A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors.

Je suis Juif? Not so much (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) Here is a classic joke: Back in 1930s Germany, a rabble-rousing politician is making a speech. He is blaming the capitalists, the communists, the aristocrats and the Jews. A man in the crowd raises his hand and asks: “What about the bicyclists?” The politician says to him: “Why the bicyclists?” To which the man responds: “And why the Jews?”

Why, indeed, the Jews? Because in the wake of one of the most painful weeks that France has ever seen -- the Charlie Hebdo killings and the attack on the kosher store -- we now have a bunch of Muslims in a Paris suburb who are blaming -- guess who? -- for the attack on Charlie. You don’t need a multiple-choice exam for this one. The Jews set the whole thing up, say these Muslims, as a conspiracy against the Muslims, so that the Muslims would be blamed for this heinous act.

A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors.

A Charlie Hebdo building with cartoons on the doors.

Surprised? You needn’t be.

Consider the solidarity rally in Paris: Some 3.7 million people, the largest public demonstration in France since the end of World War II. Many marchers held pencils and pens aloft, symbolizing a commitment to freedom of expression, and chanted "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie”).

What about the killings at the kosher grocery store? An article in the Israeli paper Haaretz stated: “Thousands of candles did not burn in front of the orphaned Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket. Maybe it was the shock, maybe the fear, maybe an infinite number of other reasons. But after the murders of Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen and François-Michel Saada -- France stayed home.”

Lots of “Je Suis Charlie” signs. Relatively few “Je Suis Juif.”

Why?

First, frankly: because they were Jews.

More than a century ago, during the Dreyfus affair, when a French Jewish military officer was falsely convicted of treason, French citizens shouted: “Muerte la Juifs!” or "Death to the Jews!”

For Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, those cries were a wake-up call. He realized that there was no future for the Jews of France and created the movement known as political Zionism.

The events of the past year have proved him right: Kosher restaurants bombed, Jews attacked on the streets, the rise of the anti-Semitic quenelle gesture, increased vulgar anti-Semitism in French popular culture.

French is now becoming the new hot language on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem now that the number of French Jewish immigrants to Israel has topped all records. The country that brought us Zionism in the first place has made Zionism an ongoing necessity.

High school student Amina Tadjouri, right, with a friend at Place de la Republique in Paris during a demonstration Sunday (January 11, 2014). Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant

High school student Amina Tadjouri, right, with a friend at Place de la Republique in Paris during a demonstration Sunday (Jan. 11, 2015). Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant


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Merci beaucoup.

Many in Paris might have thought the Jews had it coming to them.

That’s what BBC reporter Tim Willcox said. “Many critics of Israel's policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.”

Yes, Willcox was trying to be “fair” and yes, he apologized for the insensitivity of his remarks. Still, his point had been made. The Jews deserve it.

Maybe that’s why many of those in the Paris marches would rather be a “Charlie” than a “Juif.”

Ask your average French hipster: Who would you rather be -- a martyred artist in the irony industry, or a member of a people with an ancient identity, whom we have not liked that very much for a while?

And not just the French. Many American sympathizers are claiming to be Charlie. Not that many are declaring they are Jews.

French Jews first invented the idea that Judaism was passe. After the French Revolution, the Jews were offered full citizenship in France -- with just one little hitch. They would have to backburner their Jewish practices. In 1806, Napoleon offered the Jewish Assembly of Notables a list of 12 questions. Answer those questions, and we will figure out whether you're ready to be French, or whether you are still going to be, first and foremost, Jews.

The Jewish leaders gave Napoleon the answers he wanted. They got French citizenship. Liberte, egalite, fraternite! That worked out pretty well for the Jews -- until the Dreyfus affair. It turned out the Jews were not as French as they had once thought.

So, were there no expressions of “Je Suis Juif”?

Fewer than we would have hoped.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But some that were unexpected.

Who were holding such signs?

French Muslims, in an almost unprecedented gesture of solidarity and even kinship.

Perhaps, in the wake of this madness, there will be some hope -- for dialogue and healing between Jews and Muslims.

We can only hope.

After all, "Hatikvah" -- “The Hope” -- is the Jewish national anthem.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of “Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible,” published by Jewish Lights.) 

YS/MG END SALKIN