“Je suis Charlie. Je suis Juif. Je suis Français.” The community I spent last weekend with said them all with pride. Contrary to a dangerous and rapidly developing narrative, French Jews are not clambering to leave.
I visited a synagogue, just metres from the Charlie Hebdo offices and where policeman Ahmed Merabet was gunned down. Many in the community heard the shots fired. The trauma hasn’t made them determined to leave. It has strengthened their desire to be involved with a large, thriving and active diaspora community in France.
People told me they have no intention of leaving their home country. They are tearful and frightened, but they are not packing their bags and aren’t planning to. In an emotional conversation, my colleague Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur told me that despite the challenges faced, they are invested in the continuity of Jewish life in France. They are there to stay. Their hardest challenge is to answer the children’s question “why us?, why aren’t we safe?” There are no answers to these long-term questions of Jewish insecurity and isolation.
I met a community determined to carry on; resilient, brave and determined. On Sunday, the synagogue was packed for a children’s service. Together, the community joyfully sang Hineh Ma Tov – how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity! Elsewhere, Jews refused to close shops and shuls. They represented Jewish defiance in the face of tragedy. In Torah, we read: ‘I am giving you a choice. You can choose life and success or death and disaster.’ This choice has been presented to French Jews time and again.Though the purpose of terror is to instil paralysing fear, each time they are challenged French Jews choose life. They continue delighting in the richness of Jewish life.
Most striking of all was their insistence that they are French Jews, with France their home. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Grand Synagogue in Paris on Sunday, the community not only sang the Hatikvah but also but broke spontaneously into La Marseillaise, the French anthem. These are French Jews, and proud of that fact.
We need a balanced picture that reflects the truth rather than pushes a particular ideological agenda. On one hand, aliyah from France is at record levels. The Jews of France are shaken by what has happened, but they do not need to be told what to do. Their self determination and freedom; freedom to choose, must be at the heart of any discussion of the future of Jewish life in France.
Can you imagine if a terrible atrocity were to occur here? What would we think if journalists from other European countries, as well as leaders in Israel, told us our time in Britain was over?
French Jews want to have the option of moving to Israel, and Israel remains, rightly, at the heart of Jewish life in France, but they do not want to be told by people from other countries how they should feel and what they should do.
They told me clearly that they don’t want to encourage what they see as a dangerous narrative that is developing, that Europe is no longer safe for Jews. It is harmful to the diaspora communities, to Israel and to the European societies they would leave behind.