Charlie Hebdo and the Future of Europe

Benjamin Kerstein

Benjamin Kerstein

Associate Editor, The Tower Magazine

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Benjamin Kerstein ~

From the Blog

The terror attacks in Paris earlier this month led to a historic outpouring of support. But for those looking closely, the siege of the kosher supermarket was anything but a surprise.

On January 13, 2015, a major European politician finally said what every major European politician should have been saying for the past 15 years. In the wake of the January 7 slaughter of nearly the entire editorial staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, followed by the January 9 hostage stand-off at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket that left four hostages dead—both committed by members of the same terror cell—French Prime Minister Manuel Valls rose to address the National Assembly on not only the threat of Islamic terror, but its connection to a hatred that, thus far, has dared not speak its name.

“History has taught us,” he said, “that the awakening of anti-Semitism is the symptom of a crisis for democracy and of a crisis for the Republic.” He then reiterated the butcher’s bill of atrocities that have been committed against French Jews since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, including the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, the slaughter of a rabbi and several children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, and a series of brutal pogroms last summer in which rampaging mobs attacked a synagogue and trashed a Jewish neighborhood in Paris.

“Anti-Semitic acts in France have grown to an intolerable degree,” Valls asserted, and admonished his fellow citizens for failing to express “the national outrage that our Jewish compatriots expected.” With a sweeping overview of modern French-Jewish history, and breaking the unspoken taboo on discussing French collaboration in the Holocaust, he asked,

How can we accept that in France, where the Jews were emancipated two centuries ago, but which was also where they were martyred 70 years ago, how can we accept that cries of “death to the Jews” can be heard on the streets? How can we accept that French people can be murdered for being Jews? … This time it cannot be accepted … we must stand up and say what’s really going on.

Valls speech broke another, even more potent taboo when he connected what he called “a new anti-Semitism” to “loathing of the State of Israel,” a loathing that “advocates hatred of the Jews and all the Jews,” echoing an earlier statement he made to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, in which he spoke of a “radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” And Valls did not shrink from speaking the very uncomfortable truth that much of this anti-Semitism is coming from France’s Muslim community, from “the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext. There is something far more profound taking place now.”

But perhaps Valls’ most pointed statement was also the simplest. “Without its Jews,” he said, “France would not be France. … When the Jews of France are attacked, France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked. Let us never forget it.”

From another politician, such a statement might seem maudlin and empty. But Valls has put his money where his mouth is. This is not the first time he has denounced anti-Semitism in such terms; he has pursued hate speech prosecutions against prominent French anti-Semites; he has publicly stated that, since the Paris atrocities, “France is at war against terrorism, jihadism, radicalism”; and he was almost alone among French politicians in attending a local memorial service at the Hyper Cacher market.

But this speech may be his most important act yet. Because in it, he at last gave voice to a truth Europe has long silenced: The continent that gave us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modernity itself now stands at a crossroads. It has a choice between the civilization it has painstakingly built, or a new barbarism of which anti-Semitism is an essential part. And it is by no means clear which choice Europe will make.

Prime Minister Valls’ speech was potentially epoch-making. But he is only one man. Thus far, no other major French or European politician has made a statement of such purpose and ferocity.

Nonetheless, there are some signs that people are beginning to listen. At the massive January 11 rally in Paris, in which over a million people marched in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo dead, for the principles of free expression, and against terrorism, the instantly famous slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) appeared everywhere, but there were also signs saying “Je suis Juif” (“I am a Jew”). Throughout the procession, Israeli flags flew without fear for the first time in years. Despite objections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only attended, but managed to push himself to the front of the procession. From a building overhead, someone shouted “Am yisrael chai!” (“The people of Israel live!”). For a brief moment, after over a decade of alienation and apprehension, the Jews seemed to be at one with France again.

French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, one of the French Left’s staunchest defenders of Israel and Judaism, appears to believe that the march represents genuine change. “We have never seen anything like it before,” he wrote. “Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made a nation come out and say no to the barbarity for which for too long we have made too many excuses.” Although there will be more Islamic terror, Levy wrote, “There will be fewer and fewer people who will whisper that we must keep a low profile and make accommodations.” Equating radical Islam with the rise of far-Right parties in Europe, he stated, “From now on, all of Europe will no longer choose between the two versions of nihilism that are Islamism and populism.” Ultimately, he believes, “One thing is for sure: France is no longer afraid.”

