In the wake of the terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo Wednesday killing 12 in the heart of Paris, France’s Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia called for the Jewish community to lead efforts in rebuilding French society’s fraternité, or brotherhood.
“We must give hope to all of society. It is one of our jobs as Jews to give hope and be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations,” the recently installed Korsia told The Times of Israel Thursday.
But while many laud such statements, some in France’s 500,000-strong Jewish community wonder where that famous French fraternité was hiding as the country’s Jews have borne the brunt of waves of anti-Semitic and Islamist jihadi attacks. There has been too much supportive rhetoric and too little action, say some.
“I am happy that France has mobilized against the crime that happened yesterday… but it leaves me some taste of bitterness in my heart, since a few years ago when Jews and Jewish children were killed, I didn’t see the same mobilization,” said Richard Abitbol, the head of Confédération des Juifs de France et des Amis d’Israël (CJFAI).
Murderous attacks on Europe’s Jewish communities have made headlines recently, including the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting in May 2014 which killed four, and the Toulouse Jewish school shooting in March 2012, in which four students and a teacher were gunned down.
But this is hardly a recent phenomenon in France which saw the 1978 Paris airport attack on passengers for a Tel Aviv flight leaving eight dead (including the gunmen), the October 1980 bombing of a Paris synagogue which killed four and wounded 20, and the unsolved August 1982 attack on the Goldenberg restaurant in the Jewish quarter of Paris in which six people died and 22 were wounded.
Abitbol claimed the French do not react in the same way if the attack is on a Jew or a non-Jew.
‘Every day we have some attacks against schools, synagogues, businesses’
“It is not the time to say this, but society is not united in the same way against the crimes to Jews,” said Abitbol, who feels this contributes to the recent upswing in immigration to Israel. French Jewry led aliya figures this year, reaching 7,000, and another 10,000 at least are expected next year. A report in May 2014 found 74% of French Jews mulling emigration.
The community is also the target of constant smaller anti-Semitic incidents.
“Every day we have some attacks against schools, synagogues, businesses,” said Abitbol. He cites last week’s arson in a synagogue, and November’s attack on a Jewish teen after another arson attempt at a kosher restaurant. There also are a multitude of small crimes against Jews that don’t make headlines. “I don’t know any person who hasn’t faced anti-Semitism from Muslims,” said Abitbol.
The violent pro-Palestinian protests during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge were for many Jews a visible reminder of changing French society.
“When you hear ‘death to Jews’ [being shouted] in the center of Paris, it is unbelievable, but it is a fact,” said Jewish community member Bernard Musicant (a Times of Israel blogger). “I hope France will wake up but it’s a political fact that Muslims are ten percent of the French population and Jews are only one percent.”
“I think that France has to wake up because the Islamism is the real problem, not only for Jews, but also for Muslims and the entire French Republic,” said Musicant.
That is the message that Raphael Haddad, a member of the editorial board for philosopher Bernard Henri Levy’s media outlet La Regle du Jeu, drove home during a lengthy conversation with the Times of Israel.
Haddad, the former president of the French union of Jewish students, said that after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, all of French society knows “we have to fight the same enemy.”
“If you are an Islamist, if you share this ideology of radical Islam, you are against Jews, Israel, the occident, homosexuality, freedom for women, and all that democracy stands for,” said Haddad.
Roger Cukierman, president of the French Jewish umbrella body CRIF, also spoke of the terrorism in terms of an attack against democracy.
“There are people – a small minority, but a dangerous one nonetheless — living in our midst who cannot stand openness, diversity, a pluralistic press and freedom of religious worship. Islamist terrorism is the main threat to our security and well-being today, and it must be fought vigorously everywhere because it is a poison for our societies,” Cukierman said.
Haddad said what happened Wednesday was the nightmare French Jews dreaded: Two French-born, French-educated Muslims, who radicalized in jail and through the Internet, taking weapons and murdering a dozen people.
But he also brought into focus another possible danger for the Jewish community, the rise of political extremism — on the far-right, which garnered 25% of the popular vote in the most recent elections, and the extreme far-left. Haddad fears the Islamist jihadists and the far-right may begin fighting each other in the political arena.
“If that happens it will be difficult for the Jews to stand in the middle, and this will be the end of the Jews in France because I don’t believe for a second that the far-right will protect us,” he said.
Haddad is set to become a first-time father in the coming months and has decided to stay in France. He noted that many French youth are moving to other countries because of economic opportunities. “Jews are not an exception,” he said.
“So far I’m trying to fight… I’m fighting for the poor Jews who do not have the means to leave; I’m thinking about them in this choice,” he said.
But to leading expert on anti-Semitism Prof. Robert Wistrich, France is a lost cause.
“It’s too late, they won’t be able to fundamentally transform that situation. Like a sickness that was not dealt with for more than a decade, France is now in an advanced stage of disease,” Wistrich told The Times of Israel in August.
Chief Rabbi Korsia does not accept Wistrich’s diagnosis. “There is always a cure. If you think there is no solution, you are not Jewish,” he said.
To be Jewish, he said, is to “always, always, always seek a possibility.”
When Moses and his people were standing in front of the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was bearing down upon them, it seemed all was lost. “But the Jewish people say, ‘We have a solution,'” said Korsia.
“Sometimes the only way is to enter the Red Sea — to go in and rebuild a new solidarity, rebuild links between Christians, Protestant, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews, and rebuild hope,” said Korsia.