By Richard Landes
Le tout Paris is talking about it. Everywhere in Paris last week, we heard the voices of horror and astonishment and, now, pride. Two million in Paris, three million throughout France; an Italian newspaper runs the headline, an Oceano Pacifico. A day of national unity in which everyone, whatever their other identities, was French: “We are all Charlie Hebdo. We are all Police. We are all Jews. We are all Free.” It was a magnificent show of solidarity; a collective reassertion of the social contract. It brought out all the best kinds of things that France is made of, that has made her a symbol of liberty and courage so great that even people who find the French, well, difficult, are nonetheless Francophiles. A news anchor notes, “Yesterday, Paris was, bel et bien, the capital of the world.” Or in the words of President Hollande, “la France est toujours le point du rassemblement du monde quand la liberté est en jeu” (France is still/always the place where the world gathers when liberty is at stake).
And what brought France, capital of the world, together in this show of unity? Saying no to the incredible — some say senseless — slaying of 12 cartoonists, a massive and emphatic statement of refus — refusal to “bend the knee,” to “be silent,” to tolerate the violence of the sword against the pen, to endure this assault on France’s core values in silence. In the words of the martyr in chief, “Charb,” taken up as the manif’s motto: “Better to die standing than live on one’s knees.”
All around one hears shock, astonishment. “Mais, where does this madness come from?” How could this happen in France?!? Draped across the grand monument, Place de la République: POURQUOI? Why this senseless violence ?
But some of us, however moved by the events in Paris, find it difficult to take unalloyed pleasure in this wave of communal solidarity. For fifteen years now, there has been a consistent stream of powerful evidence for all the trends that now, in this latest jihadi assault, so rudely shocked all of France. Those of us who have been tracking these trends for the last fifteen years are astonished that so many really didn’t see this coming.
In part, the ignorance came, alas, from the brilliant choice by the jihadis to target Jews first. For many reasons, none of them particularly admirable, many among the French journalistic and political elites preferred not to talk about or acknowledge this assault on the Jews. At the time of the riots and the torture-murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris (2005-6), it was “a state of denial.” Terrorists, big and small, who fancied themselves Mujahedeen, could pick on Jews with near complete impunity even when caught, and further sharpen the creedal and physical weaponry.
In such a silence, it fell to a small group to chronicle events from the outset of the Jihadi aggression on Jews, that is, to note the early stages of the ongoing cultural and social disasters that befell France in the new century: within three years, an important literature both documented and analyzed this sudden and disturbing new development in the West.
And yet, Jews in this period felt like they were, as one of the first protoblogs put it, in a Ghetto of Glass. No one on the outside was listening. If a Jew falls in a suburb and le grand public doesn’t hear it, was he really murdered? Indeed, when Andrew Hussey writes about the French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs (2014), he scarcely mentions these very years when the problem got so much worse.
When French politician Segolène Royale assures Israelis that “l’anti-semitisme n’a pas sa place en France” (Anti-Semitism has no place in France), it’s a rhetorical abuse of the ongoing present tense. In the last 15 years, anti-Semitism has had a major place in France, burning brightly among many French Muslims, constantly recharged by an anti-Zionist press that highlights more Palestinian suffering in their reports than that experienced by Jews.
And the suicidal nature of it all: it’s not just that the French don’t know what’s been happening to their Jews, they don’t know what’s been happening in their schools and in their jails. Based on strict laïcité (which in this case means, your religion is entirely your private business), the Muslim population in France is anyone’s guess (current estimates between 3-12 million — an astonishing margin of error). Census counters can only track conversion in the prisons to Islam by the rising number of requests for Hallal meat. And those few who know more have found their information in a widely stigmatized “right-wing” press that often sensationalizes.
Those of us who have tried to talk with certain French intellectuals about these issues will tell you that, at least until now, they have largely not wanted to know about it. Attacks on Jews in the schools? “Take your kids out.” Attacks in the banlieues? “What do you expect? Look what your brothers in Israel are doing to their cousins.” Murder? “Some random nut, un déséquilibré.” On the contrary, so vigorously did many French information professionals devalue what Jews said with accusations of communautarisme (partisanship), that in 2004, when one woman’s invented tale of being attacked for being a Jew became a huge sensation because she was Christian, and subsequently proved false, commentators drew the conclusion that all such accounts (i.e. also from Jews) were suspect. As Shmuel Trigano put it: “Les juifs ne peuvent pas témoigner” (the Jews cannot testify). In fact, for more than a decade, Jews in France had great difficulty bearing witness to the attacks on them. Trigano entitled the collection of his writings during this period: Quinze ans de solitude: Juifs de France 2000-2015 (Fifteen Years of Solitude, Jews of France 2000-2015).
Until this week, that is, when a jihadi made the incredibly stupid move of taking Jews hostage in solidarity with those who had massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo, inescapably tying the fate of French Jews to that of la République: Je suis Charlie. Je suis juif. So when the night before the march Roger Cukierman, a veteran leader of the Jewish community, told the French viewing public that, while his generation of Jews all went to public schools, after so many years of abuse, Jews even prefer Christian schools to public (lay) schools (a broader European phenomenon), he surprised many more than the journalist interviewing him. And when the chief rabbi of Tunis explained to the French that his son wrote him from Paris that he could not wear a kipa publicly for fear of assault, it was the first time that most French heard of what French Jews — including visiting Israelis — learned fifteen years ago. At last, Jews can bear witness.
