The Impetus: What happened?
As most of the world is abundantly aware, on Jan. 7, two radical Muslim terrorists charged the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 journalists whom they held responsible for depicting the prophet Mohammed. The following day, a policewoman was gunned down by the same attackers. And on the third day, after the initial two attackers had been apprehended, another radical Muslim terrorist killed four Jews shopping at the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket, threatening to take the lives of the remaining hostages if the two brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks were not released. What began with an attack on insensitive depictions of Mohammed ended with violence against the Jews.
To many, the attack is indicative of rising anti-Semitic trends in Europe and the need to flee before France descends into a replica of pre-World War II Germany. Others argue that the French Jewish identity represents much more than these attacks and the anti-Semitism driving them, and that the meaning of said attacks should not be sensationalized. However, one thing that most agree on is that the status quo must change; either the French government must take more actions to protect its citizens, or the entire dynamic in France must fundamentally shift.
Unfortunately, this event is by no means an anomaly. Europe has seen a rise of anti-Semitism in recent years. To cite a few examples (which constitute nowhere near an exhaustive list), there were the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012 and outside of the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014, as well as countless attacks on and vandalization of schools and synagogues throughout Europe. Although many Jews stay — due to the economic impossibility of leaving or a lack of desire to do so — even those who champion Diaspora Judaism (like the founder of French anti-Semitism watchdog organization, Sammy Ghozlan) are increasingly moving to Israel.
According to Ynet News, the year 2014 “saw a dramatic increase in aliyah from France with the arrival of 7,000 new immigrants, more than double the 3,400 who arrived in 2013 and triple the 1,900 who came in 2012.” These 7,000 immigrants constitute the largest number of French immigrants in Israel’s history, and mark the first time that French immigrants outnumbered those from any other country.
Following the killings at the supermarket, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “Before the attack, our estimates spoke of 10,000 new olim [Jewish immigrants to Israel] in 2015. In two weeks time we will reexamine this estimate in light of the current developments.”
The Conflicting Viewpoints: Do we stay or do we go?
The day following the attack on the Parisian kosher supermarket, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in Jerusalem, “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray; the State of Israel is your home.”
He continued, “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms.”
Instead of falling on bended knee to thank Netanyahu for his hospitality, many French Jews rose to combat Netanyahu’s implication that French Jewry was incapable of subsisting.
According to the Israeli news site NRG, the Director of the European Jewish Association Rabbi Menachem Margolin responded, “I regret that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government dispenses the same statements about the importance of aliyah rather than take all measures … at its disposal in order to increase the safety of Jewish life in Europe. Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are.”
The debate rages with little hope of being concretely resolved, for it speaks to two distinct views about Diaspora Judaism. On the one side are those like Netanyahu (and Ariel Sharon in 2004) who believe that Judaism is incomplete without living in the holy land, and that outside of Israel the Jewish people are either facing anti-Semitism (as in Europe) or assimilating and therefore losing their Jewish identity (as in the United States). On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that pushing Israel as the only feasible home for Jews undermines many people’s connection to their nations, and prevents the mingling and mutual exchange of ideas and cultures. In fact, some argue that positioning Israel as the sole Jewish home further marks Jews as outsiders, thereby increasing anti-Semitism among the inhabitants of the host nation.
The Question: Who are we?
Either way, the debate can be pared down to a question of safety: are Jews safe in France? In the Diaspora at large? Can mothers kiss their children goodbye in the morning and be confident that they will see them again in the evening? And if not, then what do we do?
In order to try and answer some of these questions, Ha’Am sat down with the President of the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council, Avinoam Baral, and Bruins for Israel President, Eytan Davidovits.
Baral, born in Israel but spending his youth between Israel, France, and the United States, crossed his legs on the black l-shaped couch in his office in Kerckhoff Hall, contemplating the present situation. He acknowledged the anti-Semitism in France, but also explained that he never felt like his Jewish identity was under attack. His friends might have been beaten up and his school might have been the victim of arson, but none of this lessened his intensely strong connection to the French Jewish community.
“To a certain extent, I think it’s not up to the Jews to change the situation. […] My feeling is that the French government should be doing the work,” Baral voiced, leaning forward in his seat.
“One of the things that France has never done a good job of is integrating its citizens. Ever since the end of colonialism — which was only in the 50s — there have been waves of French and Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and there’s never been much work done to integrate these populations. It’s especially bad on the Muslim side of the suburbs, where the unemployment rate is high, it’s desolate, and there’s a lot of desperation, which together lead to social circumstances that aren’t conducive to democracy, and produce civil unrest.” Baral paused, then gestured with his hands for emphasis, “France never addressed its history of xenophobia; they hate the Muslims as much as they hate the Jews.”
Davidovits, whose family in France lives down the street from the Hyper Cacher supermarket, remains optimistic that radical change will take place in France. “This was France’s 9/11,” Davidovits noted, crossing his legs. “In the same way, France knows this cannot go on. The tensions have run high, but everyone has turned a blind eye to it. And following Charlie Hebdo, there was the largest protest since the 1944 liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, which proves that people are serious about change.”
Davidovits went on to explain that there is no categoric solution for French Jews, and that each person needs to make his or her own decision based on level of comfort and means of immigrating.
In response to Netanyahu’s open invitation to French Jews, Davidovits said, “I thought it was beautiful. It sounded like in a time of darkness, if you don’t feel comfortable, Israel is your home — you have a home to come back to.”
When speaking about their personal identities, both Baral and Davidovits enumerated differences between Jewish identity in Israel, France, and the United States. Baral commented that, to a certain extent, it is easier to be Jewish in Israel, where the majority of the population celebrates Jewish holidays and lifecycle events together. However, Baral compares the strong divide in Israel between secular Jews, traditional Jews, and Orthodox Jews, with little room in the middle, to the freedom of Jews in the United States to express their identity in whichever form they choose.
“For me,” Baral said, motioning to himself, “I think that I am still trying to figure out what that identity is. And that’s one of the reasons why I really like America and American Jewry — no one has figured it out!”
As reported by The Jewish Week, according to the Pew Research Center study, “Nearly 30 percent of Jews say they do not identify with any denomination; this figure, perhaps surprisingly, includes 19 percent of those who define themselves as Jews by religion.”
In other words, a growing portion of Jews who define themselves as Jewish by religion do not identify with specific Jewish denominations. Baral comments, “It’s not because they no longer consider themselves Jewish, but they no longer feel that the categories define them.”
Perhaps the struggle is futile to try and disseminate a clear definition of American Jewry — or Diaspora Jewry more broadly — since every individual defines it differently for themselves. One phenomenon that we see arise from the terrorist attacks surrounding Charlie Hebdo is that there is no quintessential Jewish identity; some feel comfortable living in the Diaspora, while others jump at the opportunity to make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel.
Davidovits cites advice from his mentor, who maintains that representing a positive Jewish identity in the Diaspora is just as important as moving to Israel and fighting for the Jewish state.
“No matter what,” Baral adds, “it’s important not to generalize, because that does not do justice to the people living there.”
No matter what, Jews will continue to plant their roots in whatever country will have them. For some, that’s Israel, for some that’s France, and for some that’s the United States. But no matter what, Jews should stay in their home country for as long as they feel comfortable. Gone are the days when we are forcibly expelled — at least for now.