With 40 others from across the United States, Bill Silverstein, Chairman of the Chicago Jewish Federation and I recently participated in a Jewish Federations of North America solidarity and fact-finding mission to Paris. These are our top ten impressions:
1) The sight of armed soldiers now stationed outside France’s 600 Jewish institutions speaks to the government’s commitment to defend the country’s Jews, as well as to its inability to do so. It is as much a demonstration of Jewish vulnerability as it is security. That is especially the case as community leaders express apprehension for the day, feared not too distant, when the government decides to withdraw those troops.
2) French Jews are facing a crisis as their beloved country – and make no mistake about it, French Jews are passionate French nationals – faces its own crises: economic (20% unemployment), security, civic contract and personal identity. And the national crises fuel the Jewish crisis.
3) The government is developing a “road map” to combat the violence and bigotry emanating from France’s radical Muslims and the far right and far left. Yet their well -intentioned approach seems too reliant on filtering Google search results (for example, weeding out or correctly labeling Holocaust denial websites) and deploying a general anti-bigotry educational curriculum that is unlikely to root out the very specific sources of France’s anti-Semitism.
4) Anti-Semitic terrorism today differs from what French Jews endured in the 1970s and 1980s, when the attacks were conceived, orchestrated and executed by known organizations. The attacks of the past decade, while inspired by the ideology of such groups, are being carried out by “lone wolves” or a small, unaffiliated pack of wolves. It makes the law enforcement challenge even more difficult.
5) t’s a bit like Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” scenario for French Jewry. Their community has many signs of health: Paris has more kosher restaurants than New York City; over 50% of their students attend Jewish day schools, and; the percentage of French Jews who speak Hebrew, travel to Israel and are affiliated with a synagogue is the highest in the Diaspora. At the same time, we heard anecdotes of men who now place a baseball cap atop their yarmulke when in public, who have moved their mezuzah from their outside doorpost to the inside, and who, having moved their children from public school to Jewish school in order to escape anti-Semitic bullying, have now moved the same children to Catholic schools over fears of terrorists attacking Jewish schools, as happened in Toulouse in 2012.
6) While aliyah is rising dramatically, doubling annually since 2011, these are NOT the final days of France’s Jewish community. There will be a significant exodus, one that drains the community of some of its best and brightest, especially among its youth. But at over half a million strong – the world’s 3rd largest – there will be a French Jewish community for generations to come. At the risk of being cynical rather than appreciative for the welcomed sentiment, Prime Minister Manuel Valls could comfortably assert “France without Jews is not France” precisely because that hypothesis will not be tested.
7) Intense, sustained American Jewish advocacy on behalf of French Jewry – to the U.S. government and theirs – would be unprecedented. Whether it was for Soviet, Syrian, Iranian or even Argentinian Jewry, we have never run an advocacy campaign for a Jewish community that was not suffering from state-sponsored anti-Semitism, whose members were fully free citizens enjoying the full rights and protections of democracy, and that itself was affluent and influential. All those factors should inform our intentions to be helpful, lest we end up engaging in activities that are unwelcome by and perhaps detrimental to those we are actually trying to assist.
8) French Jews have identified three priority areas requiring additional resources: i) Increased facility security; ii) Increased support for Frenchmen moving to Israel, and; iii) Relocating the 2,000 Jews living in or near the most radical Arab/Muslim neighborhoods to safer areas.
9) No sooner had the terror in France re-focused our Jewish attention there than an all-too-similar deadly scenario played out in Copenhagen, with an initial attack against people embodying the principle of free speech followed by an attack against Jews at a Jewish institution. As we mourn for our brothers and sisters in Paris and Copenhagen and, not too long ago, Brussels, we sadly acknowledge that we will again be mourners.
10) The most chilling statement was from a French Jewish leader warning us that what they are now encountering — murderous anti-Semitism and vile anti-Israel rallies on the streets — is a “precursor and hence the laboratory” for what we in the U.S. will inevitably confront.
That sobering assessment and much else we saw and heard brings to mind an old but still relevant phrase: “though our ancestors boarded ships to different destinations – Israel, America, France – all Jews remain in the same boat.”