While I identify as culturally Jewish, I have never had religious or social affiliation with any Jewish organization or social media. However, the friend/follower who occasionally supplies me with cartoons and the pictures of multiple kittens you’ve seen here, received this morning, from a Boston friend of her own with some such connections, a email letter which she’s kindly passed on to me. I say “kindly” because I would otherwise never have seen it. Nor, I daresay, would you. It comes from Tom Cohen (originally out of Oregon), now the American rabbi of the French-American synagogue in Paris (Kehilat Gesher), and presents a view of what life was like on the streets of Paris for French Jews on the day of Charlie Hebdo, as well as his (admittedly partisan but not necessarily incorrect) analysis of the current forces in French politics and society that permitted such a situation to have developed.
As he concedes, his letter is long. I’ve cut away about a third of it, the cuts indicated by ellipses (….) — including his plea for funds from American friends to maintain protection for the synagogue in the days to come. Setting the fund-raising aspect of it aside (which I have), I nonetheless thought it deserved a wider readership than those limited number of the Jewish faith to whom it was first addressed. [It’s broken into sections to make scrolling through it easier, if you’re in a hurry.]
…. A week ago, all of Paris –myself included– was going about their normal business. In my case, I was taking one of my children to a medical visit and considering whether I needed to take advantage of the official “sales period” that had just begin that morning. (For my American friends, France has a much more regulated commercial economy that dictates when and for how long stores may have sales – and what constitutes a sale). Turning on the radio in the autolib (an electric Zip car of sorts), came the first waves of information: an “attack” had taken place at the redaction office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In reality a massacre had just taken place, but details were still sketchy.
My first reaction is probably a familiar automatic response known by all of our Israeli friends: I sent off a quick SMS to my family to find out if everyone was alright! Everyone was fine. Then details started to come out: the staff was gunned down in cold blood by Islamist terrorists at an address that was vaguely familiar. Suddenly I realized that the Charlie Hebdo office was no longer at an address in the North of Paris. (After having been firebombed by radicals in 2011 for its drawings of the prophet Mohammed, they probably had decided to move for security to another site). Instead, they were literally right around the corner from my wife’s synagogue, Centre Maayan-CJL.
As in any dramatic moment that centers on issues of life and death, we often consider the “what ifs.” Among those I had thought about was the realization that the directors of the Talmud Torah religious schools of the Liberal synagogues of Paris and some rabbis were supposed to be meeting at her synagogue center at about the same time that the premeditated slaughter was perpetrated. The meeting’s location had only been changed at the last minute to another synagogue to accommodate one of the directors. Otherwise, they would have been walking out of the metro stop and into the killing spree.
By the time I got back home –I live in the historic old Jewish neighborhood of the Marais– police and riot control forces (CRS) were already present. Turning on the news, and switching back and forth between TF1, I-Télé, BFM news, CNN and I24, we learned more of the story of the grim outcome for the editorial staff and security personnel. How … a wounded local policeman (a Muslim, himself moreover) coming to their aid was literally murdered — his death recorded on a video, played over and over again around the world.
My own phone started ringing non-stop as shock, horror, anger and trepidation started to settle in amongst Parisians. Everyone realized that armed terrorists were literally running loose on our streets. I called my Talmud Torah director to consult together, since we had a class scheduled at the synagogue for that same early afternoon. We needed to figure out whether or not to maintain the class – and whether we would be able to contact all the students, parents and teacher in time, if the decision was to cancel the class. Because the class would be held very shortly and kids often come on their own directly to the synagogue, class in the end was held. I asked our teacher to use the backroom (farthest room from the street and next to an emergency exit) and keep me updated.
…. By the next day, when two sets of terrorists were holed up in two locations, one being a Jewish supermarket not too far from my daughter’s High School, sheer panic had hit us all. France’s national security alert system (Le plan Vigipirate) was at its highest levels. Calls were coming forth to cancel that evening’s Shabbat services. In consultation with my congregation’s President and Talmud Torah director, we decided that given the situation… we would cancel Sunday school classes as a precaution for the children. (However we did send homework home to the families by email, explaining to them that learning was also a way to resist.) Nonetheless, I felt that it was very important for us to maintain our Shabbat services – even if other congregations might decide otherwise. We hired private guards; heavily armed police in bullet proof vests were also making the rounds between Kehilat Gesher and a neighboring Orthodox shule on the next street.
