France And The Jewish Problem

Even with the passage of a few days since the awful events in Paris last week, a lingering sense of horror and dismay continues to invade the bodies politic of the western world. And why would it not? What happened in Paris was grotesque and terrifying, with implications that will not disappear even if ignored.

As a citizen of the world, I join with the millions who have expressed their outrage over the slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

If one considers the values that are absolutely indispensable to vibrant democracies, freedom of speech is at the top of the list. It is not by accident that it figures so prominently in American constitutional history, and one need but look around in this country to see how much we continue to honor that ideal. Satirists from Lenny Bruce to Bill Maher to Jon Stewart have proven, and continue to prove, that we can not only survive, but also thrive in a system where one person’s outlandish satire is another person’s truth. When we differ, we know how to handle it. We write op-eds, deliver sermons, argue around the dinner table, cancel subscriptions, change the channel or all of the above. But what we don’t do is kill the offending party. We don’t resolve our differences with violence.

There is, clearly, a virulent strain of fundamentalist Islam that is at war with the Western world, and the time has come for us to admit to that, and actively engage the struggle. One need not, indeed ought not, be at war with Islam as a whole to engage this battle, but one must admit to the reality of the threat.

In that sense, it is indeed true that Je Suis Charlie. We must all feel that we personally were attacked at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. That which we hold dearest, human life itself, was made cheap, and the ideal of freedom of speech was clearly attacked. To fail to draw the appropriate conclusions makes us morally and practically inadequate to the challenge at hand, and it is at hand.

Having said that, I am sadly obliged to admit that I view what happened at the Kosher Grocery in Paris through a different, narrower lens. In this regard, I am looking not as a “citizen of the world,” but as a Jew. And what I feel, very uncomfortably, is a sinking sense that the Jews of France are viewed every bit as narrowly by the French.

I was moved, as were so many others, by the sight of so many Parisians carrying the Je Suis Charlie message. But at the same time, what I desperately wanted to see was significant numbers of Parisians carrying signs saying Je Suis Juif: In other words, identifying empathically with the Jewish community as it grieved for its losses.

If you have followed this tragedy on Twitter, there are many people using the hash tag #JeSuiJuif. Even the New York Times mentioned it in an editorial on Wednesday. But those using Je Suis Juif are overwhelmingly Jewish. The non-Jewish world identifies powerfully with the threat to free speech, but not so much with the shedding of Jewish blood.

And, just as frustrating to me, I see little evidence of the French, or anyone else, drawing a straight line from the terror in France to the terror visited so regularly upon Israel. Jimmy Carter, who implied that Israeli policies in the territories contributed to the terror in France, drew the only clear line like that that I’ve seen so far. Not quite the line that I was looking for.

As a student of modern Jewish history, I understand all of Jewish life after the Enlightenment to be an effort to solve the Jewish problem; to once and for all answer the question of how the Jews might live free, among the free citizens of the world, as “normal people.”

There were, of course, those who rejected this idea entirely. The ultra-Orthodox did and still do. And, of course, the other group who despaired of ever living free and secure among the nations of the world were the proto-Zionist thinkers who had experienced one too many pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. There was Herzl, of course, but also people like Yehuda Leib Pinsker, who came to the realization that the only way for the Jews to be truly emancipated was to emancipate themselves, in their own land.

But most Jews, into our own time, have to greater or lesser degree bought into the idea of finding security and comfort within the nations of the Diaspora, none more so than American Jews. We certainly feel comfortable and (mostly) welcomed here, where we are completely integrated into all the important power structures.

But then again, of course, so were the Jews of Germany in the 1930’s.

The major Jewish population concentrations in Europe’s capitals have proud histories and thriving Jewish life. London’s Jewish life is robust, and so is Le Marais in Paris, and for that matter, the Jewish community of Berlin.

But then again, so were the Jews of Germany in the 1930’s.

I have spent most of my adult personal and professional life trying hard not to be the Jew who sees anti-Semitism and danger around every corner. Over the decades of my rabbinate, I have consistently preached the possibilities of rich, secure and dynamic Jewish life here in New York, and around the world, including, of course, Israel. But I am obliged to admit that something in what happened in Paris last week, preceded by other anti-Semitic incidents in France and across Europe, gave me a sickening feeling that, right before my eyes, the “Jewish problem” was once again rearing its ugly head. Two hundred and twenty-plus years since the beginning of the Emancipation of European Jewry, when push comes to shove and then to gunfire, we’re still on the outside looking in.

Anybody still wondering why Israel’s security is so crucial?

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.