The international community watched in horror last week as armed radicals in Paris massacred a dozen people at a satirical magazine, held hostage a kosher supermarket, killing four of its shoppers, and engaged in a standoff with police.
“These madmen, fanatics, have nothing to do with the Muslim religion,” French President Francois Hollande told citizens in a televised address on Friday denouncing the attacks. “France has not seen the end of the threats it faces.”
The chain of events leading to one of the grisliest terror attacks in recent French history was launched at about 11:30 in the morning on Jan. 7. Two gunmen, later identified as brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly known for its caricatures mocking religious and political leaders, and killed 12 people before escaping in a stolen car.
[pullquote]We need to be more careful than ever and really be aware of our environment.”[/pullquote]
A day later, a policewoman was shot to death in Paris, an incident later traced to the terrorist group, and the brothers were said to be en route to northern France. The following day, a Friday, two hostage situations arose: First, the brothers took a hostage in an industrial area where they had been surrounded by police, and then, a short while later, a man identified as Amedy Coulibaly took five hostages at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in eastern Paris. Reports said that Coulibaly threatened to kill the hostages if police attacked the brothers.
By 5 p.m. local time, police raided both locations and all three gunmen were killed, but not before a total of 17 victims were killed, including four Jews at the market.
In the immediate aftermath of the events, world leaders denounced the attacks, and rallies were held around the globe in support of the victims. Today, Jewish communities both in Europe and the states are left to assess their own safety at a time when many fear anti-Semitism and radical ideology are racing toward a dangerous peak.
“It’s shocking when these things happen,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “Our community now is making sure that we’re being vigilant and that we’re really paying attention as far as our security protocols go, and that’s really all you can do.”
Tolle said that the uptick in violent incidents at Jewish sites around the world, especially in Europe, is worrying.
“We need to be more careful than ever and really be aware of our environment,” she said.
In France, many say the environment is approaching a near all-time high in hostility toward minority groups, Jews included.
“It’s true that French Jewry, until today, felt abandoned,” said Shimon Samuels, director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on a Sunday evening conference call with Jewish community organizers that followed a highly publicized international rally condemning the attacks in Paris. Even still, he added, the recent outpouring of support must be taken with a grain of salt.
In 2014, there were 22 incidents of anti-Semitism in France alone, according to Anti-Defamation League reports. That’s more than twice as many incidents as the ADL recorded in 2014 for any other country.
“We are continually moving further toward the abyss,” Samuels said of the increasing level of violence.
The history of anti-Semitism in France is long and storied, dating to before the Nazi invasion of the country at the beginning of World War II, said Andre Colombat, a French native and dean of Loyola University Maryland’s international programs.
“The government has been speaking up very loudly against anti-Semitism” in recent years, he said. “But still there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in the community in France.” And adding weight to the uneasiness felt by many French Jews is the French support for Palestinian statehood.
Extremist Islamist propaganda is also not hard to come by in France, he said. “It just adds up to the tensions.”
The struggling French economy has also played a role in creating a kind of xenophobic climate, said Florence Martin, a French native and professor of French and Francophone literature and film at Goucher College. An underlying “fear of the other” has been hardened by high unemployment rates and bad economic situations, she said.
[pullquote]The history of anti-Semitism in France is long and storied, dating to before the Nazi invasion of the country at the beginning of World War II[/pullquote]
“You always see scapegoating [at times like this],” she explained. “Which shocks me to no end, because we know where scapegoating got us 60 years ago.”
France, she said, is at a crossroads now. The people can choose to unite against radicalism and hate or they can sink further into fear. “Right now it’s very militarized. … There are 10,000 troops everywhere in France protecting synagogues and various places, which is great, yet it’s militarized.
“Unless you educate people quickly and well,” she added, “I’m not sure what’s going to happen” about the fear of the other in the country.
In fact, a mutation of this same xenophobia may have played a role in spawning these attacks in the first place, say some.
Valerie Orlando is professor of French and Francophone literatures and cultures and head of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Maryland. She said tension between vehemently secular French society and some of the more observant Muslim immigrants and their families has steadily grown in the decades since the 1980s, when the “Affaire du Foular” declared that young girls could not wear a traditional head scarf to French public school.
“There were a lot of demonstrations and this sort of just blew up and got worse and worse and, sort of systematically, secularism has been challenged on many levels certainly since the ’80s, and it’s just becoming increasingly worse,” said Orlando. “This has been coupled with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism everywhere in the world.”
As a result, she said, many in France’s immigrant communities, where unemployment rates reach levels almost double the rest of the country, feel marginalized. Poor and desperate, some seek to find a target for their anger.
In the Baltimore-Washington area, a number of synagogues are focusing their attention at joining the community together. Adas Israel Congregation and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue both hosted solidarity services earlier this week to reflect on last week’s events. Adas Israel’s gathering featured talks from area Jewish leaders, along with Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, and Julieta Valls Noyes, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs.
At Sixth & I, the goal was to take time to mourn the lives lost, including those in Nigeria felled by Boko Haram terrorists, and raise awareness of the bombing last week outside an NAACP facility in Colorado.
“A lot people died last week — not just in Paris, but also in Nigeria. There’s just got to be a moment where you stop and you process and you pray,” said Rabbi Scott Perlo. “Every once in a while you’ve got to mourn.”
In the meantime, many French Jews are left to weigh leaving their life in France behind for the promise of safety in Israel. Hollande has called the flight of Jews from France, should it occur, the beginning of the end of the French Republic, but the Wiesenthal Center’s Samuels wondered of the Jews left in France: “Do you want to be among the last?”