France’s Jews in shock, but bolstered by national solidarity

The brutal murders in Toulouse have profoundly shaken French Jewry, but that does not mean there will be a panicked rush to Israel

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Mourners attend the funeral in Jerusalem of the four Jews killed in Toulouse on Monday. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Mourners attend the funeral in Jerusalem of the four Jews killed in Toulouse on Monday. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The cold-blooded killing of four Jews in Toulouse on Monday shocked the French Jewish community like no other event since Ilan Halimi was brutally tortured, tied to a tree and left to bleed to death by the so-called “Gang of Barbarians” in 2006. While the crimes are similar in the sadism and callousness displayed by the murderers, French Jews feel differently in the wake of the two hate crimes.

Of course, officials condemned the kidnapping and subsequent torturing of the 24-year-old Halimi, but there was long and arduous debate about whether the deed was inspired by anti-Semitism or merely by greed. The victim’s mother, Ruth Halimi, later criticized the French police for having failed to see the kidnapping as an anti-Semitic act and thus not having acted decisively enough during the 24 days he was in captivity.

France’s reaction toward Monday’s murders felt different; it was one of pure sympathy and unconditional support. Immediately after news of the killing broke, the entire country — the political establishment as well as ordinary citizens — stood together in solidarity with the Jewish community.

“This murder doesn’t concern only the Jewish community: the whole national community is devastated and stands alongside you,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Toulouse, hours after the murders. “These are not just your children. These are our children, too.”

Hardly anyone doubted that Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Gabriel and Arieh, and Miriam Monsonego, who were laid to rest Wednesday morning in a tearful ceremony at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery, were the victims of anti-Semitism. But more than the mere recognition of the nature of that hate crime, French Jews were impressed with the nation’s total identification with the Jewish community. Indeed, it seems that the French feel that they themselves were attacked, not just the Jews who live in their midst.

‘The entire country is united. The same pain, the same incomprehension’

French authorities immediately raised the terror alert to the highest level and Interior Minister Claude Gueant pledged to permanently heighten security in front of Jewish institutions nationwide. On Tuesday morning at 11 a.m., all the schools in France held a minute of silence in honor of those killed by the shooter. In front of the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, citizens placed hundreds of flowers in respect to the victims. Thousands joined a silent solidarity march in Paris organized by the Jewish student union.

“The entire country is united. The same pain, the same incomprehension,” the country’s main news program started its report on Tuesday night.

This outpouring of love needs to be seen in context: Just days before the Toulouse massacre, three French paratroopers were killed in two separate shootings by presumably the same man. Since the slain soldiers — Imad Ibn-Ziaten, Abel Chennouf and Mohamed Legouad — were of immigrant background, it was originally assumed that the killer came from the neo-Nazi milieu.

It was the disconcerting fact that a masked motorcyclist killed dark-skinned soldiers and Jewish minors and was still at large that sent unprecedented shockwaves throughout the country. “This could have been me, this could have been my children,” millions of Frenchmen thought that morning.

It is impossible to say how the French would have reacted to the Toulouse shooting if it had not been preceded by two similar incidents, and if it had been known right away that the perpetrator was motivated by Islamist radicalism. But that’s hardly important. What counts for French Jews is the immediate and unquestioned support they received.

In exactly one month, France is electing a new president. After Monday’s shooting, all candidates, from the extreme left to the extreme right, agreed to suspend campaigning for 48 hours. Even before that grace period was over, Labor MK Daniel Ben Simon, who chairs the Israeli-French Parliamentary Association, linked the attack to the heated election debates about immigration.

But now the gloves are off in France as well. Even before the French police on Wednesday morning closed in on the Algerian-born suspect — who apparently sought to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel — centrist candidate Francois Bayrou attacked Sarkozy for his anti-immigration rhetoric. To woo voters away from the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy recently lamented “too many foreigners” in the country.

Le Pen, for her part, of course, was happy to learn that the alleged shooter did not come from the extreme right but apparently from Islamist circles. “Now we have to ask political questions,” she said Wednesday morning. “The risk of fundamentalism was underestimated in this country. We have to wage war against these religious fundamentalist groups that are killing our children, be they Catholic, Jewish or Muslim.”

Le Pen, who chairs the far-right Front National, is the candidate of choice for those who want to see France curb future immigration and get tough on foreigners already in the country. Thus, some Jews who have tasted Arab anti-Semitism — verbally and often physically — in the streets of Paris or Marseilles, have toyed with the idea of supporting her. But by and large, the Jews of France remember that her father — the party’s founder and longtime leader Jean-Marie Le Pen — has a longstanding reputation as an anti-Semite. Notorious for calling the gas chambers a “detail of history,” he has been convicted of racism or anti-Semitism at least half a dozen times. Given that the Jewish community this time doesn’t feel abandoned by the government, it is unlikely that they will consider Monday’s shooting a good reason to vote for the extreme right.

Worried by anti-Semitism in France

Yet, it is not a secret that Arab anti-Semitism worries many French Jews, and the fact that the ruthless shooter allegedly wanted to avenge Palestinians will certainly amplify that feeling. That’s why, on the very day of the attack, Israeli politicians and French-born immigrants called for their brothers in exile — the largest Jewish community in Europe — to pack their bags and make aliya.

“That the Jews of France leave, goddamit. I’m fed up with this France de merde!” one angry French-Israeli woman posted on her Facebook wall, echoing the emotions of many in Israel’s large expatriate community, which is spread out in Jerusalem, Netanya, Ashdod and Tel Aviv. But while it is clear that the incredibly cruel attack may wake in some French Jews the desire to leave la Grande Nation for the Promised Land, a great French aliya wave is unlikely.

French Jews are very Zionist, but moving to Zion is a step that relatively few actually take, annually about 2,000. In some years it’s a bit more — like in 2005, when 3,000 came — and sometimes the numbers go down, like in the years after Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised to crack down on criminal immigrants, became president, when only about 1,600 made aliya.

Jewish life in France is flourishing; new schools and kosher restaurants spring up everywhere. But of course there are problems. While the number of anti-Semitic acts is the lowest it has been in a decade, they have increased in brutality, French-Jewish leaders say. A press critical of Israeli policies and subtle anti-Semitism in France’s mainstream add to the unease many Jews feel.

‘There is certainly a feeling of disquiet, especially after such a violent anti-Semitic act. But the Jews have confidence in the French authorities’

Just two weeks ago, for example, Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, in an apparent effort to court right-wing voters, suggested Muslims and Jews abandon their dietary laws. “Religions should think about keeping traditions that don’t have much in common with today’s state of science, technology and health problems,” he said.

Such statements upset not only observant Jews. But being upset will not lead French Jews to vote for Le Pen — who also advocates stricter control of ritual slaughter — or to leave the country altogether.

“Jews are not panicking,” said Gerard Benhamou, a veteran French journalist based in Tel Aviv. “There is certainly a feeling of disquiet, especially after such a violent anti-Semitic act. But the Jews have confidence in the French authorities.”

While some MKs have utilized Toulouse to tell Jews they can no longer live in France and should immigrate to Israel, others oppose such thinking. “This should not be connected to aliya,” said MK Einat Wilf (Independence) on Tuesday, at an urgent session of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. “Israel is attractive, and people should come here because life is good here, and not because of anti-Semitism elsewhere.”

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