What would we be doing right now if we were a congregation in France? What would be the zeitgeist of our community? What kind of decisions would we feel compelled to make? How many new armed guards would we be hiring? What programs would be curtailed or outright cancelled? Would people come to services out of solidarity or stay home for fear of violence?
Whatever the complexities of these practical questions, I have no doubt that we would face them as resolutely as our French brothers and sisters at this moment. Whatever the answers would be, we would address them and then implement them without hesitation. We believe in the strength and the resilience of our people.
But there is another question French Jews are asking each other, THE question. And we as American Jews have no analog experience from which to answer it: should we stay or should we go now? Or to state it in apocalyptic but honest language, is this the end of Jewish life in Europe?
The first evidence of Jews in France dates back to the 6th century. Since then Jews have experienced horrors and honors, oppression and freedom. When Napoleon made Jews equal citizens of France after the French Revolution it was a new high water mark for Jewish life in the Diaspora. It spelled the beginnings of modernity and the possibility that Jews could enter the secular world as equals to their non-Jewish neighbors. When Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jew and a career officer in the French Army at the end of the 19th century was charged with treason on trumped up charges (as a Jew he was an easy target in the terribly antisemitic French army), there were all kinds of antisemitic incidents. Dreyfus was later cleared, but what of the antisemitism? As always, a complicated story, but perhaps part of the answer is revealed in how many Jews were rounded up in France during the Holocaust. Or is it revealed in the way France alone amongst other European nations, came to Israel’s aid in the 50s and 60s?
The story of the Jews of France is filled with point-counterpoint. What’s undisputable is the impact Jews have had on the French Republic – and vice versa. And now, in the wake of the murders in the kosher market in Paris and other recent antisemitic violence, are the Jews of France at risk? Statistically speaking, the chances of being hurt or killed in a terror attack are still greater in Israel. A new Israeli citizen from France said, “But it’s not the same thing, because here, we look out for one another. There, the feeling is that nobody will protect us; we don’t know if people on the street will help us if something happens.”
“If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” So said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. And I would agree. A judenrein France would be the ultimate disgrace of a modern nation founded on the principles of liberty, fraternity and egalitie.
Would we do? Would we be planning our exit? Would we opt out? Of course I don’t know. Thank God I don’t need to answer that question. So I have the freedom to wonder: isn’t the exodus of French Jews to Israel exactly what these terrorists want? Isn’t scaring Jews to run away an old picture from a well-worn playbook? Isn’t that yesterday’s news? And isn’t it awful that in 2015 I have ask these questions?
I stand with my French Jewish brothers and sisters. If they believe that it is time for them to leave, then so be it. What would I do? As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I couldn’t bear being forced to leave a democratic nation, terrorism or not. I think I believe in making a stand. Either choice right now feels dangerous and fraught with meaning. No matter what, I am relieved that there is an Israel. I am relieved that Jews, thank God, actually have a choice. That’s the good news in all of this.