Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre I have been reporting on what I see and hear in Paris. Next week I promise to return to more entertaining subjects. Until then, there is so much going on; cyber-attacks, an apology from the US, and the distribution of 5 million copies of Charlie Hebdo as France rallies to support the right to freedom of expression, even if they were never big fans of the publication. It is horrific that journalists and police officers were killed for what they do, but even more unsettling are those who had no choice. Jews who were killed for what they are.
Its not easy being a Jew in France today. In 2006 a young man, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered because he was Jewish. In 2012 a Jewish school was attacked: 3 children, 1 adult and 3 soldiers died. Last month a couple was robbed in their apartment in Creteil and the wife was raped, because, according to the criminals, they were Jewish. Then there was Hyper Casher…
When I am asked if France is antisemitic, I still answer with an emphatic, “No”. These acts were committed by Extremists. Extremism is not just a French problem. It is a global issue, that has even the Israeli government scrambling to protect its population.
After the attacks, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, “Antisemitism is not an opinion, it is a crime.” and legally that’s true. French law defends free speech until it incites hatred. Saying that the holocaust never happened is illegal and it has been for a very long time. It is legal for the illustrators at Charlie Hebdo to draw an image of Muhammad carrying the “Je Suis Charlie” sign because the message is tolerance. By the same token, comedian Dieudonné’s* joke about wanting to deport a Jew incites hatred and is illegal.
M Valls also declared that without Jews, France would no longer be France. Jews are an integral thread in the cosmopolitan fabric of the country and the population thrives. Last year’s Nobel Prize for literature is a French Jew, Jews are prominent in national politics, and fashion designer John Galliano has been a pariah in the French fashion world since making antisemitic comments. The French government is doing what it can to protect the Jewish population, most recently deploying 10,500 soldiers to protect Jews and their establishments. Therein lies the problem. Many are asking themselves if they want to live in a country where they need military protection. It is scary knowing that not very far from my front door, there are gangs of people who would not mind seeing me dead simply for something I did not choose and can not change.
Locals news has been asking Jews how they feel living in France. The overwhelming consensus is that they are not afraid for their own safety, but they are very worried for their children. Passing armed soldiers, going through a metal detector, and being pat searched to enter a house of prayer is intimidating. Seeing soldiers, their hands on their weapons as parents take their children to school, feels like war. It is heart breaking.
Jews have not gone into hiding. Religious Jews are still on the streets wearing kippot, shopping in kosher markets and heading into synagogues. That is what Jews do, go on with life, defying those who would end it. Hopefully this defiance will remind the world of the words of Franklin D Roosevelt as he united a country shortly before the Second World War: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”
*Dieudonné is a local comedian who is often in trouble with French authorities for his antisemitism. It strikes me as tragically ironic that his name translate to “God Given”