By Rabbi Kenneth Brander - Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and Rabbi Emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue.
Un juif est heureux comme dieu en France – “A Jew is as happy as God in France.”
This famous Yiddish saying dates back to 1791, when Jews were first granted the right to French citizenship. While Jews remain proud French citizens today, the sentiment no longer rings true. Several waves of violent anti-Semitism have ravaged France in recent years and shaken the Jewish community to its core.
In 2014, France saw a 104% increase in the total number of hate crimes, and while the Jewish community represents less than 1% of the population, 51% of all hate crimes were directed at Jews. Most recently, the world stood aghast at the beginning of January as the story of four Parisian Jews murdered in a terrorist attack at the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket unfolded.
This past Sunday, I flew to Paris as part of a solidarity mission coordinated by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Our group of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders from across North America, accompanied by two Yeshiva University (YU) student leaders, came to make a statement of unity. We came to do what we could to warm the hearts and calm the minds of our French brethren who are still reeling from violent acts of anti-Semitism. We also came to understand, directly from the citizens themselves, the issues that currently face European Jewry.
Though we flew to Paris with this purpose, the true importance of our mission came into sharp focus while we were there. We learned that, as we stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jews of Paris, President Barack Obama seemed to suggest that these acts of horrific and flagrant anti-Semitism were just random occurrences. But the fact is that the victims were not just a randomly selected “bunch of folks in a deli in Paris,” as the President told Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. They were chosen as targets for this horrific act of violence specifically because they were Jewish.
It is our responsibility to tell that story and support our fellow Jews around the world.
It is our responsibility to stay connected with Jews everywhere, offering our support and learning about their struggles so that we can speak truth to power.
It is our responsibility to defend our fellow Jews and inform the world of the plight of all those who need help.
It is for this reason that solidarity missions like the JFNA mission to Paris are so crucial.
France boasts a rich Jewish heritage dating back to the times of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the celebrated Biblical commentator from Troyes. And with 550,000 Jews, France is the third-largest Jewish community in the world after Israel and the U.S. Additionally, Jewish institutions established in the time of Napoleon are still vibrant, and 30,000 Jewish children attend Jewish day schools in France.
But the recent onslaught of anti-Semitic incidents reminds us once again that the national attitude toward Jews in any country can change in an instant. We have seen this scenario play out again and again, especially in Europe, and we are well aware of the horrifying ramifications of hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism.
We never thought that we would have to hide again, yet Jewish men in France have long stopped wearing their kippot in public for fear of discrimination or violent attacks.
We could never have imagined that shopping for Shabbat would be an endeavor fraught with danger, yet a Jewish supermarket became the scene of a vicious and deadly act of terrorism.
We have been here before, and we promised ourselves that we would never allow these circumstances to become commonplace again.
We need to stand up for our brothers and sisters around the world at every possible opportunity, and we need to recognize that our national identity has been solidified with the gift of the Modern State of Israel so that when we say “never again,” we truly mean that we will never again be silent.
Though the Jewish nation is dispersed all over the world, we are one people, not a conglomerate or a partnership but a single entity. We are a cohesive unit bound by faith, a common destiny, and a rich cultural heritage. When Jews are suffering in France, we are all in distress, for when one limb of the body is vulnerable, the whole body aches.
While our focus as Jews is about living aspirational lives, we must make a statement that anti-Semitism and hate crimes are always our problem, no matter who the victims may be, no matter where in the world they reside.
It is important that we impart this sense of responsibility to our children and students, whether through globe-trotting unity projects, like camps for underprivileged youth in Dimona, Jewish identity seminars in the Ukraine, and solidarity missions to Paris, or local initiatives that combat anti-Semitism, so that Jews of all ages continue to carry the torch of Jewish unity into the next century.
While the Jewish experience presents many challenges, isolation should never be one of them. No Jew should ever find himself alone. We are in this together, and there is nothing random about that.