French citizens gather in front of the Place de la République on January 7. Photo: JeSuisGodefroyTroude / Wikimedia

French citizens gather in front of the Place de la République on January 7. Photo: JeSuisGodefroyTroude / Wikimedia

There has also been the arrest of Dieudonne, an alleged comedian who is openly anti-Semitic, mocks the Holocaust, and developed the “quenelle,” a variation on the Nazi salute that has become a popular fad. Shortly after the atrocities of January 9, he posted on Facebook, “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” expressing solidarity and identification with the Hyper Cacher murderer. The French, it seems, are finally getting serious about enforcing their hate speech laws against anti-Semites.

Some movement has also taken place on the international level. U.S. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, spoke out against “the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.” Levy himself gave the keynote speech at a meeting on anti-Semitism at the notoriously anti-Israel United Nations, denouncing “the renewed advance of this radical inhumanity that is anti-Semitism.” A UN spokesman stated, “Based on the available records we were able to check, this is indeed the first time that anti-Semitism as such is specifically the subject of an informal meeting of the UN General Assembly.” The meeting was convened at the request of 37 member countries. That was, at least, a beginning.

The overall trends, however, are less encouraging. There is little doubt that “Je suis Charlie” vastly outnumbered “Je suis Juif” at the Paris rally; and one cannot imagine anything even close to such an outpouring of grief and outrage if the Hyper Cacher market had been the only target. French-Jewish concerns, to put it mildly, have yet to be assuaged. And French Jews are acting accordingly.

Perhaps the most pointed expression of this was made by Stephen Pollard, who edits The Jewish Chronicle, the United Kingdom’s largest Jewish newspaper. “Every single French Jew I know,” he told the Daily Mail, “has either left or is actively working out how to leave. … It is the largest emigration of Jews anywhere since the war. That’s a simple fact.”

In the aftermath of the Hyper Cacher attack, it was easy enough to understand why. Thousands of French soldiers and police deployed across Paris to guard Jewish sites; Jewish neighborhoods went into lockdown, with businesses asked to close and most residents too frightened to leave their homes; and, most shamefully, the Grand Synagogue of Paris was closed for the first time since the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945.

Paris was not alone. An article in i24 News noted, “Heightened security measures, visible and non-visible, were swiftly enacted at Jewish places of worship, study and business across Europe over the weekend,” including in Italy, Britain, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. Threats against the Swedish Jewish community doubled, prompting intervention not only by the police, but the intelligence services. For several days, Jewish life in Europe either ground to a halt or went on under what were, essentially, siege conditions.

The reaction of many in the media was also less than comforting. There have always been those ready to blame the Jews for anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence; and after the Paris attacks, they came crawling out of the woodwork with predictable speed. One BBC reporter seemed to personify French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut’s recent observation that some feel the Jews are “responsible for what is happening to them, because of Israel’s so-called racism and because Jews identify with Israel.”

Security stands guard outside the kosher supermarket in Paris where four Jewish men were murdered when held hostage by an Islamist gunman. Photo: Serge Attal / Flash90

Security stands guard outside the kosher supermarket in Paris where four Jewish men were murdered when held hostage by an Islamist gunman. Photo: Serge Attal / Flash90

Speaking with the daughter of a Holocaust survivor at the Paris rally, Tim Willcox remarked, “Many critics … of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well.” When the woman pointed out the obvious fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict neither negates nor justifies atrocities committed against French Jews, the reporter responded, with nearly epic obtuseness, “But you understand, everything is seen from different perspectives?” The BBC later called the query “poorly phrased” and said that Willcox “had no intention of causing offense” by asking what any thinking person would regard as a stunningly offensive question.

Others simply demonstrated the indisputable fact that anti-Semitism is, at least on some level, a psychological disorder. Members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which advocates economic and diplomatic warfare against Israel and, for the most part, opposes its existence, exhibited particularly acute symptoms of the disease. One leader of the movement, Greta Berlin, used the telling “all caps” technique to announce “MOSSAD just hit the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo in a clumsy false flag designed to damage the accord between Palestine and France. … A four-year-old could see who is responsible for this terrible attack.” The co-founder of Berlin’s organization chimed in on Twitter, using a defamatory term comparing Israel to the barbaric terrorist group ISIS to say, “#Hebdo killings indefensible. Can’t help thinking #JSIL Mossad false flag though.”

Among some French Muslims, sentiments were equally disturbing, sometimes straying into the territory of the fantastic. In an article on what it called “jihad fanboys,” The Daily Beast noted one young Muslim man saying the attacks were “a conspiracy designed by the Jews to make Muslims look bad.” A schoolteacher was quoted saying “80 percent of his students didn’t want to observe” the national moment of silence for those killed in the attacks, with one remarking, “You reap what you sow.” The student promptly descended into pure science-fiction, asserting that the Paris attacks were

un complot,” or conspiracy, and launched into a lengthy explanation of the “magical Jews” behind it. They were not ordinary Jews, he said, but a “hybrid race of shape shifters” who have extraordinary abilities. “They know how to get in everywhere,” he said. “They are master manipulators.”

