This past Monday night, UCLA students held a vigil for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher grocery store shootings, as well as for the policewoman who was killed in a related shooting. 8:30 p.m. found about 70 students huddled against the chill of Meyerhoff Park in front of Kerckhoff Hall. Speakers included Lenie Torregrossa of Euro Bruins, USAC president Avinoam Baral (who holds French citizenship), Bruins for Israel President Eytan Davidovits, and Muslim Student Association representative Wali Kamal.
The event began with an introduction and request for a “respectful [and] attentive presence” by Arielle Mokhtarzadeh, BFI’s director of public relations, and Natalie Charney, the student board president of Hillel at UCLA. Mokhtarzadeh then presented a timeline of the events, listing each victim by name and age.
“[These] were people who were going about their regular days, some doing what they loved most,” she concluded. “Terror did not discriminate. Neither should we. Tonight, we each came here as members of different communities each deeply affected by these massacres in very profound ways.”
Torregrossa spoke about the spirit of unity in and with France and the need to stand against fear and terrorism.
“This is our way to show that we all stay together in the fight for freedom, in the fight against terrorism, and to show them that we’re not scared… For all of us French people gathered here, it is our duty to make sure that the core values of our country are respected,” she said.
Explaining the French motto of “liberty, freedom, fraternity,” Torregrossa described the necessities of freedom of speech and fraternity in order to be able to preserve individual freedoms, an approach made especially pertinent by the shootings and subsequent attacks on Muslims unconnected to the shooters.
Baral and Davidovits both contrasted their Shabbat preparations and experiences to those of the hostages from Hyper Cacher.
“The same 21-year-old, 22-year-old who died in the kosher supermarket going about their regular business on a Friday morning, getting ready for Shabbat, could have been me, another 21-year-old French Jewish citizen getting ready for Shabbat,” Baral said. He then described personal experiences of anti-Semitism during his time in France, such as discomfort with publicly wearing a kippah or explaining Jewish holidays and the beating of a schoolmate who was on the train home.
Baral also addressed the emotional difficulties and confusion inherent when one struggles to deal with a tragedy such as the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher shootings. “When someone dies or when people die, in the Jewish faith, the traditional thing that you say to somebody is ‘Baruch Dayan ha’emet…Blessed be He, the Judge of truth…’ Sometimes, it’s very difficult to say…where…you want to bless the ‘Judge of truth’ and you want to bless…everybody and feel that there is some sort of justice in this world…but when cartoonists are killed for doing their craft…and people doing their daily shopping in a supermarket are killed just for who they are, it’s sometime very difficult to find justice in this world. But I think that…when we look around Meyerhoff Park and see so many different faces and so many different types of people out here, gathered in mourning and solidarity, I think that’s where we start to see the seeds of justice…and start to see the seeds of a better world.”
Kamal expressed sympathy for the victims and condemned the “heinous acts of violence,” describing the terror as being against Islamic scripture. He then spoke about Muslim frustration with the fact that despite the efforts of Muslims who work to improve themselves and the world, “a small group of people go out and do something horrible and nightmarish that washes out everything you do. We take one step forward and they put us ten steps back.”
After the speeches, the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish (a liturgical Jewish prayer) led by Elyssa Schlossberg, vice president of the student board of Hillel at UCLA, and a moment of silence, lit by cell phone flashlights, attendees marched around Powell Library and down Janss Steps in silence, similar to the solidarity marches that took place earlier in Paris and other French cities. Attendees listened attentively, with all eyes on each speaker and then walked mostly in silence. Some left when the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish began, returning for the march.
Nicole Arasa, a prospective transfer to UCLA, felt that the attacks were not simply an attack on a political newspaper or easy, Jewish targets. “It’s an attack on freedom, and I definitely think that’s not right. I also think it’s an attack on Western democracy,” she said.
The shootings immediately caught the attention of Western countries and Western media, as evidenced by the fact that they still occupy the headlines. The public’s short-term memory is usually quick to move past tragedies such as the thousands of deaths in West Africa due to the Ebola virus, the kidnapping and selling of schoolgirls into slavery by Boko Haram, and an ongoing civil war in Syria that has resulted in the deaths of over one hundred-ninety thousand people and the displacement of others. But for now, it remains fixated on the violent deaths of fewer than 25 people. In particular, the global Jewish community mourns the loss of four people who were shot while trying to finish last-minute Shabbat grocery shopping.
There is no element of surprise to anti-Semitism in France; three years ago, in Montauban and Toulouse, an attack that left two French soldiers dead was followed by the killing of three children and a teacher at a Jewish day school. The quenelle salute, a backwards Nazi salute popularized by the openly anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, began to gain widespread popularity less than a year later. This past summer, a pro-Palestinian protest in Sarcelles against Israel’s operation in Gaza turned into an anti-Semitic riot in which businesses were looted and youths beaten for wearing identifiably Jewish clothing, such as kippot and tzitzit.
Jews have been living living in what was then the Gallia Celtica region of the Roman Empire since the year 6 CE, before the destruction of the Second Temple and mass exile to Rome, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. Jews would then be alternately expelled and welcomed back to Gaul, and later France, at least three times during the next millennia, and endure heavy taxation, an Inquisition, the Crusades, pogroms, numerous blood libels and routine anti-Semitism during their times of residence. During their residence, French Jews have produced famous Torah scholars, philosophers, politicians, artists and numerous Nobel Prize-winning physicians and writers.
Despite these contributions to French society, French history is riddled with incidents of anti-Semitism. Wikipedia even has an entire page titled “Antisemitism [sic] in 21st-century France.” Immigration to Israel from France more than doubled over the past year, with more than 7,000 Jews making aliyah, most notably including the founder of France’s National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. Following the killings at the kosher store, the umbrella organization for French Jewish congregations has requested aid from Israel in coping with anti-Semitism.
French Jewry has significant troubles to deal with if it is to survive. It would be a pity if a community that predates France itself were to follow in the footsteps of the once-vibrant communities of Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Poland, which have either wilted or died out entirely. It is to be hoped, instead, that with the international support and solidarity it has received, France’s Jewish community will be able to persevere and refuse to grant anti-Semites the satisfaction of a country free from Jews.