Sassos: France loses if Jews leave

(January 16, 2015)

The stunning march of a million French citizens led by dozens of world leaders was evocative of the civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King in the Untied States decades ago. Had the Civil Rights movement been unsuccessful, it would have meant a defeat not only for blacks, but also for American democracy, for the principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights. If the recent impressive response to terrorism in France is not successful, it will spell defeat of the democratic ideals of the French Republic, of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Tragically, the murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery in Paris were brutal attacks on basic human rights, freedom of speech and religion. For French Jews this was the most recent incident of anti-Semitic violence on places of Jewish gathering, from day schools to synagogues.

These deplorable events have led to calls for French Jews to leave France. Of course, it is up to French Jewish families to decide what is best for their own safety and security. But if the majority of the 500,000 Jews in France were to decide to leave, the loss would not only be for Jews, but for France. It would not only mean the dismantling of the second largest Diaspora community after the United States, but a weakening of French democracy. As the French prime minister stated, “France without Jews is not France.”

From the time of the French Revolution in 1789, France led European countries in affirming the full citizenship of its Jews. Looking back from the 21st century, this does not seem like a revolutionary idea, but it was. Until the 18th century, Jews were not citizens of the countries in which they lived. They were a minority without civil rights, living at the pleasure of the government. They were not allowed to vote nor hold political office. They were banned from certain professions and from universities.

Then came this “radical idea” of the Enlightenment that Jews would be judged not as a group but as individuals. Jews were promised that if they would assimilate into French culture, they would be treated as equals. This ideal was tested many times, most dramatically in the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jew and an officer in the French army was falsely accused, tried and imprisoned for treason. French novelist Emile Zola wrote an open letter to the president of France accusing the army of anti-Semitism for which he also was tried and convicted. The Dreyfus affair led Theodore Herzl, an assimilated Jewish journalist, to conclude that despite the European Enlightenment, historic religious and racial anti-Semitism would hinder the integration of Jews into European society.

Still, France continued to work toward the ideal of a nationalism that would embrace all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion. That ideal is once again being tested. New emerging ethnic communities are questioning this model of national identity.

The growth of separatist Islamic militant fundamentalism threatens the fabric of the French nation and many other European societies. The events of the past few weeks in Paris were not just an attack on the French Republic; they were an attack on all freedom loving people. They are a call to those who cherish civil liberties and human rights to unequivocally denounce intolerance, hatred and violence. The future of democracy depends on communities and governments educating their people for civic engagment, affirming the rights of individuals and celebrating the values of cultural diversity.