So Much for Je Suis Charlie: Has France Moved on Too Quickly?

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, many ache to return to normalcy, but is that even possible?

Tamar Shiloh Vidon
Tamar Shiloh Vidon
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French citizens and journalists in Havana take part in a demo in front of France's Embassy in Havana, on January 11, 2015.
French citizens and journalists in Havana take part in a demo in front of France's Embassy in Havana, on January 11, 2015.Credit: AFP
Tamar Shiloh Vidon
Tamar Shiloh Vidon

On Tuesday I went, as I do every week, to play tennis in the little tennis club of my small Parisian suburb. I had considered skipping it - it had been a long, hard week, and I had this piece to write. But in the end I went, because I hadn’t seen my tennis partners since the previous Tuesday, before France was turned upside-down by a series of terrorist attacks.

I was curious to hear what these three French women - mothers, not Jewish, not journalists - and our coach, would say about the week’s events. Did it affect them as it affected me? Did they experience the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on the Jewish supermarket as a seismic shock? Did they feel, as I had, that last week’s events could change everything in France: the approach to Jews, to Muslims, to religious freedom, to security?

To my great surprise and disappointment, the answer was no. Not even a week had passed and already I felt as though they’d moved on and would rather not be bothered by my insistence to talk about the devastation and the need for something to be done to avoid other attacks in the future.

“Maybe all of this will teach the Charlie Hebdo people to be more careful and try not to be so provocative – not everybody is well-educated, and some people react to provocation with violence, it’s too dangerous,” one of my tennis partners said.

So much for Je Suis Charlie.

She wasn’t the only one to tell me this. My neighbor, a religious Catholic woman, told me. “It’s not good to mock the religion of others. Maybe the Charlie Hebdo folk took the liberty of mocking other religions because they themselves don’t believe in anything.”

They didn’t mock religions, I told my neighbor; they ridiculed dangerous extremists. Caricaturists shouldn’t have to restrain their pens - it’s inconceivable that in France commentary could be punishable by death, I told my tennis partner.

Of course many in France reacted to the events very differently. My family and I were badly shaken, maybe because we’re Jewish, and four of the 17 people killed last week were murdered for being Jewish; and maybe because I’m a journalist, and terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo over the content produced by its journalists.

Nearly two million people took to the streets of Paris on Sunday to honor the dead and to stand up to those who threaten France’s basic principles. World leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu, came to show solidarity.

I couldn’t attend because I was at work, participating in the production of Monday’s newspaper. My husband and I hesitated briefly about whether he should brave the crowded metro and throngs of demonstrators with the children.

“What difference does it make if you go to the rally?” my father asked me on the phone from Jerusalem, partly serious, partly provoking.

I wasn’t sure, but I felt it would make a difference. We are all Charlie, after all. We’re Charlie, we’re Jewish, and we live in France, and something has got to change. Maybe if everybody came, it would force the government to really act - though I’m not sure how - to ensure that every single peace-loving person in France, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, atheist or other, can live here without fear. And maybe attending this rally would help my children understand that this was really a big deal.

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, my husband and I thought we should try to explain what was happening to the children. Not to the youngest (she’s five-years-old), but to our boys, who are 8 and 10-years-old. The following day at noon there would be a moment of silence at all schools and we wanted them to understand why. We told them what had happened and we tried to explain, without scaring them, what gave these events historic importance. What freedom of expression meant. What these terrorists were trying to kill. What needed to be defended.

“Are you going to die, too?” one of them asked, immediately making the connection – journalists are targets. The other then told me his plan if the terrorists came to our house, how he’d hide behind the pantry and then sneak behind the terrorists, through the kitchen, and get his swords (foam and plastic), which he would use to defend us all.

I told them terrorists would never come to our house, nor to my newspaper, because they just weren’t interested in us. As I spoke, I crossed my fingers: Please let it be so.

In the meantime, work e-mails assured me that security would be increased at the newspaper. Tensions were high. On Thursday, the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been identified but not yet captured. A police officer was shot dead by an unknown assailant whose connection to the first attack was not yet clear and who got away, and on Friday the same assailant (as we later learned), Amedy Coulibaly, entered a kosher grocery in eastern Paris and took many hostages, killing four of them. Coulibaly was also the name of our first nanny, 10 years ago -- a coincidence that sent chills down our spine. What if they were related? Probably not: Coulibaly is common West African name.

All of a sudden this was no longer an attack on freedom of expression; it was, again, an attack against Jews.

There have been many attacks on Jews over the past few years, and thousands of Jews have decided France is no longer safe and have left. In March 2012, four Jews, a rabbi and three small children, were killed in a brutal attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse. That killer, like these, claimed to act in the name of Islam. Days before targeting Jews, he killed a French paratrooper and two French soldiers. The country was devastated, but it quickly moved on.

Attacks on Jews, though always very strongly condemned by the French establishment, are often minimized as simply part of an inter-community, inter-religious quarrel stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As millions poured into the streets last weekend, I thought maybe, coming on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the killings in the kosher grocery would affect the French in a different way. Maybe, coming on the heels of Charlie Hebdo, and carried out by a terrorist affiliated with the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, this attack would demonstrate that this had nothing to do with Israel. That this was an attack on the dearest, most fundamental values of the French Republic. Killing people for expressing their opinions in penned caricatures and killing people for their religion is the same thing: It is an attack on all of France.

This, in fact, was what French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared loudly and clearly at the French Parliament Tuesday: “Without the Jews of France, France would no longer be France.” Adding: “An attack on the Jews of France is an attack on France and an attack on the universal conscience. Let’s never forget this.”

This is how I felt, too, but suddenly my husband and I were asking ourselves if the time had come to tell the children that they should not tell anybody they were Jewish.

I told this to a Jewish-American friend who returned to the United States about a year ago after living in France 11 years with her Jewish-French husband. And I told her that I had considered sending my 5-year-old to an art class at the local Jewish community center once a week, but that now I was having second thoughts due to safety concerns. She was speechless. And as I said these things, I, myself, was appalled.

How can I say “I am Charlie,” meaning, “we will not bow down and give in to blood-thirsty, freedom-killing thugs” and at the same time tell my children, here in France in 2015, “hide the fact that you’re Jewish?”

I can’t and I won’t. And this is what I tried to explain to my friends at the tennis club. Satiric caricaturists, as long as they’re not inciting to violence, must not be censored and should not be expected to censor themselves, just as nobody in France should have to hide their religion or beliefs.

I hope the enormous demonstration of solidarity that followed the horrors of last week will strengthen us and that we will overcome our apprehension and follow the example of the caricaturists who, despite the threats, stood up for their principles.

Tamar Shiloh Vidon lives and works as a journalist in Paris.

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