Pittsburgh 2018: A French Moment for the American Jewish Community
October 3, 1980 was a special day on the Jewish calendar. Jews around the world celebrated both Shabbat and Simchat Torah that day. Inside Copernic Street’s synagogue, located in the peaceful 16th arrondissement of Paris, the service was extra joyous, with more than 300 people celebrating the bar and bat mitzvahs of five teenagers.
But at 6:38 pm, a powerful bomb hidden in a motorcycle parked in front of the building exploded, killing four people and injuring 46. The terrorists timed the explosion for the end of a regular service, hoping to maximize casualties, but did not anticipate that this unusually busy service would last 15 minutes longer.
The tragic attack sent shock waves through the Jewish community and the nation. Words of support poured in from the entire political spectrum, all religious authorities, and all corners of the world. More importantly, the French Jewish community made some critical decisions to change their security mindset and aggressively confront antisemitism.
Now, after the Pittsburgh attack, it is time for American Jewry to draw valuable lessons and some inspiration from the French experience.
The first lesson is sad and simple: When it comes to fighting racism and antisemitism, statements from politicians and actions from governments, regardless of their political affiliations, often disappoint.
Following the Copernic attack, France’s Prime Minister Raymond Barre (in)famously said “the odious bombing intended to strike Jews going to synagogue and instead hit innocent French people who were crossing the street,” arguably implying the Jewish victims were not “innocent.” The investigation into the attack was not only slowed down by the right-wing government, but became a political tool for the newly elected socialist government in 1981, which instructed the investigators to focus on far-right groups instead of Palestinians responsible for the attack.
We are not saying that American politicians and officials have disappointed us as much as their French peers. However, the current administration’s response to Charlottesville did not grasp the seriousness of far-right antisemitism. After Pittsburgh, statements and visits of politicians from both parties fell short, they hardly interrupted their campaigns and offered no concrete proposals to stop future attacks.
The American Jewish community is partly responsible for this. It is indeed inconceivable, from a French perspective, that no massive rally was organized after Charleston, Charlottesville, and Pittsburgh. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews should have marched on Washington to ask elected officials and educators to do more to fight racism and antisemitism.
It is also disturbing that young Jews at the University of Virginia did not take the lead after Charlottesville, choosing to let other minority groups organize, despite the fact that most slogans at the Charlottesville hate march targeted Jews.
“Leading from behind” is no longer an option. American Jewry cannot outsource this fight. The notable efficiency of the Jewish leadership in France also resides in its centralized response to crisis. American Jewish organizations need to better coordinate their efforts and media presence around a few respected personalities, who can publicly call out politicians when appropriate. We also believe a healthy dose of democracy is desperately needed within those organizations — elected, charismatic leaders, rather than professionals supported by wealthy donors, carry more legitimacy.
An additional lesson of the French experience is the necessity of changing the security mindset of all American Jews by widening the access to training and volunteering. Right after the Copernic attack, the SPCJ (Jewish Community Security Service) was jointly created by leading French Jewish organizations to respond to a new reality: all Jewish sites needed protection, including small communities previously perceived as safe, and everyone had to help.
In addition to equipment and paid staff, the SPCJ trained young volunteers in each community to help guard the sites. The SPCJ also involved entire congregations in designing security protocols. Empowering communities obliterates fear and makes them stronger. This loss of naiveté and the “democratization” of security that occurred in France years ago is urgently needed in America. Incremental improvements and funds to existing initiatives will not be sufficient. In the security field as well, outsourcing is not an option: hiring armed guards will not make the problem go away — it is only part of the solution.
The final lesson is that racist and antisemitic incitement is not free speech; it should be considered and prosecuted as a crime. We understand this view can be difficult to reconcile with the First Amendment, but we must adapt to new realities.
France and Germany, which both passed anti-incitement laws, proved that freedom of speech can be protected while some limits are put in place. Following the Civil Rights movement, incitement became a marginal phenomenon in the United States. But in the age of social media, incitement is widely broadcast and contaminates our societies’ weakest minds.
It would be foolish not to see the correlation between Internet penetration, the doubling of hate groups since 1999 (according to the SPLC), and last year’s 87 percent increase in antisemitic vandalism, including a 94 percent increase of incidents in K-12 institutions (according to the ADL).
Incitement, when tolerated, morphs into harassment, escalates to vandalism, and ends in murder. In France, the law has curbed the expansion of neo-Nazis but is not used enough to fight Islamists. Lack of law enforcement is unfortunately a French weakness. But if a similar law were passed in the US, Internet companies would have to act in a stronger and more systematic way. And this final lesson would not be complete if we did not comment on the Second Amendment. It seems suicidal that incitement is protected as free speech and access to guns, including assault rifles, is concurrently unrestricted. This deadly combination should be urgently reconsidered, and American Jews should lead the way.
Some will justifiably argue that French Jewry has suffered incredible hardships since 1980, but the toll would have been far greater if the community did not change its mindset after the Copernic attack. The victims of that murder — Jean Michel Barbé, Philippe Bouissou, Hilario Lopez Fernandez, and Aliza Shagrir — did not die in vain. Let’s make sure that Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger did not either.
Benjamin Canet is a New York-based investor, outgoing Board Member of UJA-NY, and a former Secretary General of the French Union of Jewish Students. Noam Ohana is a New York-based investor and a Wexner fellow.