What the Jews of France Can Teach the Jews of America

Our liberalism is due, in large part, to the freakishly fortunate experience we've had in the United States.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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French and American flags wave in front of the Newseum's First Amendment tablet during the Unity Rally on January 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
French and American flags wave in front of the Newseum's First Amendment tablet during the Unity Rally on January 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

My grandmother never lived in France. Her family hailed from Greece, Turkey and before that, Spain. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, moved to what is now Lubumbashi in the Congo and then onto Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived out her days. But, culturally, she was French. French was her first language and her second identity. Her first, of course, was being a Jew.

I can imagine what she would have said about the murders in Paris. She would have said she was not surprised. She would have said that this is what they do and why Israel is our only real home. And if I had asked whom she meant by “they,” she would have shot me an annoyed look and said, “the Arabs, the Muslims, you know.” And then she would have reminded me – as she reminded me all my life – that she grew up with “them” and I did not.

I don’t see the world the way my grandmother does. I don’t like vague and menacing talk about “them.” I don’t like it because it is inaccurate: Islam is a religion with more than a billion followers, most of them non-Arabs. Violent Jihadists are a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims, and they mostly kill members of their own faith.

And I don’t like this language of “them” because it hardens our hearts. When we stop distinguishing between a small totalitarian political movement and a vast, diverse religion, we begin seeing all Muslims as potential terrorists. We erase their humanity. And by succumbing to an all-encompassing, irrational fear, we free ourselves of any moral obligation except to survive. One need look no further than last week’s Parsha (Torah portion) to know where that leads. In the Jewish world today, it turns otherwise-decent people into apologists for a brutal colonial system that in the West Bank has denied Palestinians the most basic of rights – the right to be a citizen of the state in which you live – for almost half a century.

But nothing in the previous two paragraphs would have convinced my grandmother. Her all-purpose response to such arguments – “I grew up with them” – was her way of saying that her beliefs flowed from her experience. And so did mine.

It’s a point that liberal, post-Holocaust, post-Six-Day War, American-born Jews like me should remember. Compared to Jews at many other moments in history, and many other countries around the globe, our experience has been freakishly fortunate. Twenty-first-century America is not only not anti-Semitic; it’s wildly philo-Semitic. We live in a country whose most powerful political couple, the Clintons, not only happily married off their daughter to a Jew, but happily married off their daughter to a Jew standing under a chuppah wearing a kippah and tallit.

Our liberalism is a product of that experience. It naturally inclines us toward a more benign view of gentiles and of human nature itself. And it shapes our view of Israel. If you’re a young Jew living in the United States today, you may have contemplated moving to Israel out of ideological or religious fervor. But unlike many young Jews in France, you’ve never contemplated moving there out of fear. And if you see Israel as a political experiment rather than a potential refuge, you’re more likely to judge it harshly.

The fact that our liberalism stems from an abnormally favorable life experience does not make it wrong. After all, American liberalism itself is the product of an abnormally favorable experience. Were the United States bordered by powerful, hostile neighbors rather than Canada, Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it’s unlikely we’d have built and sustained a democratic system of government framed by a Bill of Rights. But when Americans forget the connection between our beliefs and our experience – and decide that our political values can easily take hold in societies with a radically different experience – we court disaster.

The same is true for liberal American Jews. We have every right to argue for a more nuanced and humane view of Muslims, and for the moral necessity of Palestinian human rights. But unless we better understand – and more strongly identify with – the life experience of Jews more vulnerable than ourselves, our arguments will have little impact. I’m a great fan of the organization Encounter, which takes American Jews to meet Palestinians in the West Bank. But maybe it’s time for programs that bring American Jews to meet the French Sephardim now considering aliyah (immigration to Israel) or those former Soviet Jews now voting for Avigdor Lieberman. One of the things I most appreciate about the annual J Street Conference is that – unlike its AIPAC equivalent – it gives American Jews the chance to hear from Palestinians. But perhaps this year, J Street should also devote some time at its conference to hearing from Jews from France and elsewhere in Europe. If they disagree with J Street’s agenda, so be it. J Streeters need to understand why.

Among many young liberal American Jews today, tribalism is a dirty word. Being Jewish represents a cultural identity or a spiritual journey but not a bond that creates a special obligation toward one’s fellow Jews. After speaking last year at the inaugural conference of Open Hillel – a group dedicated to a more open debate about Israel among Jews on campus – the sociologist Steven Cohen noted the participants’ “absolute rejection of any sense of privileging their personal and group connection with fellow Jews, with the Jewish People, and with Israel.”

Young liberal American Jews can make that choice. But they should not be surprised when other Jews – for whom tribal solidarity is less a choice than a necessity – respond with scorn.

When I first saw the hashtag “Je Suis Juif” in the wake of the Paris murders, I thought it was only for non-Jews. Then I realized I was wrong. The traumatized Jews of France don’t only need to know that well-meaning gentiles support them. They need to know that the privileged, secure Jews of America do too. And if some of us disagree with our French brethren about Islam, Palestinians and Israel – as I disagreed with my French grandmother – well, then they need to know they have our solidarity even more.



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