Lessons from the reaction to Paris atrocities
In light of the kosher supermarket slayings in Paris, the French Jewish community is justifiably asking itself whether Jews have a future in France. The latest butchery follows the massacre in a Toulouse Jewish school in March 2012 and the racially-motivated robbery and rape of a young woman in Paris last month. The community has now been targeted in its schools, its homes and its shops. While Jews are only one percent of the French population, 50% of all racially- motivated crimes in France in 2014 targeted Jews.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed admirable solidarity with the beleaguered community. “Without the Jews,” he said, “France is no longer France. It’s the oldest community. They have been French citizens since the French revolution.” The prime minister understands that citizens emigrating out of fear that the state can no longer protect them from radical Islam would be nothing short of a national disgrace.
Yet concern for the plight of French Jewry is hardly universal. The controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has been condemned for popularizing the inverted Nazi salute known as the “quenelle,” and for his coarse mockery of the victims of the Holocaust, showed his support for the murders of the Jewish shoppers by posting on Facebook: “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” The comment fused the tagline of the three million people in France who marched to defend free speech in solidarity with the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists with the name of Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered the four Jewish hostages. Some media responses to the attacks were similarly revealing. Several outlets reported that the Kouachi brothers (who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices) spared women in their attack, suggesting chivalry or humanity on their part where none was present, while at the same time downplaying their murderous anti-Semitism.
One of these was The New York Times, which ran a piece by journalist Liz Alderman called “Recounting a Bustling Office at Charlie Hebdo, Then a ‘Vision of Horror.’” The article quotes Sigolène Vinson, a freelance journalist present at the Charlie Hebdo offices at the time of the attack, as stating one of the Kouachi brothers told her she would not be killed because she was a woman. According to the article, the gunman told Vinson: “Don’t be afraid, calm down, I won’t kill you,” before turning to his partner and shouting, “We don’t shoot women! We don’t shoot women! We don’t shoot women!” However, as the article goes on to note, the Kouachi brothers did kill a woman: Elsa Cayat, an eminent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who contributed fortnightly to Charlie Hebdo. What Alderman failed to note is that Elsa was Jewish, had received anti-Semitic death threats in the month before the attack and that her family is convinced that she was killed because she was Jewish. “They had a list of who they wanted to shoot and said they weren’t killing the women. But she was the only woman who wasn’t spared,” Elsa’s cousin, Sophie Bramly, told CNN.
Another media offender was BBC journalist Tim Wilcox, who was already facing criticism for suggesting that “prominent Jewish faces” will oppose a mansion tax in Britain, singling Jews out for their supposed wealth. His coverage of the Paris unity march in the wake of the attacks evoked more unpleasant Jewish stereotypes. Wilcox interviewed a French-Jewish woman who had attended the march with her French-Algerian friend of Muslim background. The woman was visibly distressed following the attacks on the kosher supermarket in Paris and conveyed her fears about the fate of French Jewry. Wilcox interjected to put to the woman that “the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.” When the woman in her broken English rightly asserted that matters of Israeli policy concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict have nothing to do with slaying French citizens shopping on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, Wilcox laid a patronizing hand on the woman’s arm and told her that she surely “understands that people see such things from different perspectives.” Wilcox’s own perspective was evident. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he drew on classic European prejudices toward the Jews; at once holding Jews collectively responsible for perceived misdeeds for which they bear no personal responsibility, and stripping the woman of her French identity, deeming her to be Israeli by virtue of her Jewish identity. Wilcox subsequently apologized. In Australia, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group which calls for the re-establishment of a caliphate, issued a rambling missive on the Charlie Hebdo killings. In essence the group raised no objection to the killings of the journalists, but would have probably preferred them to have been put to death by a Sharia court rather than by terrorists acting on their own initiative. The four murdered Jews in the kosher supermarket did not rate a mention. A final reaction of note was that of Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek, who condemned the “senseless violence” of the “horrific anti-Semitic attack in Paris” and conveyed her thoughts in sympathy with the four murdered Parisian Jews and to the “victims’ loved ones and the Jewish community.” Her thoroughly decent response stood in stark contrast to that of several of her followers on Twitter. “Why do you only mourn Jews? Did you mourn the 2,000 Palestinians,” one follower demanded. “It’s not an anti-Semitic attack. It’s a lunatic holding people in a shop. Please do better or I can’t vote for you,” declared another, clearly unmoved by the terrorist’s specific choice of a kosher supermarket to carry out his attack or his phone call to a French TV station during the siege to expressly convey that the victims were targeted because they were Jews. Another of Plibersek’s followers questioned her “objectivity.” The response to the atrocities in Paris revealed a disturbing dimension in our society – one incapable of condemning barbarism in plain sight for fear of departing from a fixed worldview that holds Islamists as victims of Western colonialism and provocation, and their actions, no matter how ghastly, as beyond criticism. For the most part, the response to the terrorism in Paris has been decent, humane and compassionate. Fair minded people throughout the world have demonstrated their outrage at the attacks and will find the fringe views of Dieudonne, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the denizens of the Twitter-sphere an appalling affront to the memories of the dead and to the freedoms of expression and religion that their lives and deaths have come to represent.