My Word: Vive la différence

To life! A good one. And “Next year in Jerusalem!” These are the thoughts that have united us for thousands of years.

By
March 24, 2012 22:17
Mourning the Toulouse shootings.

Mourning the Toulouse shootings 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘Going through some papers... I just came across an article you wrote on your birthday in March 1996. Rereading it brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps it should be reprinted for those who need reminding.” This was the surprise email I recently received from a reader who clearly has a head start on me when it comes to pre-Pessah cleaning.

I was touched that she had kept what I wrote all these years and that it could still move her, but I replied that I hoped there would be no occasion to reprint it – because I immediately knew which article she was referring to. It was a magazine column I had written shortly after covering the second No. 18 bus bombing in Jerusalem.

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That word “second” is ominous in itself. Having to number terror attacks, or wars, is a terrible thing.

I remember not only the article but traumatically too much of what preceded it: The request by neighbors for me to help find if their son was hospitalized, and that awful knowledge that the family and I tried for hours to ignore: if he was on the bus but had not made contact and had not been found among the wounded, then they were going to have to make the most dreaded journey a parent can make – to the morgue, to identify a body. I can’t forget, either, the colleague coping with the unnatural task of burying a son.

It was a terrible time. The Oslo Accords were literally blowing up, and like that family desperately seeking their son, the country’s leaders were still nursing the hope that their baby – peace accords – were not dead, just wounded or in such a state of shock that they were unable to communicate their whereabouts.

What reminded me of the article now was not the timing, however, but the tale of my aliya, which I wrote in it. I noted that my decision to emigrate from Britain to Israel was made in the light of a terror atrocity – the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

September 1972 marked the first time I understood one could die just for being Jewish. In Munich and elsewhere. The realization dawned as I tried to comprehend why Mark Spitz, my idol as a preteen, was at risk in the Olympic Village but a British non-Jew from my own swimming club was not.

At the age of 11, it was the first time I fully understood the connection between Israelis and Jews everywhere – a relationship that all these years later I value even more.

Wherever there are Jews, there is a community willing to help a member of the same family. But there is only one home. Israel.

That was the thought that came back to mind last week as the extent of the tragedy of the shooting at the Jewish school in Toulouse, France, became clear.

There were four victims – Yonatan Sandler, a 30-year-old teacher from Jerusalem, and his two sons, Aryeh, six, and Gavriel, three; and eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, the daughter of the school principal.

All were buried in Jerusalem, in a tragic homecoming.

In Israel, most people are not buried in coffins but wrapped in a prayer shawl or a shroud. The bodies of these children – children who will never grow up – looked pathetically small as they were laid to rest. How can you even begin to make sense of the hatred that drives a terrorist to deliberately pick out helpless children – the obvious target at a school – and then kill them in front of their parents’ eyes? What kind of monster can shoot an eight-year-old schoolgirl not once but twice, to make sure she is really dead? No wonder the French people were shocked by the nature of the attack on a Jewish community in a southern city. Someone capable of an attack like this – and those who aided him – is capable of anything.

On March 20, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton tried to clarify a statement she had made the previous day which appeared to place the Toulouse killings in the same basket as Israel’s actions in Gaza. By issuing a statement stressing that she had mentioned Sderot in her address to Palestinian youth at an UNRWA conference, Ashton probably thought she could calm the situation.

What she failed to realize is that the game of moral equivalency is a dangerous one.

“What especially infuriates me is the comparison of the intended massacre of children to surgical defensive action taken by the IDF that is meant to hit terrorists who use children as human shields,” said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in response.

IN MY article of 1996, I wrote only of the trigger for my aliya. I didn’t mention how I had envisioned my life until September 1972. At the end of the school year, a few weeks before the Olympic massacre, my class, finishing elementary school, had been asked to write an essay on where we would be in 10 years’ time. I predicted I would be living in Paris, teaching English, having studied at the Sorbonne. I couldn’t, before that fateful summer, imagine living anywhere else but in France. To this day, I remain that anomaly for someone born and raised in Britain – a Francophile.

But I am now an Israeli Francophile rather than a British one. And 10 years after I wrote that essay, I was living in Galilee, celebrating my demobilization from military service and preparing to study Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“It was Zionism that brought me from London to Jerusalem, from Kenton to the Katamonim,” I wrote in the Post article in 1996. “The same Arab terrorists who killed the Israeli athletes are responsible for my aliya.... It was a Zionism strengthened by every subsequent pointless death. The massacre of schoolchildren in Ma’alot cemented the blood bond.”

I live in a neighborhood originally constructed to house Jewish refugees from Iraq and Kurdistan – yes, there is such a thing as Jewish refugees. It is an area that is undergoing gentrification. Prices are going up. Like other residents, I occasionally blame the French immigrants.

The newcomers are not refugees.

Although anti-Semitism exists in France, it is not fostered by the authorities. Even without an upcoming election to worry about, President Nicolas Sarkozy – or any other national leader – would have unequivocally condemned the attack.

The French Jews who arrive in the Israeli capital are pulled to the city by an ancient and powerful force – the same one that makes Jews everywhere conclude the Passover Seder with the words “Next year in Jerusalem!” The attack in Toulouse will inevitably lead more Jews to leave France for Israel. I welcome them, but I don’t want them to leave in terror.

There are enough good reasons for a Jew to want to live in Israel. It should not be out of fear. Only when Jews can live safely where they choose – be it Europe or Israel or elsewhere – only then will the global community be safe.

In 1996, I didn’t have a birthday party, but, as I wrote, I did raise a glass of red wine in the quintessential Jewish toast, “L’haim!” – To life! It’s the same toast we – Jews everywhere – will use at the Seder table in a couple of weeks, even as we recall those grieving families whose Seder night will never be the same again.

To life! A good one. And “Next year in Jerusalem!” These are the thoughts that have united us for thousands of years and this is what should keep us united now – not persecution, a prayer.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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