January 9, 2018 — Paris, France
Three years after the terror attacks against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, we checked in with the Paris-based Director of AJC Europe, Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, to get an update on the state of the French Jewish community.
How has the mood among French Jews changed in the three years since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher?
French Jews have mixed and sometimes contradictory feelings. They well recall the images of millions of people demonstrating in the streets to protest the attacks as well as the many messages of solidarity, but they are also well aware of the long road ahead before such sentiments translate into genuine reality.
I fear that since France has been targeted numerous times by terrorists even after these attacks, the population has begun to get used to this threat, which suddenly burst upon the scene just a few years ago.
For example, the antisemitic murder of Sarah Halimi last April, during the presidential campaign, should have been a painful reminder of the dangerous reality, but was greeted instead with widespread indifference.
More recently, on December 17, during a Paris demonstration in response to Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, protesters aggressively chanted antisemitic abuse. Similar manifestations of antisemitic hatred surfaced in Gothenburg, Malmö, Berlin, Munich.... And little was done to stop them. This naturally sends a message to the Jewish communities that the fight against antisemitism is not being taken seriously.
However, it is important to remember that the French authorities are on our side. President Emmanuel Macron has been clear on this issue: the French government will continue to fight antisemitism and also anti-Zionism, which, in his words, is a “reinvented form of antisemitism.”
Do you feel that French society has responded appropriately, in a way that will have lasting consequences?
After the rally on January 11 2015, which drew more than 4 million people, many hoped that this would function as a wake-up call, uniting the left and the right against radicalization and the populist backlash to it, in order to protect our national interests.
It did, indeed, waken some elements of French society to the crisis of Islamic extremism, but there is still, unfortunately, widespread apathy. The fractures in French society still persist, and to some extent have even widened. Radicalization is intensifying. Many on the extreme left align themselves with Islamists, while the populist hatred of the extreme right continues to attract new adherents. Many who wanted to keep the spirit of January 11 alive are being marginalized.
We must keep in mind that the extreme right and its leader Marine Le Pen made it to the final round of the French presidential elections last May. But the election of President Macron, who seeks to represent a broad spectrum of moderate parties, shows that extremism has not won, and there is still hope for real change.
The government will present two new plans in the coming weeks: one dedicated to the fight against radicalization, and the other against racism, antisemitism, and homophobia. Although we have great expectations for both plans, issues such as the integration of migrants, radicalization, the lack of education, and antisemitism are deeply rooted problems. To solve them, our country and European societies in general need to question themselves and rethink how to strengthen our democratic system and way of life, which are in serious crisis.
What steps are French Jews taking to stay safe? Are they hiding their Jewish identity in public? Are they considering leaving the country?
It depends on where in France they live and how religious they are. The reality for a religious, “visible” Jew who lives in the difficult outskirts of Paris or Lyon, in the banlieues, will be very different than for a secular Jew who lives in an upscale neighborhood. For the first group, living a Jewish life entails making courageous decisions every day. Going out of the house, putting on a yarmulke, going to synagogue, bringing children to a Jewish school—each of these acts take courage. Seeing soldiers every time one visits the synagogue or the school serves as a reminder that he or she, and one’s entire family, are potential targets. Many of them do not have the financial means to move to a better neighborhood, and so leaving France becomes a realistic alternative.
For the secular Jew, staying safe has a different meaning, since these individuals rarely attend synagogue or Jewish events, and are less likely to send their children to a Jewish school. There is little fear of physical attack, yet even such Jews are experiencing growing concern about threats to their identity. Can they maintain the balance between their Jewish and French identities? They worry that one day they might be forced to make a choice.
Is the problem of European antisemitism on the way to being solved? What would that solution look like?
Antisemitism has become structural, the symptom of a deep crisis in our liberal democracies. Solving the problem will be a long and difficult process requiring a lot of work. President Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other leaders continue to take courageous positions. But there is no simple answer, no one-size-fits-all solution. A lot has to be done in the areas of integration, education, counter-radicalization, law reinforcement and application, in monitoring the internet, and promoting civil society movements to combat this scourge.
More also needs to be done to reinforce democratic and pluralistic values in France. The very essence of a free, democratic society is its capacity to protect minorities. Enhancing democracy will assist the fight against antisemitism, and vice versa.
As I said, the road will be long and difficult. There will be setbacks and disappointments, but we here at AJC Europe are more committed than ever to fight antisemitism and protect the values of democracy and pluralism for generations to come.