We Are Hyper Cacher

For French Jews, the choice between France and Israel is no choice at all.

Journalists and Jews: The victims of the atrocity in Paris are a shattering reminder of an old historical conjunction. The link between Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher exists not only in the murderous minds of their common enemies, but also in the overlapping histories of Europe and the Jewish people.

When, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as a result of various intellectual and social convulsions, the liberal dispensation was introduced into Western Europe, the Jews of the modernizing countries kindled to it immediately. If there was anguish in the various Jewish communities about the instabilities and even the treasons that were demanded by emancipation, it was owed to the extraordinary Jewish enthusiasm for the transformation, and to the unsettling speed with which the new order seemed to be supplanting the old one. The Jews flocked to the almost eschatological prospect of civil liberties—so ardently that some of their spiritual leaders in the eastern countries prayed for Napoleon’s defeat, because the victory of his secularizing forces would leave “the hearts of Israel separated and distanced from their father in heaven”; and the civil liberties of the Jews were dazzling proof, or so it seemed, that Europe was changing, that enlightenment was real.

The mockers at Charlie Hebdo had no place in their hearts for the believers who shopped at Hyper Cacher, and the pious consumers at Hyper Cacher were not readers of the witheringly anticlerical Charlie Hebdo, but they were unlikely partners in the same project: a society of freedoms and rights. In striking at them both, the killers struck at the same thing. The cartoons and the challahs both were talismans of democracy, which is Islamism’s nightmare.

It was in Paris that the process of the legal emancipation of the Jews in Europe began. In 1791, the National Assembly extended to the Jews the “rights of man and of the citizen” that it had proclaimed in 1789. “For the first time in European history”, as the great Jewish historian Jacob Katz observed, “a Jewish group acquired unqualified citizenship.” Napoleon expanded the reach of these liberties to the countries that he conquered, though his record as a liberator was mitigated by certain restrictions and controls that he imposed on the Jewish community. In 1831, the equality of the Jewish religion with the Christian churches was established by law, when the French treasury became responsible for the salaries of Jewish clergy.

France, in other words, was the site of one of the great Jewish engagements with liberalism and one of the great liberal engagements with the Jews. For perfectly understandable reasons, the Jews wagered their happiness on the new philosophical and legal arrangements. Why would Jews, or any oppressed minority, not wish to believe in the mutability of history, in its amenability to the progressive will?

And so the Jews of France came to count themselves among the champions of modernity and its benevolence. The problem, as is well known, was that they discovered also modernity’s malevolence. The legal acceptance of the Jews turned out not to entail their social and cultural acceptance. The integration of Jews into French society, which according to legend was largely harmonious, was never without friction, or worse. The Enlightenment was no less pervaded by anti-Semitism than the Counter-Enlightenment was. The liberal revolution of 1848 unleashed virulent expressions of Jew-hatred. Socialism, too, proved hospitable to the poison.

By the end of the 19th century, French anti-Semitism achieved a fearful prominence in French culture, as Jews were scapegoated by the forces of reaction for the ruptures and the dislocations of republican (and urban) life. All this culminated in the infamous and hideous frenzy of the Dreyfus affair. And despite the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus and the vindication of the Dreyfusards, there soon occurred an ominous revival of anti-Semitism, which set the stage for the darkest hours of all, when France—as Jacques Chirac famously said in 1995 in a commemoration of the most notorious of the deportations of French Jews during the Holocaust—“breaking its word, delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”

Nor was the rise of anti-Semitism to cultural and political prestige the only disappointment for the Jewish belief in France. Even in its origins, the enfranchisement of the Jews in France came with an outrageous condition. Citizenship was premised on a significant degree of self-erasure. The most eloquent advocate for Jewish rights at the National Assembly in 1791, a revolutionary aristocrat named Clermont-Tonnerre, who ringingly declared that Jews “must be citizens,” also stipulated that “the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” In 1807, the bizarre Sanhedrin that Napoleon convened in Paris reassured the emperor that “Israel no longer forms a nation,” by which they meant a corporate entity not assimilable to the host country. Juifs became israelites, or more specifically francais israelites, or Frenchmen of Jewish origin. The attenuation of the particularities of Jewish identity, the dream of their disappearance, haunted the universalism of the French civic ideal, and compromised it.

This pressure on the distinctness of the group, this requirement that social and cultural difference be contested and even repudiated, was entirely in keeping with the catastrophic absence from European nationalism of any understanding of multi-ethnicity. As Clermont-Tonnerre himself had warned, “the existence of a nation within a nation is unacceptable to our country.” In the European doctrine of the nation-state, the state and the nation had to fit perfectly—and since they never did fit perfectly, and the political borders never coincided with the cultural borders, there emerged “the problem of minorities.”

