The massive march today in France is a wonderful sight in many ways, and represents France’s rejection of efforts to crush freedom of expression and especially to ban criticism of Islam.
But in addition to the ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” slogans it would have been nice to see more “Je Suis Juif” signs as well. After all, the journalists of Charlie Hebdo knew exactly what risks they were running. Their offices had already been bombed, and the constant presence of two police guards (both murdered by the terrorists last week) was a powerful reminder of the dangers. The French Jews who were murdered were just shoppers, preparing for the Sabbath. The journalists were killed for their deliberate actions–challenging and criticizing Islamic beliefs. The Jews were killed for being Jews.
Terrorism against French Jews is not new. In 2012 a terrorist murdered three schoolchildren and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. There was no million-citizen march. And suppose that last week’s terror attack in Paris had not aimed at Charlie Hebdo, but “only” killed four Jews–or eight or twelve, for that matter. Does anyone believe a million French citizens would be marching in Paris, with scores of world leaders joining them? One is reminded of the synagogue bombing on Rue Copernic in Paris in 1980, after which Prime Minister Raymond Barre publicly declared that “A bomb set for Jews killed four innocent Frenchmen.” That shocking lack of solidarity– that definition of Frenchmen to exclude the Jews– does not seem to have been cured, and the French today appear to feel more solidarity with the journalists who were killed than with the Jews who were killed.
This is not to denigrate the importance of today’s wonderful display of support for free journalism. In recent years far too many institutions and publications have followed Yale University Press and others into hiding, refusing to print cartoons or other material that “insulted” Islam. They hid behind “good taste” and “prudence” but their actions expressed cowardice.
Nor can we deny that France and many other European countries today face a deep and complex social problem due to their failure to integrate Muslim immigrant populations successfully. Slogans will not solve the problems they now face–but neither will looking away when Jews become the first victims. In too many European capitals today, one risks not only insult but physical attack by wearing visible signs of being a Jew, such as a head covering. As we learned from the very successful “broken windows” approach to policing in the United States, once such a cycle begins it is very hard to break. Perhaps today’s march in Paris will energize the French to break that cycle throughout France, making it clear that anti-Semitic acts will not be tolerated and ending the period when whole neighborhoods were virtually off limits to the police.
I’m not too optimistic, and expect the rise in “aliyah” to Israel by French Jews to continue. This week in Paris numerous synagogues did not hold Sabbath services, Jewish schools were closed, and community events were cancelled or postponed. Those that went ahead did so under very heavy police guard, and that guard will be maintained for a long time. French Jews and other European Jews may well decide that when they can live, work, and practice their religion only under the highest levels of protection, surrounded by special police brigades, it is time to leave. The brave journalists of Charlie Hebdo, after all, took risks with their lives–but not with the lives of their children.