…. My little shteibl was packed. The atmosphere at Kehilat Gesher was at once spiritual and electric. Fear and pride intermingled in our prayers. In our collective minds, we were not only thinking about the current attacks, but also thinking about the killing of Ilan Halimi z”l in 2006, the murders of the French soldiers and Jewish children and teachers in Toulouse in 2012, and the massacre at the Brussels Jewish Museum last year in which one of our very own members of Kehilat Gesher, Dominique Sabrier z”l was murdered… and for whom I with a heavy-heart presided over the funeral. Everyone there felt to the depths of their … souls that the simple act of praying together was an act of defiance. It was an act of resistance and resilience.
At the next morning services, one congregant even commented that “it was almost a normal Shabbat at Kehilat Gesher” in these atypical times. Yet walking out into the streets (and asking members to disperse quickly and avoid leaving in groups) reminded us just how much our reality had changed in only a couple of days. A healthy dose of fear reigns as everyone wonders when and where the next attack might occur. On my way home, I noticed that shops were nearly empty and that there was a deafening loud quietness all around the city – highly unusual for a Parisian Saturday afternoon. That evening I cancelled our ciné-club activity set for Sunday, in order to permit everyone to participate in the rally of unity, and I passed the rest of Saturday evening glued to the TV, internet or radio, like most of the population around me.
Sunday morning, I participated in an inter-religious ceremony that preceded a Protestant religious service. I, an Imam, a Priest and the Temple’s Pastor spoke of tolerance and unity. It was a ceremony, for which I am very happy that it had taken place, but I was also troubled by it. I know well my clerical colleagues and am confident of their hopes, desires and good intentions. That being said, I was profoundly disturbed that the original idea for the ceremony was to start by lighting 21 candles – 17 for the victims, 3 for the terrorists killed and one large general candle for victims of terrorism everywhere. I let it be known that while I realize this might be a part of their theological imperative, I couldn’t countenance a ceremony that put the executioner on the same moral level as the victim. As a result, 3 candles were placed apart from the others.
Further, I was also bothered by the words of the Imam –a wonderful person. Nonetheless, he simply could not see that his (and my preferred) interpretation of Islam is in reality not the only interpretation acceptable among Moslems. He basically stated that the terrorists could not be Moslem because, I assume, they did not fit his more open and tolerant understanding. I would accept that Radical Islam may be an extreme version of the Muslim religion, but it certainly is not a stranger to it. And that is a problem not only liberal Muslims –but also all of us in the West– must have the courage to look in the face one day, if we really want to vanquish the demon.
Finally, I was made anxious by the ceremony because… well, here was a crowd of people simply coming to their house of worship — Protestants in the occurrence — with the front doors wide open and with no police or security standing on the outside! What might be standard for the non-Jewish Christian population in France becomes frightening from a Jewish viewpoint. I realized no one there was as sensitive to these standard concerns as almost any Jew in France today. And knowing that I have been formatted by circumstance (read ‘warped’) into thinking it “right and normal” to have to worry about safety measures before gathering people together in a Jewish context is one of the surer signs of the illness of our times.
Yet in spite of these complexities, I am still pleased that the ceremony occurred. And even if it was not all what I could hope for, a truism of life is: if one wants to make change, we must start from where others are, in order to get them to where we think they ought to be!
Sunday afternoon, the coming together of millions of people in the streets of Paris was an incredible experience. Yes, a good number of the signs held high said “Je suis Charlie” (I’m Charlie). But numerous, as well, were the signs that said “Je suis Juif” (I’m Jewish), even in the hands of people of obvious North African descent.…. Seeing everyone clapping for and cheering on the police (unusual in France), spontaneous singing of the national anthem, la Marseillaise (even more unusual in France), and strangers talking to each other with warmth and tenderness in a friendly atmosphere (what can I say, highly unusual) was some solace of hope in these somber times.
…. Here we are now a week later. What can I tell you? That kosher restaurants near my synagogue were filled as they normally are at lunch hour. And eating a hamburger and fries (sorry my vegetarian friends and family) has taken on a new color – an act of civil protest and rebellion, in addition to simply being an expression of my Jewish values. Students are still showing up for classes, and parents are still having me perform life cycle events. (We welcomed a baby girl into the community yesterday!)