Minorities became the test of the decency of nation-states, and the nation-states of Europe did not acquit themselves well of this test. “The problem of minorities” meant that existence as a minority would be eternally problematic: The question of safety and the question of legitimacy would never be retired. This unease of the newcomer, this suspicion of strangeness, is now being experienced by the Muslim communities of France, though the story of their assimilation into French life, or the lack of it, is more complicated and disturbing. Unlike the Jews of modern France, the Muslims of modern France have found no glamour in Gallicization, even though the vast majority of them live peaceably in their adopted country.

The Jews of France never disappeared into France, of course. Even though pluralism was not one of the founding principles of the French polity, the tone of French public life has become more pluralistic in recent decades. The traditional ideal of conformity in citizenship has been challenged by immigration and by the debates about laïcité, the legally coercive secularism of the French state. A new multiculturalist ethos exists in tension with the old republican ideal. In contemporary France, state and society are often at odds with each other; sometimes the multiculturalist pronouncements of French officials, which have been inspired mainly by Muslim immigration, seem like a clever way for the state to elide the challenge of difference by celebrating it instead of engaging with it.

“Islam is the second religion of France,” Manuel Valls, the prime minister, declared in the aftermath of the recent massacres, which have made a grave crisis out of the French incompetence with otherness. “It all has its place in France.” This is the same fine man who had remarked to my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, not long before the massacres, that “France without Jews is not France,” a sterling retort to the most infamous of modern French anti-Semites, Édouard Drumont, who invented a paranoid myth of Jewish domination in his bestselling work La France juive. The problem is that pieties about diversity are an inadequate response to intercommunal violence. When members of one patch of the quilt murder members of another patch of the quilt, it will not suffice to invoke the splendors of quiltness. Instead, the harsh realities of tolerance must be faced.

I say harsh because a tolerant society is a society in which feelings are regularly bruised and faiths are regularly outraged. The integrity of the otherwise puerile and disagreeable Charlie Hebdo is owed to the range of its impudence: It insults everybody, and in this way it is respectful in its disrespect. Umbrage is one of the telltale signs of an open society. One can always respond in kind: The offended may offend the offending. (An AK-47, by contrast, is not an acceptable instrument of literary criticism.) Too many Muslims—not all, not all, not all—wish to be granted tolerance but do not wish to grant it. They do not see that blasphemy is the price one pays for the freedom to practice and to propound one’s religion. Blasphemy is freedom’s tax. The important thing is that the tax be imposed fairly—which is why the French government makes a serious mistake, philosophically and politically, when it seeks to criminalize speech that offends the Jews of France. Last summer, in a piece called “France Is Not an Anti-Semitic Nation” in The New York Times, Laurent Fabius, the French minister of foreign affairs, and Bernard Cazeneuve, the French minister of the interior, attempted to reassure the Jews of France that “we are using the full extent of French laws that prohibit all forms of anti-Semitic expression and Holocaust denial.” This is a violation of the liberal order that the French government otherwise staunchly defends. The history of anti-Semitic incitement in modern Europe may appear to justify the regulation of opinion by law and government, but censorship only intensifies and embitters prejudice. Hatred must be confronted and refuted and disgraced. This may be a long struggle, but no society can be spared a struggle with its demons; and muzzling its demons, or arresting them, as the French authorities have just arrested the contemptible Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, will not banish them.

But what if the struggle is too long? How much patience should the victims of indecency have with the birth pangs of decency? The Jewish wager in modern France, again, was on liberalism and its protections. The Jews did not seek, in the medieval way, the special protection of the highest authorities. They sought the common protection of rights and laws. But what happened at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher has shaken their confidence in the protections of French liberalism. The polls may not paint a picture of a Jew-hating country, but for the Jews the sanctuary of republicanism has been breached. The recent horrors in Paris were the climax of a year of chilling anti-Semitic incidents. (The terrible chronology has been assembled by Stephanie Butnick in Tablet.) And the Jewish crisis of confidence in France is certainly more than a year old: I would date it at least as far back as 2006, when a young Jew named Ilan Halimi was kidnapped in a Parisian suburb by an anti-Semitic crew called the Gang of Barbarians and horrifically tortured for three weeks. He died of his wounds and almost nobody remembers his name. A few years later, an Islamist terrorist shot schoolchildren at point-blank range and killed their rabbi at the Ozar Hatorah day school in Toulouse. President Sarkozy called it an isolated incident. More recently, Fabius and Cazeneuve referred to the beatings and synagogue burnings of this past year—in the first six months of the year there were 527 anti-Semitic acts, many of them violent—as isolated incidents. Isolated from what? Certainly not from each other. They are isolated only from an honest discussion about a deteriorating situation.

