PARIS — Arriving in a city which has just come under a major terror attack, there is the expectation that you will see armed soldiers and police everywhere. Of course, no matter what they show and tell you on television, that is rarely ever the case — even after the French government on Saturday morning ordered 1,500 troops to reinforce security forces in the capital, you still saw them only very occasionally at Metro stations and other locations. This week in Paris, there was only one place I saw saturated with gun-toting gendarmes, soldiers and private security guards. You guessed it — outside the Grand Synagogue on Sunday night as the Jewish community held an official memorial service for the 130 people killed in the attacks.
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There was something a bit strange and unfocused about the service, and not just because there seemed to be more security personnel outside than congregants within. An hour earlier the national memorial service had taken place at Notre Dame Cathedral, with President Francois Hollande and other leaders. Of course, there was a junior minister and a deputy mayor and a senior imam and a bishop who attended the Jewish service as well, but it wasn’t exactly clear quite how the assorted Jewish leaders and representatives felt this latest terror attack touched their community. Who and what were they mourning? I don’t mean to suggest they were not grieving the deaths in their city, quite the opposite. But after two previous terror attacks, Toulouse in 2012 and early this year in Paris, in both of which Jews had been specifically targeted, it was suddenly strange for the Jews not to be on the receiving end. After all, aren’t we always the target?
Even in the Mumbai terror attacks seven years ago, it wasn’t enough for them to murder people at the hotels and the train station, they had to go and find the Chabad House on a back street and kill everyone there as well. So strange not to be the target that when on Wednesday, a Jewish teacher was stabbed and moderately wounded in Marseille, you could almost feel the sigh of relief — finally things are back to normal and they’ve come for the Jews again.
'This time it's different'
It was strange not only for the Jews — people I met in the 11th arrondissement, around the restaurants and bars and the Bataclan Theatre that had been attacked, spoke about how “this time it’s different. Last time they attacked journalists and this time it’s all of us.” They couldn’t bring themselves to say “Jews” but it was there. Somehow there is something understandable about murdering journalists and Jews, not justifiable of course, but still something within the realm of reason. This sentiment wasn’t heard only among random residents of Paris or even just the French; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said very much the same in a particularly shameful statement he made upon arriving in Paris this week.
“There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, OK, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate,” Kerry said. And he didn’t even mention the Jews murdered at the Hyper Cacher attack on the same week of Charlie Hebdo, because they were an even more obviously a rational target. It goes without saying.
Jewish representatives I spoke to on the record in Paris this week stuck to the same line used by French politicians that “this was an attack against all of France, against all French people, just like the previous attacks in Paris and Toulouse were against all France as well, even if they targeted Jews and journalists.” But murder, even when it’s random and multiplied, still chooses the identity of its victims with care, and beneath the official national mourning, not everyone I met in Paris this week seemed to think those killed were simply “all French people.”
Some locals wanted them to be remembered just as “people of Paris,” citizens of an international city without borders, not members of a national collective who can be used for political purposes. And then of course there are those who thought the victims in Paris were just privileged Westerners. After all, as some have asked this week, why are they getting so much more attention now than the 43 people killed last week in Beirut in two bombings by ISIS? And why more than the 224 victims of the exploded Russian airliner in Sinai three weeks ago, the 102 murdered last month by suicide bombers in Ankara and the 148 killed in April at the Garissa College in Kenya? All were murdered by Islamic extremists, yet none of these atrocities received exposure similar to the blanket coverage this week of the Paris attacks.
Every one was human, every one a victim. Why are Jews more obvious? Why are Westerners more newsworthy?
There is of course, as Kerry said, a “rationale” that can explain why the media pay more attention to Western victims of terror attacks. Just as there are reasons, historical and political, to assume that Jews would be the obvious victims. And it aggravates many. Which is why a BBC reporter at the January mass rally in Paris, following the murders at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher, for some reason thought it was suitable to say to a Jewish woman marching in solidarity that Palestinians “suffer hugely at Jewish hands,” as if it was somehow relevant. And this week Swedish Foreign Mininster Margot Wallstrom, in an interview on the Paris attacks, mentioned the Palestinians’ situation as a reason for the radicalization that causes some young European Muslims to carry out such attacks.
No, of course they’re not comparing and justifying, but it is telling, this need to mention those who have been made victims by the Jewish state in connection with attacks that have nothing to do with Israel.
And now, in the wake of the attacks, a bitter argument is raging in Europe and America over whether Syrian immigrants should be welcomed in the West. Jews are being dragged into that as well. Apparently, those who object to accepting the immigrants are akin to politicians in the 1930s who refused to allow Jews into their countries, dooming them to die in the Holocaust. There are of course compelling reasons why the West should provide sanctuary to refugees of war and repression, it is simply the right thing to do. So why cheapen them and the memory of the Jews exterminated in Europe with such shallow and shoddy historical comparions? Ironically, those now comparing the Syrians and the Jews fleeing Nazi persecution are exactly the same left-wing pundits who are the first to, quite rightly, accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of exploiting the Holocaust for his own political agenda.
Jews and Israel will be always be dragged in, whether we like it or not, so we should be making this point anyway. Each of these people were murdered for a reason. Those trying to contextualize and rationalize some deaths and some victims always do so with their own agenda. People aren’t just killed randomly or indiscriminately. Whether it’s in the 11th arrondissement, Bourj al-Barajneh or Tel Aviv.