Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
“Rage in France”
Rabbi David Lyon
Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, Texas
January 9, 2015
The world is changing around us. The world’s news isn’t good. It’s not good at all. It’s not good for many reasons. Many of the reasons are obvious.
There’s another reason the world’s news isn’t good, and it makes these pale in comparison. Since last summer, when the war raged between Israel and Gaza, radical Islamists terrorized Jews in Europe, and especially in France. The outcry was heard in the streets of France, but mostly by wailing Jews and outraged sympathizers. Terrorist attacks on Jews in France went largely unnoticed; it was more of a nuisance than a threat to France, and it was added to the list of matters commonly associated with Jews.
This past week, radical Islamists bombed a French newspaper known for its criticism not only of Islam, but of all religious faiths and many other subjects. Islamist terrorists, home-grown in France, and radicalized and trained in Arab countries, returned to France to kill in the name of Mohammed. They murdered the publisher and his staff and a policeman on the street before they fled.
The reaction to the tragic event was an outpouring of Frenchmen to the streets. Holding up pens in their hands they demonstrated support for their fellow Frenchmen who were killed for exercising their rights in a lawful, democratic, western land. A sign held up by demonstrators in the middle of a crowd of thousands read, “Not Afraid!” It was meant for the world to see that radical Islamists will not threaten or intimidate a modern, democratic, civilized country like France.
The world trembled. But, it’s this difference between the terrorist attacks on Jews in France, and this week’s attack on a French newspaper, that makes me tremble most. A history of Jewish suffering lingers in the present where little protest and little attention were paid to the matter. Only world Jewry raised fists in the air in its own defense or a filed a petition for legal protections. Jewish suffering prompted some recognition by France and other European nations and we were momentarily comforted. But, the Jews of France chose their own way. They left France. They made their way to Israel.
In 2013, more than 20,000 people formally applied to the Jewish Agency in Paris for aliyah — emigration to Israel — and more than 3,000 completed the emigration process during the same year: twice as many as in 2012. The Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption estimated that more than 5,000 French Jews – 1% of the community – will have immigrated to Israel in 2014. Last year, more Jews immigrated to Israel from France than from the United States. The Jewish Daily Forward, reports, “The factors pushing Jews out of France are known. Anti-Semitism, manifest in both hate speech and violent action, has generatedgrowing fear, even among those who haven’t experienced it firsthand.”
The Forward further analyzed the migration of Jews from France to Israel. The paper asked why French Jews weren’t leaving for a place like Montreal, where they shared a common language, or London, where they shared European sensibilities and Jewish day schools were supported by the state. The answer was not imbedded in any of these reasons; rather, it was found in the origins of French Jews who were Zionists. According to Israeli historian Michel Abitbol, “The Jews of North Africa [who immigrated after French decolonization during the 1950’s and 60’s, around 235,000], had strong links to the former colonial regime and deep sympathies for the State of Israel.” So we learn that their arrival in France made an enormous difference on French Jews who were already there, by orienting them towards Zionist ideals. The Israeli historian remarked that “The contribution of North African Jews to French Jewish identity cannot be underestimated.”
By comparison, a French politician recently commented in the news that Jews who are leaving France to satisfy Zionist goals is understood; but, if they’re leaving for fear of increased anti-Semitism then there’s a problem. His comment folds into our analysis.
You see, the Zionist project served generations of Jews during WWII and the Holocaust. But, if it were only the Holocaust that served as a rationale for the Land of Israel, it wouldn’t be enough. In fact, the Land of Israel is a 2,000 year-old Zionist dream, which became a necessity by the horrors of WWII. It was the dream of believers for two millennia and for them its ultimate purpose was never in question. Today, under the circumstances that are prevailing in our world, no one should have any lingering doubt as to why the Zionist dream wasn’t forgotten after 2,000 years, and the will of the Jewish people made it real after the atrocities of WWII.
Our support of Israel has never been more crucial. Israel welcomes those whose hearts are drawn to the Land of Zion. Israel also welcomes those who are afraid, and for this generation, Israel is here for them. French politicians might prefer one reason over the other to explain Jewish emigration; but, the reasons are the same. For increasing numbers of French Jews, home is no longer in France. Driven out or inspired to leave; they are two sides of the same coin.
The Jewish Daily Forward told a story about Edouard Harari’s emigration from France to Israel. At age 22, he studied in Israel for a year as part of his degree in Jewish history. He described his Zionist identity as “progressive.” He said, “Every year I learned more about Jewish history and Israel, I felt closer and closer to it, and when I spent my year abroad there, I really felt at home [in Israel].” Harari told the reporter, “If it meant losing my French citizenship, maybe I wouldn’t [make aliyah], because it’s something I’m very attached to.” It’s the emigrant dilemma. Another émigré departing his French homeland for Israel put it this way. He said, “The situation has changed. It’s time for me to go where I belong; it’s time to go home. My land, my home, is Israel.”
As the world trembles, the Jews go home. But, after they go home, the challenges of radical Islamists don’t fade into the background. Radical Islamists didn’t come only for the Jews of France; this past week they came for all of France, by attacking its culture, its values, and part of its essential identity. Where will the French go?
Some of you might remember the words of Martin Niemoller. He lived from 1892-1984. He was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. NiemÃ¶ller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
After radical Islamists accomplish their goals in the Arab Middle East by establishing an Islamic State, a Caliphate, and familiar world maps change to reflect their victories, where will they turn next? Will the Nusra Front, ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas, to name a few, turn on Europe? Not before they confront Israel, together. Though America has made little progress in the Middle East, Israel has accomplished much. Under its own guidance and its own resources, with American financial and military aid, Israel has managed to thrive in one of the worst neighborhoods in the world. The efforts we make to support Israel — the only democracy and reliable American ally in the Middle East, will prevent radical Islamists from achieving their goals. To radical Islamists, Europe is next in line and so is America. The 21stcentury opened a new chapter in their world order. To the rest of the world, it’s time to learn from the Jewish historical experience and wake up to the collective memory we all now share.
Thankfully, we feel safe at home in America; but, it comes with a responsibility. We have to take the proverbial pens that the French held in their hands and put them to good use. We must write our congressional leaders about the critical relationship between America and Israel, and its meaning for all Americans and western-style, democratic, modern nations. We must also write a check to support Israel Advocacy in our synagogues, to support AIPAC in our cities, and to support Israel, directly. Our website has links to sources that will guide you (beth-israel.org).
Friends, the end is not near, but the world trembled with us this past week. Jews tremble even when there’s good news. It’s not because we like to tremble; rather, we tremble because we we’re a people of history and a people of hope. When you know your history, then you know where you never want to go again, namely, to the ravages of anti-Semitism; but you also know where you might want to return one day, such as the Land of Israel and the hope it inspires. It might help the world if we all trembled, together.
Let us also pray for France and its leaders; for America and its leaders. Let us pray for the Land of Israel and its people and Jews everywhere. Let us pray for the freedom of democracies around the world. And, let us pray for Shalom, for peace. Amen.