There are two courses that are available to the frightened and imperiled Jews of France. The first is to continue to rely on the French government to secure and to validate the French Jewish community—a reaffirmation, even a renovation, of French liberalism in the context of the new dangers. Liberty, equality, fraternity—and security. This would represent an extraordinary act of faith in French democracy and French decency. It would leave the matter of Jewish safety, and more generally of the validity of the Jewish sense of belonging, in the hands of the government and the population. It would also require that the government confront the social and ideological origins of the anti-Semitic (and anti-French and anti-Western) violence, which no French government has been eager to do. Liberty, equality, fraternity, security—and candor. No, more: liberty, equality, fraternity, security, candor—and social policy. In the wake of the slaughter at Hyper Cacher, the government has posted hundreds of heavily armed guards at Jewish institutions throughout the country. This is encouraging about the short term and discouraging about the long term. Is the choice for the Jews of France now between friendly assault rifles and unfriendly assault rifles?

The other solution for the Jews of France is Zionism. It is not hard to understand the reasons for the steady increase in the number of French Jews who are leaving for Israel. The massacres in Paris have returned the Jews of France to a classical Zionist moment. Jewish nationalism, remember, was both a practical transformation and a philosophical one. The practical objective was for Jews to arrange for their own safety by a government of their own in a state of their own. The philosophical objective was to recover a sense of peoplehood and a sense of agency. Under Zionism, Jews would no longer rely on the will, even the good will, of hosts. They would no longer feel like fools for repeating the lachrymose patterns of their own history, for depending on anyone’s mercies but their own. As a Jew, one’s first response to the atrocity in the Jewish supermarket is not a fond thought for French patriotism. It is, rather, this: Whether or not France without Jews will still be France, Jews without France will still be Jews.

In the days after the Paris massacres, I took off my shelf a small black book called Job’s Dungheap, published in New York in 1948 by Hannah Arendt, who worked as an editor at Schocken. It is a small but precious selection of essays by Bernard Lazare, a magnificent French Jewish essayist, a friend of Mallarmé and Péguy, a socialist, a Dreyfusard, a Zionist. There, in a lecture delivered to an association of Russian students in Paris in 1897, I read this: “People told me that by affirming the permanence and the reality of a Jewish nation, I made myself an ally of the anti-Semites. I have reflected a great deal upon this grave complaint, and I insist upon remaining, on this point, in alliance with the anti-Semites. … What indeed annoys me on the part of the anti-Semites is not to hear them say, 'You are a nation!', or even to hear them announce that we are a state within the State; I find that there are not enough states within the State; that is to say, to make myself clearer, that there are not, within modern states, enough free and autonomous groups bound to each other. ... It is because the Jews are a nation that anti-Semitism exists.” In these exclamations of Jewish national feeling one hears also a simultaneous yearning for pluralism, and an exasperated retort to Clermont-Tonnerre and the traditional French conception of citizenship as a schooling in homogeneity.

The choice between liberalism and nationalism, between France and Israel, is both an embarrassment of riches and no choice at all. I say an embarrassment of riches because the republican order in France is not, after all, essentially anti-Semitic, and its principles may be invoked in the struggle against anti-Semitism. What Jews in France are questioning is not the validity of liberalism, but its efficacy. Indeed, the history of Zionism in liberal Europe shows that it expressed not a disillusionment with liberalism, but a disillusionment with Europe. The liberal ideals that eventually failed them in the states of Europe were carried by Jews to their own state, which was founded on the same European model of the nation-state and has not exempted the Jewish state from its own “problem of minorities.” The enthusiasm of Jews for democracy is one of the central facts of modern Jewish history, but the conviction must be honored as much in the circumstances of sovereignty as in the circumstances of dispersion.

And I say that the choice between liberalism and nationalism, between France and Israel, is no choice at all because assault rifles, and more, await the French Jews who act on the Zionist impulse and emigrate to Israel. They will be at home, but they will not be out of reach of Islamist terrorism. “Here we feel vulnerable and exposed,” the Jewish owner of an art store down the street from Hyper Cacher told a reporter from The New York Times. “In Israel, there is an Iron Dome to protect us.” It was a heartbreaking remark. What Jews may be experiencing in these sordid times is not a despair of liberalism or a despair of nationalism, but a despair of peace.