The Jews and the ‘Ordinary Citizens’
After the terrorist attacks in Paris, French citizens living in the United States received a letter from Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington. After expressing solidarity with the people of France and praising the US and President Barack Obama for “being on our side in the fight against extremism and terrorism,” Araud wrote: “These are the foundations of our model of society that the terrorists seek to destroy: yesterday, journalists and Jews; now, ordinary citizens whose only crime was to enjoy life on a Friday night in Paris.”
Understandably, French Jews were outraged by the implication that they are apparently not viewed by official France as “ordinary citizens,” but a category apart. Some have suggested this was just a slip. That is highly unlikely, as professional diplomats and their embassy staffs weigh every word extremely carefully before making any kind of written statement. Others have maintained that French Jews were overreacting, since all the ambassador was doing was acknowledging that Jews were an early target.
Not so. The ambassador was indeed expressing what official France thinks of the Jews: that they are a category apart from “ordinary” Frenchmen. Proof of this is not just in his words, but in the deeds of the French.
French Jews have heard this kind of talk before. When, in October 1980, a terrorist bomb in a synagogue in Rue Copernic in Paris killed four people, two of them non-Jewish passersby, then-Prime Minister Raymond Barre had this to say: “They aimed at the Jews and they hit innocent Frenchmen.” (The same Raymond Barre, by the way, stated in a radio interview in 2007 that “opposing the deportation of Jews from France was not a matter of major national interest.”)
Forty years before that, it was the French police under the collaborationist Vichy government who rounded up and deported 80,000 Jews to their deaths in the German concentration camps. Nowhere in Western Europe did the Nazis receive such substantial collaboration from the local administration. The French even set up their own concentration camps on French soil, which held thousands of Jews, some of whom died of starvation and disease even before they could board the death trains. After the war, in 1946, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Now all France rejoices and fraternizes in the streets. … Do we say anything about the Jews? Do we give a thought to those who died in the gas chambers at Lublin? Not a word. Not a line in the newspapers. That is because we must not irritate the anti-Semites.”
Already in 1967, official France was at it again. Shortly after the Six-Day War, Charles de Gaulle characterized the Jewish people in language that brought back the wrong kind of associations: “Some even feared that the Jews, hitherto scattered but remaining what they had always been, that is, an elite people, self-assured and domineering, might, once they were reunited in the city of their former grandeur, turn the very moving hopes of 1,900 years into a burning ambition of conquest.” Every anti-Semitic cliche in the book.
After the 1980 bombing, President Valery Giscard d’Estaing took five days to even respond to the Jewish victims, warning Jews “not to retaliate” and underplaying the danger of antisemitism.
French Jews, therefore, have very good reason to be skeptical of and outraged at statements like the one that Araud made. Especially because until Charlie Hebdo and the November Paris attacks, they alone were at the receiving end of the terror and violence perpetrated mainly by French Muslims against synagogues and Jewish schools, against rabbis and Jewish children. This terror against the Jewish communities in France has been ongoing for about 15 years, increasing exponentially year by year, and the French did nothing substantial against it. Clearly, it did not bother them that so many of their citizens were living under a state of siege.
The French did not flood the streets in sympathy demonstrations with the Jewish children Mohamed Merah hunted down and shot through the head in front of their school in Toulouse. Earlier they did not react when Ilan Halimi was slowly tortured to death over the course of three weeks by Muslims in Paris.
The French masses did not rise in solidarity with the countless numbers of French Jews who have in recent years been subjected to verbal and physical abuse, harassment on the streets and in the school yards, on the Metro, in front of Jewish restaurants and even in their own homes.
The French barely noticed when a march for Gaza in the summer of 2014 nearly ended in a pogrom on a Parisian synagogue filled with Jewish worshippers. They did not protest when a mob of thousands marched in the streets of Paris, hollering that the Jews did not belong in France.
Now they are horrified. Because now they themselves are at the receiving end.
Still, official France, in the words of Araud, has the nerve to say, “Yesterday, journalists and Jews; now, ordinary citizens whose only crime was to enjoy life on a Friday night in Paris.”
What was the “crime” of the Jews? Just being Jews.
Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel.
This article was first published in Israel Hayom.