Now French public figures like Prime Minister Manuel Valls declare loud and clear, what so many French Jews have wanted to hear for so long: “Without its Jews, France is not France” — a lovely multicultural variant on De Gaulle’s more testosteronic “Without its glory, France is not France.” One of the most striking features of the march was the great number of people wearing and carrying posters saying “I am Jewish.” One of the great absences in the march, something virtually ubiquitous in the long list of grand manifs — the French word for demonstrations, which are virtually a national pastime — promoted by the “anti-war, anti-racist” gauche in past decades, was virulently anti-Zionist placards: no “Star of David = Swastika,” no depictions of a Capitalist-Zionist-Imperialist Antichrist, no calls for vengeance against Israel and the Jews for crimes real and often imagined.
The question on everyone’s lips now is where do we go? Our 9-11? Does that mean a Patriot Act for France? What does this tell us about the jihadis’ hold in France?
Consider it in this optic. The attack on Charlie, like the ones on Salman Rushdie and his publishers, like those on the Danish cartoonists, are about the jihadis extending the laws of Sharia to infidels living in Dar al Harb (the West, or non-Muslim world) — specifically those forbidding anyone from insulting the Prophet or his religion. This extension of Sharia law to Western societies seeks to impose a proleptic, an anticipatory dhimmitude: infidels the world over dare not insult Islam or the prophet, according to how jihadis decide what constitutes an unacceptable insult. Here we see the long silence of the press, their unwillingness to show any images of Muhammad, even when such images make news, their self-censorship in their coverage of Muslim hostility, and even violence, toward Jews.
So when mainstream news journalists, whose publications have been notably silent on these critical issues for 15 years, suddenly extol Charlie Hebdo as “fellow journalists” and heroes of free speech it rings hollow. When Lise Doucette, standing in the Place de la République, glorifies the honor and bravery of journalists, even as her BBC won’t publish Charlie Hebdo’s offending cartoons, when Tim Kreider promises in the New York Times to raise a glass to his fellow courageous cartoonists and to spare no one, even as the NYT stands out for its cowardice, and hides behind the most transparently false of principled excuses, one wonders just how deep the lack of self-awareness runs in this noble profession.
And when a young (non-Jewish) French student at Lycée Blaise Pascale in Chateauroux gets savagely beaten by a gang of 15-16-year old Muslims whose “religion was offended” by his posting something on “laïcité” on Facebook, will the press report it for what it is — another aggression against the Republic from “des jeunes” imbued with a sense of their own religion’s right to dominate? Will the school punish it? Or will the bullies come back, largely under their wonted cover of media silence and administrative conflict-aversion, and chase from the school not just Jewish students, but anyone who speaks up for civic values?
Certainly it will be hard to break certain French and European elites of their anti-Zionism, one of the main fuels of both jihadi aggression and media silence about the jihadis’ targeting of Jews in and outside of Israel. Just days before the attack, the Franco-German television network Arte ran a New Year’s Special documentary, Peter Kominsky’s The Promise, a heavy dose of lethal narratives that Palestinians tell about Israeli mistreatment in 1948. Tim Wilcox couldn’t bear allowing a French Jew – on air! – to compare current conditions with the 30s, interrupting her with: “Many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.” As with the tale of “le petit Mohamed,” whose image “replaced, erased the picture of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto,” for many commentators enamored with the replacement theology in which the Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them, Palestinian suffering trumps — must trump — Jewish suffering. Few notice that the jihadi views have wide traction among the Palestinian leadership and public, both religious and secular. Ah non, alors là, vous exagérez, mon cher (Ah no, on this you exaggerate, my friend).
Can France listen to the story its Jews have to tell? Can even those who agree with Valls really contemplate seriously what’s happening to Jews in France? Can they hear in Netanyahu’s call on the French Jews to come to Israel, not primarily the insult to national honor that it undoubtedly is, but a rebuke, however tactlessly expressed, that should promote some self-reflection about what France has done that he would even think of making such an appeal? Can they see in the Israeli burials of the victims at Hypercacher, not the discarding of a French identity, but the desire to be buried where their graves will not be desecrated? Will Jews continue to be allowed to bear witness, or will some members of the French intelligentsia turn eagerly once again to the “alter-juifs,” the asajews, who feel they show their greatness of soul by publicly promoting a war narrative that targets their own people?
Was this an historic day in which France found its national will to resist? Or will it be the largest selfie in history, a sad tale of nearly uninterrupted and, too often, undeserved self-admiration?
The corrosive irony of Trigano’s comment about the Jews’ inability to bear witness, is that, no matter how many among French information professionals cloak their behavior in the ideological robes — post-colonial, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionism, post-modern “us-them” boundary-busting — they have till now, from a Jihadi viewpoint, committed a collective act of submission. Dhimmi have no right to give testimony in court. As the first target of jihadi aggression in the West, the Jews are the first ones to be subject to this proleptic dhimmitude. And when part of the European press silences their testimony, they not only participate on the side of the jihadis in advancing this program of submission, but they prepare their own subsequent subjection.
Without its Jews, France has no future, said one Frenchman, by which he meant, republican, democratic France. The story of that future will be written in the months, years, and decades to come. The story of its past 15 years, however, is not a pretty one, and not one that reflects well on the French self-image as brave and unbowed. Are the French capable of turning away from posturing as the leading light of liberté and, through difficult self-criticism and reform, become the real leaders of the free world in this critical hour?
As a life-long lover of France, and of democracy, I fervently hope so. As an observer and critic of the French intelligentsia for the last 15 years, I’m not too sanguine. In principle, it’s hard to imagine a civilization committing suicide from vanity; from the ground here in France, it’s not so inconceivable.