Early in the morning last Wednesday, when Paris' Saint-Denis neighborhood awoke to the wails of the sirens, the shouts of police from the special anti-terror unit and the echo of their heavy shoes in the alleyways – suddenly the ostensibly exaggerated declaration by French President Francois Holland that “This is war” penetrated all the media outlets in France.
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The 5,000 volleys of gunfire that were heard apparently established an awareness: The terror attacks of “black Friday” are no longer an isolated event, they are the beginning of an era with a bitter beginning, whose end is wrapped in gloomy uncertainty.
The sad but proud solidarity that washed over Europe this week with the singing of "La Marseillaise" and festive promises to stand shoulder to shoulder with France in its battle against terror and extremist Islam, was quickly replaced by the deployment of heavy security forces in the airports and the call-up of the army and armed police units in the wake of genuine or false warnings. While the French army was bombing terror targets and armed forces were patrolling presumably quiet Parisian neighborhoods, Belgian security services were raiding Brussels suburbs that the police usually refrain from entering.
If this is war, French society has yet to organize itself to take care of civilians who are being harmed by it: the hundreds of bereaved families – parents and husbands and wives and orphaned infants and children, the thousands of residents who witnessed the horror and many of whom are suffering from shock and anxiety, and so on.
On this issue Israel, which has been dealing with terror attacks and onslaughts of missiles for decades, can actually be of assistance. But we’re too busy dispensing security advice, not to mention exhibiting foolish schadenfreude at the sight of “those nave people” who didn’t realize what kind of world they’re living in.
In that connection, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making a laughingstock of himself with his advice to the French regarding the war against terror. For the Europeans, the topic of Israel arouses the memory of colonialism, from whose old filth they are still trying to cleanse themselves. Every stone and every knife in Israel reminds them of something else, even the opposite, of the attacks on their soil. Perhaps it’s not so pleasant, but what can you do, c’est la vie.
Whatever the case, the world in which the French and their neighbors live is so different from our world in Israel that we are incapable of understanding the depth of the humiliation that comes on top of the anger and the horror and the pain at the loss.
Europe doesn’t live in la-la-land as people here tend to think. On the contrary: It has been mired for a long time in a profound crisis, whose signs are particularly grave in France. More than the expression cited above, since the early years of the millennium the most common remark is “c’est la crise,” as the explanation for every phenomenon.
The “crise” is reflected in every area: serious unemployment among young people, a decline in health and welfare services, a reduction in support for cultural institutions, including publishers and writers, cutbacks in academia and more. All these are having a very negative effect on the national mood and are eroding social solidarity.
And when social solidarity erodes, France’s old monsters raise their heads: ultranationalism and racism. It’s not happening only in France. It’s happening all over Europe, as is the Church’s tendency to ignore the process of dying that has ostensibly been forced on it by the secular-liberal enlightenment, and its clash with the Muslim immigrant populations.
The serious crisis in Greece has only illustrated the renewed power of Germany compared to the other members of the European Union. The wave of refugees that is flooding the Continent from that same weak link – the Greek islands – and is flowing toward the same strong link – Germany, is intensifying this uncomfortable feeling.
Now it seems that terror is managing to confuse Europe and to sell it the crude lie that it and the refugees emerge from the same dark hole and constitute the same danger. And here, at this very point, lies Europe’s critical decision – as to whether it will be able not only to receive the newcomers (something with which it has already dealt hundreds of times in the past), but also how to open up and change together with them.
Will Europe be able to preserve and nurture the important idea that established the EU, with all its limitations – open borders and regional cooperation? Will today’s young people, who even have parents who were born after the last major war, continue to believe in pan-European pluralism and not be pushed back into the ultranationalist isolationism and the ethnic-racist seclusion that led their continent to such terrible disasters?
If this is war, it’s possible to fight and to win. The leader of the British Labor Party, Jeremy Corbin, was the only one this week who spoke logically about the simplest means of weakening the Islamic State: by stopping its funding by the large banks in Europe, and drying up the movement's ability to acquire weapons. But the Greek crisis has proved that the real leaders of Europe are the banks – 1,000 times more than the Iron Lady, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That’s why his proposal will probably not be greeted with enthusiasm.
It’s a shame. Because such steps, accompanied by close intelligence cooperation and increasing the personal security of European citizens (something most of them agree with in any case) could have signaled to the world that Europe is prepared for an uncompromising battle – and without losing its humanity. Massive absorption of refugees, now of all times, would make it even clearer that terror will not dictate the agenda to this scarred old lady.