And perhaps the surest sign that France has yet to fully understand the extent of the problem, and its own failure to deal with it effectively, is that anti-Semitic attacks have yet to cease. The very day after the prime minister’s speech, a Jewish library outside Lyon was vandalized by an assailant who shouted, “We will get the Jews!” A week later, a 13-year-old Jew wearing a kippa was attacked with mace by three teenagers euphemistically referred to as “of North African descent.”

Compared to the Paris atrocities, of course, these are relatively minor incidents; but taken in context, they are no less disturbing. As France’s National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism put it, they are part and parcel of a larger phenomenon in which “A child of 13, as he is about to celebrate bar mitzvah, knows nothing but the climate of fear and insecurity as a result of anti-Semitism.”

In this context, it is not surprising that French Jews have little faith that their country will heed Valls’ call to arms. The uncomfortable truth is that, while France was shocked by the Paris attacks, French Jews were not. And they blame it on a decade of indifference and inaction on the part of their countrymen.

Boaz Bismuth, writing from a Jewish neighborhood in Paris just after the attacks, noted,

In my many visits to France, my Jewish acquaintances had told me that rising anti-Semitism would ultimately result in violence. It was just a matter of time, they warned. … None of the Jews I met told me that they were surprised by what happened.

Roger Cukierman, the head of CRIF, France’s largest Jewish organization, told him, “After French Jew Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured to death in 2006, I said the Jews of France were all in danger. In 2012, when three children and one man were killed by a gunman at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, I doubled down on that statement.” The attention and action that should have followed did not come. And, as one member of the community told Bismuth, “Just look at how much of an impact the jihadists have, and this is all because the French Republic let them.”

French Jews’ lack of faith in their country and countrymen seemed most emphatically demonstrated at the memorial service for the victims of the Hyper Cacher attack, held at the reopened Grand Synagogue. Both French President Francois Hollande and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended, but it was Netanyahu alone who was given a hero’s welcome, as the audience cheered and shouted, “Bibi, help us!”

In his speech, Netanyahu made sure to emphasize that aliyah was always an option for France’s beleaguered Jews, and there is no doubt that more and more of them are availing themselves of it. Anyone who has lived in Israel for any length of time can see it. French has suddenly become commonplace on the streets of Tel Aviv, French cafes and bookstores are springing up everywhere, and in Netanya, a major center of French immigration, locals are beginning to grumble that the high number of new arrivals is driving up housing prices.

It does seem likely that aliyah will skyrocket in the wake of the attacks; indeed, the Jewish Agency has already reported as much. The reasons are simple enough. One of Bismuth’s interviewees, whose son is already planning to make aliyah, simply said, “We have no reason to stay here”; while a prominent rabbi told his congregation after the attacks, “I know you want me to provide you with an answer on whether you should leave or stay. But frankly, I am at a loss for words.”

Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony at Har HaMenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem for the four Jewish victims in the Paris kosher market terror attack, January 13, 2015. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony at Har HaMenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem for the four Jewish victims in the Paris kosher market terror attack, January 13, 2015. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

But this aliyah, like so many others, will be a bitter exodus. One man asked Bismuth, “What have I done to deserve this constant worry about the lives of my kids to the point that I have to relocate?” Another said, “I am a big boy but on Friday I cried. I am already 60. Of course, I am planning to make aliyah, but I never thought I would ever leave France like this.”

Perhaps the most devastating statement on the subject came from Norman Lebrecht in The Telegraph. A Jew whose family has lived in France for centuries, he echoed Valls’ attack on his countrymen’s indifference, saying that over a decade of anti-Semitism “aroused no national outrage on the scale seen in the past week.” As a result, “Jews fled in their thousands” and the march of millions through Paris in solidarity with the victims of Islamic terrorism has not convinced him that this will change. “My Jewish friends were out on the streets of Paris this weekend,” he wrote, “hoping that, after this tragic moment, the tide will turn. For myself, I am unable to pretend that life will go on as before. My history, as a Jew of France, is over.”

One must face precisely what this means: It is ethnic cleansing by any other name. Slowly but surely, the Jews are being expelled; if not by outright violence, then by depraved indifference. The Jews, in other words, are not abandoning France; France is abandoning the Jews.

