Liberty. The right to protest is planted deep in the French ethos. From the French Revolution in 1789 through the 1968 student rebellions and countless social protests, France sanctifies the right to protest. So when the country’s leaders decided in recent weeks to ban some pro-Gaza demonstrations, some of the French found it infuriating.
When the organizers of some of the banned protests decided to take to the streets nevertheless, the police’s fear that the show of support would turn into anti-Jewish riots proved justified.
Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, but it was still a blow to the country, which had thought that after the horrors of the Vichy Regime, Jews would never again be targeted solely for their religious affiliation.
The burning question now does not concern the right to protest, but whether Jews in France can openly and freely express their identity without risking physical assault.
The disturbing answer is that, despite the efforts of the authorities, first and foremost the president and the prime minister, Jews are now afraid to walk down some of the streets in France.
Equality. To explain what is happening, some in Israel are quick to talk about an “intifada” by first- and second-generation immigrants in France. This definition is far from accurate. More than almost every other conflict on the planet, the Palestinian issue is an effective fuse for the French powder keg. But this still doesn’t really explain why, when the IDF is operating in Gaza, a youth whose parents immigrated from Algeria goes out to throw rocks at the shop where Mrs. Cohen buys kosher meat.
The fact that France is home to the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Western Europe makes it ripe for trouble, a place where movements of the tectonic plates in the Middle East almost inevitably lead to earthquake.
Beyond the religious question, social elements are also clearly a part of these events. The sense of not belonging shared by many Muslim youth makes them direct their anger at the French establishment and the Jews who are perceived as its darlings.
This, of course, is a dismaying return to the old anti-Semitism. Poverty and inequality do not justify anti-Jewish violence, but they certainly help to fuel it.
Fraternity. Bottom line – the problem now being revealed in all its ugliness in the riots in France is not just a Jewish problem; it’s a French problem. The French social compact, which aspires to create a homogenous society blind to differences of religion and background, has been crumbling for years. This is particularly troubling because, outside of Israel and the United States, France is the place where Jews have reached some very impressive achievements.
Yet, French Jews are feeling increasingly alienated from French society. The images – broadcast in France as well – of hundreds of French Jews who have chosen to move to Israel even now, in the midst of war, underscore that point.
France, with all its incredible bounty, cannot give these new immigrants what war-battered Israel offers – a sense of belonging.
But a France without a large and self-assured Jewish community that places its trust in the state will be nothing less than a disaster – for the French, for the Jews, and for anyone who ever believed in the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
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