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On French Men and France

Imagine if there was a 'BDS boycott' of a country which has allowed anti-Semitism to go unchecked
Members of the Union of French Jewish Students demonstrate in Paris in 2013 with a sign that reads, "Jews murdered, republic endangered." (Courtesy of UEJF via JTA)
Members of the Union of French Jewish Students demonstrate in Paris in 2013 with a sign that reads, "Jews murdered, republic endangered." (Courtesy of UEJF via JTA)

On Friday afternoon at the Palmachim Beach one man stood out. It wasn’t his bright yellow bathing trunks, or his blindingly orange sunglasses. After all, fluorescent attire was everywhere. It wasn’t that he chose to direct his children’s swimming from the shore, or that he did so in his native French. After all, the beach was filled with tired parents supervising remotely—in multiple mother tongues. It wasn’t even how he chose to wade a few inches into the surf—yellow-trunked, orange-shaded—with a cigarette perfectly poised between two fingers.

No, it wasn’t any one of those things. It was all of them together– the whole gestalt. Something about him, some je ne sais quoi, was, well, too French for the Palmachim Beach. Perhaps what they say was true: you can take the man out of France, but you can’t take the French out of the man.

Ironically, later on the same Friday afternoon, an email arrived “From a Jew living in France”. It read as follows:

I have checked this all out in several sources and it is all true. It goes along with the email sent out a few days ago about Jews leaving France for Israel in record numbers and immediately. Once again, the real news in France is conveniently not being reported as it should . . . .

Will the world say nothing – again – as it did in Hitler’s time? I AM A JEW — therefore I am forwarding this to everyone on all my e-mail lists. I will not sit back and do nothing. Nowhere have the flames of anti-Semitism burned more furiously than in France.

1. In Lyon, a car was rammed into a synagogue and set on fire.

2. In Montpellier, the Jewish religious center was firebombed.

3. So were synagogues in Strasbourg and Marseilles;

4. So was a Jewish school in Creteil – all recently.

5. A Jewish sports club in Toulouse was attacked with Molotov cocktails.

6. On the statue of Alfred Dreyfus, in Paris, the words ‘Dirty Jew’ were painted.

7. In Bondy, 15 men beat up members of a Jewish football team with sticks and metal bars.

8. The bus that takes Jewish children to school in Aubervilliers has been attacked three times in the last 14 months.

9. According to the Police, metropolitan Paris has seen 10 to 12 anti-Jewish incidents PER DAY in the past 30 days.

10. Walls in Jewish neighborhoods have been defaced with slogans proclaiming ‘Jews to the gas chambers’ and ‘Death to the Jews’.

11. A gunman opened fire on a kosher butcher’s shop (and, of course, the butcher) in Toulouse, France.

12. A Jewish couple in their 20’s were beaten up by five men in Villeurbanne (the woman was pregnant).

13. A Jewish school was broken into and vandalized in Sarcelles. . . .

So I call on you, whether you are a fellow Jew, a friend, or merely a person with the capacity and desire to distinguish decency from depravity, to do – at least – these three simple things:

First, care enough to stay informed. Don’t ever let yourself become deluded into thinking that this is not your fight. I remind you of what Pastor Niemöller said in World War II: ‘First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.’

Second, boycott France and French products. Only the Arab countries are more toxically anti-Semitic and, unlike them, France exports more than just oil and hatred. So boycott their wines and their perfumes. Boycott their clothes and their foodstuffs. Boycott their movies. Definitely boycott their shores. If we are resolved we can exert amazing pressure and, whatever else we may know about the French, we most certainly know that they are like a cobweb in a hurricane in the face of well-directed pressure.

Third, send this along to your family, your friends, and your co-workers. Think of all of the people of good conscience that you know and let them know that you – and the people that you care about – need their help.


Viscerally, the email got me as it had hoped. It was, to paraphrase Israel’s Prime Minister, once again 1938, and France was, well, once again France. I was angry and afraid.

But just as I have never accepted Netanyahu’s formulation, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany,” so, too, my own visceral response to the email could not stand. To be sure, the events in France upset me. But more upsetting was the email’s all too familiar call to action, and how easy it was to be so called.

As it happens, I do not believe what they say is true. You can take the Jew out of diaspora. And yes, you can also take the diaspora out of the Jew. In 2014, we Jews have the sober responsibility to remember 1938. But in 2014, we Jews also have the sovereign right to derive our identity and course of action from 1948.

Switching our national touchstone from 1938 to 1948, would mean reshaping the familiar assumptions of the Frenchman’s email:

First, while 1948 offered a homeland for the in-gathering of persecuted Jews from around the world, the establishment of the State of Israel was not the consecration of an eternal refugee camp, it marked the transformation of an exiled people into a sovereign nation. 1948 did not give the Jews a final resting place; it gave them a fresh start.

Second, as 1948 established Israel as a sovereign nation, it required editing the definition of the word ‘goyim’ in the Jewish lexicon. Pre-1948, the term goyim (usually ‘the goyim’) was understood to mean ‘those non-Jews among whom we are forced to live, from whom we desire to keep our distance, and who, when push comes to shove, will seek our destruction.’ Post-1948, the word goyim could retrieve its original meaning—“nations”—with Israel taking its place as a goy among the goyim, a nation among the nations.

Third, as 1948 saw the establishment of Israel as a nation among the nations, it gave to the Jewish people the responsibility and the authority granted to nations to protect their own. No longer would Jews have to rely on the mercy of others to defend them. Now they could defend themselves. Once and for all, ‘never again’ could mean never again.

Fourth, as 1948 restored agency to the Jewish people, the Jewish response to anti-Semitism needed no longer to be restricted to the hue and cry of stateless victims, but could become statecraft—the work of a world-class intelligence force, able to hunt down its perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Finally, as 1948 marked the restoration of sovereignty to an ancient people, it re-called this people to be more than just one more nation among the nations. 1948 re-called Israel to be ‘Or L’Goyim’—a light unto the nations. This ancient calling has a double meaning—to be an example to the nations of the world and to shine a light upon them. How is the ancient Jewish people called to be both an exemplar and a watchdog?

No fewer than 36 times does the Torah instruct the people of Israel to take responsibility for the stranger. Because the Jews know all too well the harsh experience of being strangers in a strange land, it is for the Jewish people to treat well the strangers in their own land, and to shine a light on those nations who ill-treat the strangers in their midst. The Jews are to be the people of Xenia (Zion)– Xenophiles to a world of Xenophobic nations. With 2014 witnessing refugees pour into foreign lands by the thousands, at no time has this ancient calling been more relevant or more urgent.

Yes, the Jewish people can leave diaspora and yes, diaspora can take its leave from the Jewish people. And yes, in 2014, acts of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world must call a sovereign Jewish people to do three things:

First, practice Xenophilia at home;

Second, shine a light on Xenophobia abroad; and

Third, deploy our best-in-the-world intelligence forces to track down and bring to justice anyone who would persecute a member of the Jewish people.

About the Author
Sarah Kass is a mother of two daughters, a Yale graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and a serial social entrepreneur. At 27 she founded the first charter public high school in the United States, and was recognized as one of America’s 10 most promising leaders under 30. Now over 30 and a resident of Jerusalem--the original "city on a hill"--she remains determined never to "underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world."
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