What France got right in the Toulouse attacks

Juppe’s presence at funerals in Jerusalem sent powerful message against anti-Semitic violence.

Peres and Juppe meet (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Peres and Juppe meet
(photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
The French got many things wrong with regard to last week’s terror attacks in Toulouse, starting with grossly negligent monitoring of a known jihadi sympathizer who had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan and was supposed to be under surveillance. Nevertheless, they got one thing extraordinarily right: Foreign Minister Alain Juppe’s presence at the funerals in Jerusalem.
Normally, foreign ministers attend overseas funerals only for important political leaders. But Juppe flew to Jerusalem to pay his last respects to a rabbi and three Jewish children. It was undoubtedly cold comfort to the grieving families. Yet gestures matter, and this one sent a powerful message: Official France views an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish children as an attack on itself.
This won’t affect radical Islamists like Mohamed Merah; they couldn’t care less what Western officialdom thinks. But it will affect the ordinary decent people whose acts of commission or omission can determine a terrorist’s success. A policeman who sees that his government truly cares about preventing anti-Semitic attacks may accord higher priority to tracking radicals like Merah; governmental indifference would encourage him to accord it low priority.
Similarly, a passerby who sees something suspicious will be more inclined to call the police if he knows that preventing anti-Semitic attacks is considered important, and he can therefore expect thanks rather than an impatient brush-off.
Just how great an impact a leader’s response to terror can have was proven by Israel’s real-life experiment in the mid-1990s. After Israel signed peace accords with the Palestinians and Jordan in 1993 and 1994, respectively, both accords were shaken by brutal terrorist attacks. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat responded with lip-service condemnations in English and praise in Arabic, and his security forces got the message: Over the next decade or so, Palestinian terrorists would murder more than 1,000 Israelis, while Palestinian security services turned a blind eye or even actively participated.
But Jordan’s King Hussein responded very differently. After a Jordanian soldier killed seven schoolgirls in Naharayim in 1997, Hussein took the extraordinary step of paying a shiva call on the families to ask their forgiveness. His security forces also got the message: Hussein wanted the peace kept. And the Jordanian border has been quiet to this day.
The impact that “mere words” can have on actions is universally recognized. That’s why incitement to genocide is an international crime, and has produced several convictions, especially in connection with the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Yet too many Western politicians and journalists subtly justify attacks on Jews as “understandable” in light of Israeli “abuse” of Palestinians. That’s why Israel was rightly outraged when EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton implicitly compared Merah’s cold-blooded murders to the accidental deaths of Palestinian children during Israeli airstrikes on terrorists who use them as human shields. It’s why European Jews were outraged when U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman implicitly justified Muslim anti-Semitism as an understandable response to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Against this background, gestures like Juppe’s become all the more important, sending an unequivocal message that such attacks aren’t “understandable”; they’re beyond the pale. Similarly, Britain’s Liberal Democrats sent an important, though disgracefully belated, message by finally ousting Baroness Jenny Tonge from the party: Just as their previous refusals to do so sent the message that her vicious smears (like accusing Israel’s field hospital in Haiti of harvesting earthquake victims’ organs) were acceptable public discourse, her ouster sent the message that such slurs are unacceptable.
But much more pushback is needed – in Europe especially, but also in the U.S. In January, Adam Kirsch wrote a chilling article in Tablet detailing how the 2007 publication of Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy has turned previously unacceptable anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tropes into acceptable public discourse – to the point where a leading columnist like Thomas Friedman could unblushingly write that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Congressional ovations were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
International law expert Prof. Irwin Cotler made the same point last week at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where he detailed the various subtle and not-so-subtle tactics used to delegitimize Israel. Some are obvious, like the UN’s obsessive anti-Israel focus. But I was struck by his perceptive point about how even language we all use every day can be subtly delegitimizing. As an example, he noted how the standard description of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors has changed: from “the Arab-Israeli conflict” to “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” 
I’d never thought about it before, but the minute he said it, the implications were blindingly obvious. “The Arab-Israeli conflict” pits the entire Arab world against tiny Israel and implies the Arabs are the aggressors. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict” pits an Israeli Goliath against a Palestinian David and implies that Israel is the aggressor.
Equally perceptive was a question by Atzmaut MK Einat Wilf (upholding her record as one of Israel’s most consistently on-the-ball parliamentarians): She asked whether Israel’s post-Oslo adoption of Palestinian terminology like “the occupation” had harmed Israel.
The answer is a resounding “yes,” as an analysis of 25 years of Gallup polling on American support for Israel reveals. It turns out American support was lowest when the peace process was at its height and highest when the peace process was frozen. That’s mind-boggling if one thinks American support depends on Israel’s pursuit of peace. But it makes perfect sense if one realizes that words matter: During peaks in the peace process, Israeli leaders traditionally push the Palestinian cause, while during valleys, they focus on promoting Israel’s cause.
Unfortunately, Israel and its supporters frequently seem oblivious to how much words matter, and this must change if Israel is ever to win the battle for world opinion. First and foremost, this requires being careful with their own language. But it also means calling out those, like Ashton and Gutman, who promote anti-Israel or anti-Semitic tropes, and supporting those who push back.
Israel has legitimate gripes about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conduct and policies. But by sending Juppe to last week’s funerals, he took an unequivocal stand against anti-Semitic violence. And for that, he deserves the Jewish people’s thanks.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.