France’s defining moment

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PARIS – The kosher supermarket was chosen deliberately. Men, women and children were shopping, preparing for Shabbat. Only two days before the attack, terrorists had left 12 people dead at Charlie Hebdo. Three French police officers were also struck down, one of them a Muslim. Each Islamist terrorist attack targeted a symbol of the French Republic, seeking to bring the country to its knees.

That Jews were targets of radical Islam was, alas, unsurprising. Four hostages – Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, François-Michel Saada – were killed. Survivors of the attack are anguished. So, too, are most French Jews, who once again are discussing and evaluating not only the future of our community, but the fate of France itself.


Let’s be clear: France is under assault. The enemy is in our midst. Extremists, faithful to a brand of Islam that celebrates violence and martyrdom, have no respect whatsoever for the core, longstanding French values of democracy, pluralism, freedom of expression – indeed, for life itself. Traditional forms of protest are alien to them. Instead, as seen in the carnage wrought by ISIS, al-Qaida and other jihadists in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, pure barbarism is their vehicle to achieve their perverted notion of salvation.

Tragically, the events of recent days are not a new phenomenon. The Jewish community, including AJC Paris, has warned for years about the developing and deepening threat that radical Islam poses to France. In March 2012, a lone, heavily armed Mohammed Merah murdered three French soldiers in cold blood, and, a week later, slaughtered a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse. The Toulouse attack was a game changer to French Jews, and though French political leaders voiced outrage, as time passed and the numbers and frequency of anti-Semitic incidents rose, the country seemed to get used to them, even anesthetized to this reality, while many Jews felt a sense of loneliness and isolation.

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The recent attacks in Paris have shocked the entire nation, indeed the entire world. What is new this time is the depth and breadth of the reactions, crisscrossing French society, the realization that combating the threat of radical Islam must be, and remain, a national priority. But will this be the necessary wake-up call for France as a whole to confront the danger?

The terrorists who struck in Paris – as in Toulouse, and at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May – are not isolated lone wolves. They most likely are the tip of a radical Islamist iceberg, the small visible part. To counter this lethal trend we must delve deeper and understand the factors that draw certain individuals to radical Islam, and find ways to counter this evil that endangers all of France.


French schools must teach mutual respect and responsibility, a component of the curriculum that is stunningly missing. Indoctrination in extremist ideologies in prisons demands attention, as does recruitment by radical, violent groups through social media and in mosques. The Toulouse and Paris terrorists spent time not only in prison but also with jihadist groups in Syria and Yemen. Hundreds more are currently in Syria and Iraq, and maybe in other Arab countries. That they could return with French passports to settle back in our communities, or in other European countries, is a nightmare.

The French government cannot do it alone and will require active involvement by political, religious and civil-society leaders. Immediate reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo were inspiring, as millions of French citizens gathered in central Paris, communicated their outrage on social media, and called for action. Unfortunately, the voices of Muslim community leaders – with some
notable exceptions – have until now been barely audible.

Many of us in the Jewish community regretted that no large solidarity movement rose up after the gruesome kidnap-murder of Ilan Halimi nine years ago, or after Toulouse, or during this past summer’s transparently anti-Semitic demonstrations. While the government did speak out after attacks on Jews and firmly decries anti-Semitism, many in French society and in the media refused to see that our French values were at stake, and that Jews were indeed a target.

Hatred of Jews never ends with Jews. The menace of rising anti-Semitism threatens French society at large. The future of France will be decided in the coming days, weeks and months. The Charlie Hebdo massacre makes clear that the war against France’s democratic values is in high gear.

Sunday’s mass rally, attended by more than 3.7 million people and addressed by French President Hollande, German Chancellor Merkel, British Prime Minister Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister
Netanyahu and other political leaders, was a powerful statement of outrage and solidarity against this barbarism in France and in the rest of the world.

But what happens in the days and weeks ahead will truly test France. Now, more than at any other time in its postwar history, the fate of France is entwined with the fate of its Jews. If it loses them, sooner or later, it will also be lost.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office.

– JTA News and Features

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