrance of weapons and potential perpetrators.

Q. Do the latest events make you more or less hopeful for the future of European Jews?

A. I honestly can't say that it changes my assessment of the viability of a Jewish future in Europe. No minority in the world has suffered as the Jews in Europe have and yet persevered and are now more prosperous than ever. This wave of terror attacks, without belittling it any way, is not something that should faze European Jews unduly. The real challenges are the ones facing Europe as a whole: Can the continent renew itself? Can an ageing population integrate new minorities? Does the European Union have a future? Islamist terror is just one of the symptoms of Europe's troubles. If Europe overcomes these challenges and remains an open and successful continent, as it has been in the post-World War Two era, then it will continue to have vibrant Jewish communities. If Europe fails, its Jews will always have Israel and America. I still believe Europe will win.

We're just about to wrap up, but there's one last question we got from a notorious Twitter troll that I'm going to answer anyway.

Q. What do you do when one of your columnists writes stuff like this? ("Jews of France, There Is Nothing for You in Israel," by Rogel Alpher, Nov. 21, 2015.)

A. I feel intensely proud to write for a newspaper like Haaretz, the only newspaper in the Middle East that isn't afraid to challenge its readers, speak truth to power, ask tough questions and print provocative opinions.

And that's it. Thanks for all those who sent in questions and apologies to those I didn't have time to answer.

Follow Anshel on Twitter: @AnshelPfeffer.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: