A French leader speaks for his nation’s Jews and his nation

The horrific terrorism that took place in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at the Hyper Cacher market last month still resonates with all of us.
When we realize that Ahmed Coulibaly deliberately chose to attack a small and vulnerable unguarded kosher market on a Friday afternoon just before the Sabbath as his target to take Jewish hostages, we are eerily drawn to contemplate questions such as: Do Jews Have a Future in France? Is it happening all over again in Europe? What is the relationship between the old and the new anti-Semitism? How can this evil best be combatted, in all its forms, and hope and liberty restored?
As the events at the kosher market unfolded, I couldn’t help but remind myself of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s now famous comments as Nazi Germany’s terror spread: “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The reality is that, since 1980, 17 French Jews have been murdered by violent terrorists and the wave of attacks on Jews in France has intensified during the past ten years. Each and every one is an abomination, and we have always said that they are not only a threat to Jewish life in France, but to France itself.
This connection between anti-Semitism and threats to democratic life has a long and tragic history. Unfortunately, it all too often takes terrible events such as what recently occurred in Paris to wake people up to that reality. One can’t help but wonder, then, just how much the world has really learned from Niemoller’s reflection.
Fortunately, the Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, gets it more than most. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Valls stated that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
In a dramatic speech before the National Assembly, he went on to reinforce that truth:
“Without its Jews France would not be France, this is the message we have to communicate loud and clear. We haven’t done so. We haven’t shown enough outrage. How can we accept that in certain schools and colleges the Holocaust can’t be taught? How can we accept that when a child is asked ‘Who is your enemy,’ the response is ‘the Jew?’ When the Jews of France are attacked France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked. Let us never forget it.”
Why the reluctance of many democratic societies, in Europe and beyond, to recognize that anti-Semitism is the canary in the coal mine, alerting them to the existential threat they face? Why does Prime Minister Valls seem more like an exception than like the rule, especially when he bluntly and truthfully sources the present threat as coming mainly from “terrorism and radical Islam,” as he told the French people just days after the attacks?
Partly, this hesitation comes out of a desire to live with illusions, to convince ourselves that things are not so bad. “Attacks on Jews are one thing, but that doesn’t mean that we all are at risk.” And, partly, it’s a remnant of the deeply embedded stereotypes about Jews that held sway for centuries: the Jews are the ‘other’ and the Jews “bring their victimhood upon themselves.”
This is a time for all of us to stand firmly with the Jewish community of France; rather than telling them what they should do, urging them to leave or stay, we should reassure them that there is Jewish solidarity, that Israel and the American Jewish community will do all we can to assure their safety and security.
The simple, yet profound, act of thanking Prime Minister Valls for speaking up, for not waiting until they come for the non-Jews of France before taking an unequivocal stand for decency and democracy, plays no small part in that effort.
We hope our thanks, and yours, will reinforce the resolve of France’s leaders and its people to take the steps necessary to ensure a safe, secure and vibrant Jewish life for the Jews of France.