True, aliya (immigration) is up. Yet it is difficult to know how much is really an Aliya based upon fear of anti-Semitism previous to these attacks, and how much is an Aliya based upon economic interests and what the French call defiscalisation: “tax refugees”. Many commentators pointed out how Netanyahu was so warmly welcomed at the Rothschild synagogue, especially when compared to the “polite” applause accorded to President Hollande (who until recently has had the “honor” of being the least liked President in the history of the 5th republic). Those journalists were saying that this was a sign that the Jews of France are preparing to leave.
For me, a telling moment was Netanyahu’s appeal to French Jewry that they “should” come home… with the diplomatic response of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying that “France without its Jews will no longer be France.” Yet at the end of that evening ceremony where Netanyahu was so warmly welcomed, those same attendees spontaneously started singing la Marseillaise. (Next thing you know, the French will be waving flags as patriotically and as often as Americans.)
So how did we get here?
Too many years have gone by in which politicians (of both major parties) willfully overlooked creeping extremism in certain neighborhoods in France for expediency purposes, economic benefits and simply votes. They abandoned prisons to Islamists, creating a festering breeding ground for Jihadists. They became wobbly and cowed when confronted by violence and racism in the schools. Journalists have also played a role over the years, substituting direct terms for weaker images: a massacre or a slaughter becomes an “attack”. Extremists and their followers become the “youth from the suburbs”. Intellects tried to pin the blame on others in the face of creeping radical Islamization: in their eyes racism can only come from the traditional source, the far right. Another game is to blame the victim. They are somehow responsible because they support Israel, or they are rich or they are poor, or they are exclusive… just fill in the box.
The social atmosphere had degraded over the years, and the inability to name the problems has made things worse. It is not my intention to go through a geopolitical analysis of how things have slowly spun out of control. But the internationalization of these groups through the Internet has taken an isolated ideology and exported the philosophy to these fanatics and their supporters with whom we must deal with today. These horrific murders are a wakeup call that has aroused many to finally start realizing that Islamist fascist groups’ intimidation is real and its reach is widespread. These murders also underlined once again the reality that some people are being killed for the right to express themselves freely, like the journalists at Charlie Hebdo; others, the Jews, simply for being who they are.
Hopefully the reaction to the violence will lead people to recognize that Islamist jihadist terrorists pose a serious threat to values our democracies cherish and hold dear: liberty, equality and fraternity. So even if Aliya rates double in the coming year, a cold-eye analysis is that the vast majority of Jews in France are still staying for a whole host of reasons that are legitimate. They want to see changes, and they’re hoping that the politicians follow up their words with facts on the grounds.
As of today I can say that in every speech pronounced by and legislation proposed by the Prime Minister, I feel a real determinism on his part to do the right thing. Mongers of hate on the Internet and through Tweeter have in the past couple of days been arrested and sentenced to jail time; even Dieudonné was taken into custody. Also thousands of soldiers and police have been mobilized to protect sensitive sites (e.g. synagogues and schools). France is sending its aircraft carrier into range to strike the Islamic state and Al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East.
It doesn’t completely lessen the nagging fear, but it is a start. And there is much more to do! So to answer a question a few people asked: no, I’m not packing my bags yet. I still have way too much work to do here.
I know this letter has been (too) long. But I have had numerous demands asking what people can do to help from overseas. Just beyond the amazing spiritual and psychological support, concern and prayers which we have received, ….come and visit. The hizzuk (strength) we get from your presence is important. We had a couple from New York this last Shabbat who came to Friday night services. Their presence on a night when the rest of us were still in shock was priceless! …. And realize that what has happened in Paris can happen anywhere in the civilized world. The only real way to fight it is by sticking together. Giving up is not going to solve the problem, only perhaps compound it. May we all soon find healing and the possibility to live freely and safely everywhere where we might live.
Rabbin Tom Cohen הרב טוביה בן יוסף הכהן ודבורה
ק”ק קהילת גשר דפאריש Kehilat Gesher
La synagogue franco-américaine de Paris
7 rue Léon Cogniet 75017 Paris (M° Courcelles)