A friend of mine said as much to me only a few days ago. On the night after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a solidarity rally was held outside the French ambassador’s residence in Tel Aviv. My friend, who made aliyah from France several years ago, refused to go. After Halimi was murdered, she said, they did nothing. After Toulouse, they did nothing. Now, because non-Jews have been killed, the nation is in mourning. To her, the hypocrisy was too much to take. France did not deserve her solidarity. Valls’ speech was fine, she said, but talk is just talk. And she also does not believe things will change. “In ten years,” she told me, “everyone will be gone.”

My friend may prove to be right. It may be that, ultimately, Manuel Valls’ J’accuse will fall upon deaf ears. Perhaps France does not particularly care what happens to its Jews. Perhaps it considers them a small sacrifice to make in order to appease Islamic terrorism and violence. But now that this violence has also struck not only at French gentiles, but at one of the most treasured principals of the French republic—the right to free expression—such indifference may, at long last, no longer be possible. Perhaps Valls will succeed in shattering the wall of denial France has built around itself and the rise of anti-Semitism.

One must hope this will be the case. Because in radical Islam, France, Europe, and indeed the world are now facing a new totalitarianism—an absolute threat to human rights and human freedom. Europe has faced this enemy before. In the past, communism, fascism, and Nazism have threatened liberal democracy in Europe. Now, Europe must understand that it faces a new, theocratic form of its old nemesis.

And it was no coincidence that Hannah Arendt began her epic work The Origins of Totalitarianism with a study of anti-Semitism. To a remarkable extent, Europe’s battle for freedom has been a battle for the freedom of its Jews. And this is especially the case in France. From the decision by the French revolutionaries to emancipate the nation’s Jews; to the battle to liberate Alfred Dreyfuss, which drew a stark line between the supporters of French democracy and its authoritarian opponents; to the bitter war between those who resisted and those who collaborated with Nazism—the struggle for liberal France has been, to one degree or another, a struggle against anti-Semitism.

Cukierman, who leads CRIF, said this explicitly after the Paris attacks. “Our democracy and our values are in the jihadists’ crosshairs,” he said, “and the Jews are on the frontline because they represent some of the values terrorists want to destroy.” At the Grand Synagogue memorial service, Joel Mergui, who heads the Consistoire Israélite Central de France, echoed these sentiments, saying,

Today France was in the streets, all of France … and the Jews of France were also in the streets to defend freedom of expression, to defend Charlie, to defend our democracy … because the Jewish people are democracy. … The hatred of Jews and the hatred of democracy are the same thing and must be fought in the same way.

If anything confirms Mergui’s remarks, it is, ironically, the non-Jewish target of the Paris attacks. As Paul Berman wrote eloquently in Tablet, “Charlie Hebdo is a pure product of the 1968-era radical left—anti-authoritarian, insurgent, impudent, indignant, mocking, and self-mocking.” Its founders, one of whom was murdered in the attack, “were fixtures of the ’68-era alternative press in Paris,” and friends of none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the icon of modern French philosophy.

Charlie Hebdo, in other words, is another iteration in a long and venerated French tradition, stretching back as far as Rabelais, Voltaire, and de Sade—the tradition of satire, skepticism, free and even reckless speech, and the furious mockery of authority and power that is, in its own way, an essential expression of freedom. In attacking Charlie Hebdo, Islamic totalitarianism tried to drive a knife into the heart of France itself.

And the French should have seen it coming, because, as Valls himself put it, to attack the Jews is also to attack the heart of France. “To understand what the idea of the republic is about,” he said,

You have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle. If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.

But the French didn’t see it coming, because they did not want to see it. For over a decade, they chose to believe that they were only coming for the Jews. It is now clear that this is not and never was the case. But unless France comes to understand this, and act accordingly, then Valls’ dark prophecy will prove true: The French Jews will leave, and “France will no longer be France.”

For France, and indeed all of Europe, this is a fateful moment. It can choose to act decisively against anti-Semitism, and in doing so secure justice for its Jews and a liberal and democratic future for themselves; a future in which its Jewish citizens do not live in fear of racist violence and its artists do not live in fear of being slaughtered by tyrannical fanatics. It can realize that to fight anti-Semitism is to fight Islamic terrorism itself. Or it can let its Jews flee, and find itself facing the specter of a new totalitarianism alone.

First they came for the Jews, the old adage goes, then they came for everybody else. It remains to be seen whether everybody else will understand this in time. They should hope that they do. Unlike the Jews, they have nowhere else to go.

Banner Photo: Laurence Geai / Flash90