Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Toulouse Tragedy

Plaque on a Paris elementary school

On the outer walls of many elementary schools in Paris are plaques commemorating the deaths of Jewish children by Vichy France in collaboration with the Nazis.  The most notorious mass arrest of Jews in Paris took place on July 16 and 17, 1942, by French police who rounded up 13,152 French Jews (of whom 4,051 were children) and kept them in a stadium called the VĂ©lodrome d’Hiver, from which they were transported to the Drancy internment camp outside Paris, and then to Auschwitz to be killed.  This raid is known as the Rafle du Vel’ d’HivFrench schoolchildren didn’t start learning about their country’s cooperation with the Nazis until 1962, and only in 1995 did French President Jacques Chirac apologize for France’s role in the Holocaust.  Although this history has been a difficult one for France to come to terms with, the France of 2012 is a far cry from the anti-Semitic country of 70 years ago.  Unfortunately, outbreaks of anti-Semitism still occur, but nowadays the perpetrators are more often young marginalized Muslim youth who live in the banlieus, the slums of the suburbs.  The tragedy that occurred last week in Toulouse brought up France’s past for many, especially Jews living outside France, who figured a far-right neo-Nazi was the killer.  Instead, he was a newly-crafted Islamist.  I can’t go into depth in this blog post about French society and the Jewish and Muslim minorities.  Instead, I am going to respond to some of the comments I’ve heard about and read since last week regarding anti-Semitism in France.

A week ago, Wednesday, March 21, the four people murdered outside a Jewish school in Toulouse were buried in Israel.  The murderer, a self-proclaimed jihadist born in France to Algerian immigrant parents, had assassinated 3 French soldiers (who were from the North African Muslim communities) the week before to protest France’s involvement in Afghanistan.  He executed the 4 Jews to protest deaths of Palestinian children.  Mohamed Merah, the murderer, was killed by the French police within hours of the victims’ burial in Israel.

The horrors of last Monday outraged the French public.  The government ordered police protection for both Jewish and Muslim schools and houses of worship, because the first assumption had been that an ultra-nationalist right-winger was the killer.  President Sarkozy decreed that schools should observe a moment of silence at 11 AM the following day.  And at an impromptu silent rally in Paris that Monday evening (March 19), Parisians of all backgrounds marched in homage of the 30-year-old teacher, Jonathan Sandler, his 2 sons, Arieh, 6, and Gabriel, 3, and Myriam Monsonego, 8.  Jews and non-Jews stood together flaunting French flags (some held Israeli ones as well) in a show of nationalism and mutual support in the face of that morning’s catastrophe.  The message was clear: no to Islamist terrorism, and yes to the Frenchness of the Jews of France. 

That Monday, some American Jews and Israelis reacted to the homicides at the Toulouse Jewish school with accusations that anti-Semitism is an integral part of French culture, as if France has not evolved from the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s, or the Vichy regime of World War II.  On a California Facebook string I had participated in, one man wrote, “J’accuse la France” as if the country itself were responsible for the 4 deaths (and for others who blame France, would you condemn the United States as a country to be responsible for the deaths of Jews at Seattle’s JCRC in 1999, or at the Holocaust Museum?).

Two Israeli members of Knesset responded with the usual call for French Jews to immigrate to Israel.  Danny Danon, chair of the Knesset Absorption and Diaspora Committee, said, “The terror attack at a Jewish school in France is a red light for the entire Jewish people.  The nations of the world must unite against these acts of violence against the Jewish people, and work to eliminate anti-Semitism around the world.  We will not allow the pogroms of the early twentieth century to return to Europe.”  By referring to these murders as a pogrom, Mr. Danon desecrated the memory of our ancestors who suffered through real pogroms in 19th century Russia, which were led by masses who pillaged villages and murdered their Jewish inhabitants.  Another Member of the Knesset, Ya’akov Katz, said, “There is no Jewish future in France,” and that Jews should not trust “Sarkozy, Obama or other world leaders.” 

What these Israeli politicians do not understand is that even though there are occasional anti-Semitic incidents in France, as there are in most countries of the world, the majority of French Jews consider themselves French, even if they have been distressed by the violence of last week, such as the French Jewish philosopher and journalist, Bernard-Henry Levy, who wrote, “There can be no worse blow to French culture, to the soul of our country, its history and when all is said and done, to its grandeur than racism and, today, anti-Semitism.”  Levy, who considers himself both French and Jewish, would undoubtedly disagree with Rachael Levy (I assume no relation) who wrote a scathing attack on French society as being inherently anti-Semitic in an article this past week in Slate, entitled “Why You Can’t Be Both French and Jewish” (again, dredging up the Dreyfus affair, France’s complicity in World War II and historical Catholic anti-Semitism).

All last week the news covered the reaction of French citizens to the murders, as well as the marches against racism and anti-Semitism that had occurred in Toulouse and Paris (and other cities) on Sunday, March 25.  Six thousand people marched in Toulouse, including the imam and France’s chief rabbi, walking arm in arm, both telling journalists that this was the act of someone who does not represent Islam, and that Jews and Muslims are French citizens.  In Paris thousands more marched, and TV footage showed French people of all colors, women in hijab, men in kippot, Africans in colorful turbans and caftans, and the majority in variations of western dress.  All were marching against racism and anti-Semitism, with the understanding that yes, you can be both French and Jewish.

As an American Jew living in France, I have had experiences with my Christian friends that are different from those of Rachael Levy. I have non-Jewish friends who marched in the demonstrations in Paris, others in Ferney-Voltaire who wished they could have gone, and another in Versailles, who is going this evening to an event sponsored by the Bishop of Versailles at the Saint Joan of Arc Church in support of the Jewish community of Versailles and its president, Samuel Sandler, father of the murdered Jonathan Sandler. “Our presence this evening will testify our friendship for our brothers of the Jewish community,” the email to parishioners stated. 

The tragedy in Toulouse hit all of France, from the politicians running for president to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens of the country.  The crime is horrible.  But people not living in France should not make assumptions that the country is anti-Semitic, that all the Muslims here hate Jews, or that the Jews are afraid to remain in France.  Jews have lived here for almost 2000 years, and they will remain here in the future.  I only wish there were a Jewish community in Ferney-Voltaire.

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