“If France…[can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country?”
This excerpt has a very contemporary ring but actually harkens from a time that well precedes hashtag catchphrases. How sad it is that over a century after this quote was published, during which time much of the Jewish population in Europe was eradicated, the Jewish community in France remains beleaguered. In response to the war in Gaza this past summer, the streets of Paris were again filled with chants of “Death to the Jews”. Ironically, the Islamic radicals seek the demise of Israel while terrorizing Jews living abroad. If they are successful in the latter, where do they think the Jews will go?
Yet, anti-Semitism in France has long played an unwitting role in facilitating the Zionist movement. The excerpt above originates from Der Judenstaat, a pamphlet written by Theodore Hertzl, the father of modern Zionism. Remarkably, Hertzl actually visited Paris almost exactly 120 years before last week’s terrorist attacks to witness a ceremony involving a Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
He watched as Dreyfus stood at attention in the center of a parade ground in Paris surrounded by 5,000 soldiers. In a symbolic display, Dreyfus’ uniform was desecrated and his sword broken in two. Even during the ceremony, Dreyfus proclaimed his innocence but his cry was drowned out by calls for his death, and the death of all Jews.
Ultimately, Dreyfus would go on to be exonerated from any wrongdoing. The Dreyfus affair, as it has become known, transformed into an iconic moment of European anti-Semitism and emboldened Herzl’s vision for a Jewish homeland in Israel. Shortly after witnessing the ceremony, Herzl would write in his diary.
“In Paris, as I have said, I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism… Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.”
The epilogue to this story is remarkable and reflects the current dilemma confronting France’s Jewish community. Herzl would go on to become the chairperson of The First Zionist Congress. Much like a Biblical character, Herzl did not live to see his aspiration for the State of Israel come to fruition, but he is celebrated posthumously for paving the way. By contrast, despite being unjustly incarcerated for years in a place known as Devil’s Island, Dreyfus would go on to reenlist in the French army to fight alongside his countrymen in World War 1.
Given this past week’s events, the French Jewish community is at a similar crossroads. Will they yield Netanyahu’s overtures to join him in the Jewish State or double down on their commitment to France? In that connection, it is notable that while Je Suis Charlie has become a rallying cry internationally, Je Suis Juif has not garnered nearly as much attention. The imperative of freedom of speech is immediately accessible to those who value intellect, yet the imperative of the right of Jews to live unfettered by anti-Semitism is clearly less salient.