Have Jews Forgotten Themselves? Reflections on Paris Demonstrations

About 25 miles north-east of the city of Leeds, England, lies a beautiful and quaint city called York. The contrast between it and its “New” counterpart across the Atlantic could not be greater.  Anybody who has ever visited there can testify to the fact that every brick, every cobble-stoned street and every church and statue exudes a history which surrounds those who walk through its antiquated environs.

In the depths of its sheer splendor lies an awesome hill, atop which sits a notorious edifice called Clifford’s Tower. It is within the walls of this tower where, on 16th March, 1190 the Jews of York sought refuge from a rioting mob engulfed by anti-Semitic fervor armed with pitchforks, spears and fire torches. Life and death were separated  by a few bricks and mortar – no weaponry, no army.

As the approximately 150 Jews barricaded themselves in, it dawned upon them that their final moments had approached and that it was only a matter of time before they would be forced to leave the keep and enter into the hands of the mob or before the mob itself would penetrate it.

And so it was, choosing to shed their final tears rather than their blood at the hands of the rampaging mob, they committed mass suicide: a final kiss, a final hug, a final prayer, a final tear and a final goodbye. No one was with them and no one could do so much as condemn the atrocity that had befallen them, let alone defend them.

On 13th July, 2014 events threatened to take a similar turn when a demonstration against Israel’s actions took place in Paris, a city equally shrouded in its own unique history of which not many require a description. Hundreds of Jews were forced into two separate synagogues where, being pelted with “stone and bricks” they hoped and prayed that the anger of the mob would be abated. It is difficult to imagine the sense of foreboding which must have possessed those entrapped victims.  After several hours however, these defenseless Jews were rescued by French police units and the riots were subsequently condemned by the French Prime Minister.

As Operation Protective Edge continues in its efforts to liberate the southern citizens of Israel from the reach of Hamas’s rocket-fire, it is not difficult to observe that social media websites are, in addition to plenty of supportive comments, flooded with Jewish people positioning themselves on the “peaceful” or “neutral path,” proclaiming their love for all human beings on equal terms, both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

It is a commendable path which truly follows in the spirit of being a light unto the nations – that is to say, that when our enemy attacks us, we love them. It is hard to imagine another people expressing such views in the carnage and chaos of a war initiated to destroy your own people.

Yet world Jewry, who post regular updates about their feelings and opinions on this issue, has conspicuously failed to express their support for the Jews of Paris who came under attack once more in their history. Despite great efforts, the author of this article has found little condemnation or even a mention of the incident which, had it not been for French police, would surely have resulted in injuries or fatalities.

Those who have not lost sight of one of our most important missions as Jews to protect and defend our own people, can only say thank G-d for Prime Minister Manuel Valls because our own people seem to have forsaken us. Indeed, they did not even utilize their only weapon to hand – a reassuring voice which says “be not scared and feel not neglected, for we Jews stand with you.” Perhaps had Prime Minister Valls opted not to extricate the besieged Jews, 1190 York would not have seemed all that distant and recounting its details would have been of little interest. Indeed, when he was sending in his forces to do precisely that, Jews of the world were expressing their solidarity with love of mankind.

It is at such a junction that questions must be asked. Once again the author reiterates that this path is one noble and worth pursuing. But at the expense of what? Should we really be propounding such statements when our very own people face mortal danger? And if the answer is yes, should this not be in tandem with support for our own people and condemnation of those who seek to intimidate or kills us with equal zeal and determination?  Are generic words such as these, however well-intentioned, substitutes for words which actually confront the reality of a real moment?

The incident in Paris, and lack of Jewish response to it, is indicative of the fact that we are forgetting that to heal the world does not require dismantling your own, that providing a source light for other nations does not mean dazzling or blinding your own vision. We have much to learn from those who unabashedly support their own people in peaceful demonstrations such as those which took place in other areas of France.

And if we can take perhaps one historical lesson from this, it is that in this case, the fate of these hundreds of Jews depended entirely upon the voice and decision of one Prime Minister. The Jews he saved were fortunate, but history has surely taught us that to depend upon the leaders of other nations to take decisions regarding Jewish security, especially as Europe witnesses a rising tide in anti-Semitism, is surely myopic – for it is a tried and failed formula. Next time it is up to us to show our solidarity with our fellow Jews in their hour of need however “minor”. And this hour, granting us the opportunity to rectify our mistake, will surely come.

About the Author
Alexander Apfel holds a BA and MA in Modern History. He is an IDF reservist in the armored corps.
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