France’s Wake-Up Call

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The latest terrorist attacks in France show that the problem of radical Islam affects the entire country and not just its Jewish population, writes the director of the American Jewish Committee's Paris office.

The kosher supermarket was chosen deliberately. Men, women and children were shopping and preparing for Shabbat. Only two days before the attack, terrorists had left 10 of the best-known satirical journalists and cartoonists dead at Charlie Hebdo. Three French police officers were also struck down, one of them a Muslim. 
 
That Jews were targets of radical Islam was, alas, unsurprising. Four of the hostages — Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, François-Michel Saada — were killed at the kosher market. Survivors of the attack are anguished. So, too, are most French Jews, who again are discussing and evaluating not only the future of our community but the fate of France itself.
 
Let’s be clear: France is under assault. The enemy is in our midst. Extremists, faithful to a brand of Islam that celebrates violence and martyrdom, have no respect whatsoever for the core French values of democracy, pluralism, freedom of expression — nor, indeed, for life itself.
 
Tragically, the events of recent days are not a new phenomenon. The Jewish community, including the American Jewish Committee in Paris, has warned for years about the developing and deepening threat that radical Islam poses to France.
 
In March 2012, a lone, heavily armed Mohammed Merah murdered three French soldiers in cold blood and, a week later, slaughtered a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse. The Toulouse attack was a game changer for French Jews. And although French political leaders voiced outrage, as the numbers and frequency of anti-Semitic incidents rose, the country seemed to become anesthetized to this reality — while many Jews felt an increasing sense of loneliness and isolation.
 
The terrorists who struck in Paris — as in Toulouse and at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May — are not isolated lone wolves. They most likely are the tip of a radical Islamist iceberg, the small visible part. To counter this lethal trend, we must find ways to counter this evil that endangers all of France.
 
French schools must teach mutual respect and responsibility, a component of the curriculum that today is stunningly missing. Indoctrination in extremist ideologies in prisons demands attention, as does recruitment by radical, violent groups through social media and in mosques. 
 
The Toulouse and Paris terrorists spent time not only in prison but also with jihadist groups in Syria and Yemen. Hundreds more are currently in Syria and Iraq, and maybe in other Arab countries. That they could return with French passports to settle back in our communities, or in other European countries, is a nightmare. Their objective is to create fear and division in French society, of which the extreme right and populists may take advantage. So let’s have the courage not to let fear take over.
 
The French government cannot stop this trend alone; the effort will require the active involvement of political, religious and civil-society leaders. 
Unfortunately, the voices of Muslim community leaders —with some notable exceptions — have until now been barely audible. Those leaders, too, must speak loudly and clearly, as Muslims and as French citizens.
 
Many of us in the Jewish community regretted that no large solidarity movement rose up after the gruesome kidnap-murder of Ilan Halimi nine years ago, or after Toulouse, or during last summer’s transparently anti-Semitic demonstrations during the Gaza war.
 
While the government did speak out after attacks on Jews and firmly decries anti-Semitism, many in French society and in the media refused to see that our French values were at stake and that Jews were indeed a target. Now, more than at any other time in its postwar history, the fate of France is entwined with the fate of its Jews.
 
If France loses them, sooner or later it will also be lost. Is this the wake-up call that will help the French people understand the nature of the threat to our country, and will they respond firmly and effectively?
 
The very soul of France is at stake.
 
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office.*

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