Who in France Will Shout, 'I Am a Jew'?

Thousands of Parisians took to the streets after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday. Where were they after Friday's deadly anti-Semitic attack?

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Sefy Hendler
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"Je suis Charlie" banner near the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine after the fatal terrorist attack, January. 10, 2015.
"Je suis Charlie" banner near the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine after the fatal terrorist attack, January. 10, 2015.Credit: AFP
New pic Hendler
Sefy Hendler

The silence that descended on Paris on the eve of Shabbat, after the echoes of shootings in the north and east of the city quieted down, was not light. It was thick, strangling, burdensome.

On Wednesday evening, after the massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, tens of thousands of French people took to the streets. They sang “La Marseillaise” loudly, and waved pencils to the heavens. For a moment, it seemed as if the 12 victims of the murder spree by Cherif and Said Kouachi had awakened France from its slumbers.

There were not only people with Christian roots among the victims, but also Jews by birth, like cartoonist Georges Wolinski, and Muslims such as Ahmed Merabet, the cop who was shot in cold blood while sprawled on the sidewalk.

The Republic was touched by this variety of victims, proud as it is of being blind to religious faith or ethnic origin. The pain was deep and authentic, and united an entire country in a belief in the justice of France’s way, one that believes in “liberty, equality and fraternity.”

On Friday afternoon, when its children were lying before it, France did not take to the streets again. Thousands of candles did not burn in front of the orphaned Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket. Maybe it was the shock, maybe the fear, maybe an infinite number of other reasons. But after the murders of Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen and François-Michel Saada – France stayed home.

Without hesitation, French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the right words, as they have been doing for a long time. The police, who acted bravely and under a clear threat to their own lives, stepped up its protection of the Jewish community. But the vast majority of “the children of the fatherland,” as the “Marseillaise” calls them, remained at home.

The demonstrations held around the country yesterday were, first and foremost, demonstrations under the banner of freedom of expression and Charlie Hebdo. Only a few thousand came to the demonstration organized by the umbrella organization of the French Jewish community, across from the supermarket where the killings happened, not tens of thousands.

The social networks – such a powerful tool in the psychodrama this week – were not flooded with a wave of support similar to that which filled Facebook and Twitter after Wednesday’s murderous attack.

On Wednesday evening, all of France declared “Je suis Charlie,” in what became the symbol of resistance to the barbarity – from Paris to New York. On Friday evening, there was no similar wave of pronouncements saying “I am a Jew,” even though the citizens who happened to be in the supermarket were murdered just because they were in a place that symbolizes their Jewish lifestyle.

There were, of course, quite a few French non-Jews who tweeted or wrote on their Facebook wall “Je suis Juif,” but it was a drop in the sea compared to the tsunami of “I am Charlie” posts that has led the public discourse. This gap is hard to explain.

The future of France will be decided in the coming days, weeks and months. The decision will be made in the triangle that France does not like to recognize the existence of – the religious trinity: Catholics (“French from their roots,” as they were commonly referred to in the era before political correctness); Muslims (“Children of immigrants,” as they are referred to – still – in France); and Jews (“Children of the faith of Moses,” as they were called in the days of Napoléon Bonaparte).

If these three, patently unequal, sides to the triangle produce an authentic, mutual voice, it is possible that France still has a future as a country with a universal message, for all mankind, as it has carried since the days of the French Revolution.

However, if the process of violent disintegration we are currently seeing continues, the triangle will collapse. The Jews will leave, some to Israel and some to the United States; more Muslims will be sucked into the process of extremism, in the most terrible case, or to apathy in the face of extremism in the worst case; and more and more French people from “the roots” will be pushed into the arms of Marine Le Pen’s Front National party, which has no practical solution to the present chaos.

An enlightened France of mile Zola defended, more than 100 years ago, two goals that were actually one: Equal rights for Jews and the freedom of speech. In an article published in May 1896 in Le Figaro, “In Defense of the Jews” – even before the Dreyfus Affair blew up – Zola wrote, “While we seek to bring peace, a handful of crazies, idiots and schemers scream at us every day: ‘Kill the Jews! Massacre and exterminate the Jews! Bring back the stake and the dragonnade!’” There is nothing more idiotic than this, nothing more disgusting, he wrote.

When a million, maybe even two million, French people go into the streets today to protest and protect the freedom of speech from the crazies of Islamic extremism, these words of Zola’s should not be forgotten. The other side of the equation cannot be forgotten. The bullets fired at the offices of the magazine reached all the way to the kosher supermarket, and this was far from a coincidence.

More than at any other time in its history, the fate of France is entwined with the fate of its Jews. And if it loses them, sooner or later it will also be lost.

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