By Gerard Leval
Just four days after the terrible attacks in Paris, I was on a flight there for professional meetings. As if to provide me with a preliminary appreciation of the stress being experienced by Parisians, three hours out of Washington, my flight was diverted to Halifax as a result of a bomb scare. Along with my 297 fellow travelers, I ended up being stranded in Nova Scotia, somewhat concerned and confused about our fate, for more than 27 hours before resuming my journey.
Upon arriving in Paris, it became rather apparent that the terrorist attacks had had a significant impact on local life. Charles de Gaulle Airport was quite deserted. The streets of Paris seemed strikingly devoid of the usual crowds. Those walking through the streets looked about with glares of suspicion. The security measures previously reserved for Jewish sites now seemed omnipresent, with guards wearing outfits bearing the word “Sécurité” at all public venues.
While all of France has now been massively traumatized, the French Jewish community, already frequently afflicted, is going through its own very particular introspection.
In the past few days, I have spoken with a substantial number of Parisian Jews about the recent events and, even though many different views have been expressed, some common threads have emerged. Of course, Jews share completely the terrible pain and anger of most Parisians at the brutality of the attacks. Even though Paris is a very large city, with over 130 victims, the impact has run deep. Many people seem to know someone who was a victim of the attacks or who is close to someone who was a victim. Jews are no exception and they have been deeply and personally touched by the attacks.
But there is an ambivalence among Jews respecting the lessons that France will draw from these events.
Jews are wondering out loud whether the French will finally recognize that the radical Islamists are not simply targeting specific and readily identifiable components of French society — aggressive journalists, who insult Muhammed, and Jews — but rather that they are now conducting a frontal attack on French and Western democratic values. There is a subsidiary speculation as to whether the French will now better understand the challenges that Israel faces each day from the Islamists (in the form of violent Palestinians) and therefore will join the ranks of supporters of Israel or, at least, will stop vilifying Israel.
The response to these concerns is mixed. Among certain Jews there is a feeling that the French emphasis on “fraternity,” one of the three components of the national motto, will prevail. According to this view, all French citizens will join hands and confront the scourge of Islamist extremism. This will, at long last, put an end to a kind of Jewish isolation in France and maybe will end some of the hostility to Israel. The guards stationed in front of Jewish institutions will now appear as guardians of French Republican values and not of parochial locations. But others fear that, instead, it will lead to resentment that Jewish institutions are more protected than other institutions.
At a convivial erev Shabbat gathering in Paris’ fashionable 16th arrondissement, the quick response to my expressions of concerns about the France-Jewish community were strong assertions of loyalty to France and the French way of life, accompanied by a somewhat more muted hope that there would be improvement in the manner in which Muslim extremism is treated. If the group was not pessimistic about the future of Jews in France, its optimism was, in the word of one of the participants, “balanced.”
However, at a post-Havdalah gathering of less affluent and more observant Jews, at an apartment just a few blocks from where the Bataclan Theater assault took place, there seemed little real hope for fundamental change. To those Jews, the growing role of Muslims in France, with little distinction being drawn between “ordinary” and “radical” Muslims, remains a virtually insurmountable obstacle to the viability of the French Jewish community. Ultimately, to them, aliyah to Israel seems the only realistic answer.
Many of the concerns of the French Jewish community are reflected within French society at large. In these last few days, everyone has been speaking about the challenges to French society posed by Muslim sectarianism fueled by incendiary imams and the accompanying terrorist threat. The fears are laced with patriotic expressions. In all my years of traveling to Paris, I have not heard the “Marseillaise,” the national anthem, intoned so often. I have not seen the French flag so widely displayed. A kind of forced optimism permeates the public dialogue. But, in private, there are grave doubts as to whether France can truly integrate the Muslim community and manage the problem being created by a large group of Islamist radicals.
It is not clear whether the French have yet come to the realization that the Jews of France truly may be the canaries in the French coal mine. It is not yet clear that the average French person finally understands that when young Muslims shout “Jews out of France” on the streets of Paris, they are really calling for the removal from France, not just of Jews, but of the very values that underpin the French Republic, of the values created by the French Revolution: of liberty, of equality and of fraternity.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington law firm of Arent Fox LLP.