Je suis Charlie, Je suis Juif, Je suis Policier – between 7 and 9 January 2015, a series of terroristic attacks shocked France and the world that would later be referred to as the “Île-de-France attacks“. After the infamous assault on the headquarters of the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, several shootings of armed forces, one near a Jewish school on 8 January and the siege on a kosher supermarket on 9 January, claiming four lives, the entire country, the entire continent stood still. These were attacks on Europe’s freedom of press, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, on European core values. The way a society decides to commemorate such events, heavily depends on their self-understanding as a collective.
The slogan “Je suis Charlie” became an international rallying cry for solidarity with the victims and in support of free speech. Despite some critics later unjustifiably arguing that the magazine itself was racist, I must say that I would still use the slogan in context of the attack.
“Je suis Policier” – a slogan that fewer, but still many people shouted, showing their solidarity with those members of law enforcement and armed forces who became victims of the deadly attacks, coordinated by Jihadist Al Qaeda. The attackers murdered several members of police forces and soldiers, some of them Muslim and tragically personifying the attackers’ irrationality of hate. I cannot remember a single different incident, after which such big parts of the anti-racist movement expressed their solidarity with law-enforcement and military personnel.
“Je suis Juif” – The bitter aftertaste of the Jewish community’s experience about how the attacks were treated in public life, marks a turning point for European Jewry. This is what the following article will reflect upon, “qui était juif?” – Exactly who was Jewish in these days?
After previous attacks on a Jewish School in Toulouse in 2012, the Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria of the same year and the deadly attacks on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Europe’s Jewish community had been in a constant state of shock. Murderous antisemitism had claimed too many lives on the continent and there was a general feeling that France and Europe were turning a blind eye to this reality of Jewish life. Ever since the Amia bombing in the Argentinian capital Bueno Aires in 1994 the global Jewish community was used to living behind fences. To some readers this list of dates may be new, but to the Jewish community they are part of a narrative that explains our current state of affairs. I was used to growing up with terror drills in my school. After Hypercacher Jewish institutions needed to increase their security even further. In some countries heavily armed soldiers have been guarding Jewish institutions ever since, leaving the community in a constant state of alert. This still describes a status quo, a condition that did not end with the 9 January, one that has been leaving its mark on the community. That is why apart from the date itself, every walk through the metal detectors of a Jewish community center is a silent reminder of this day.
The magnitude of the international community’s response to the attacks, especially with the prominence of the “Je suis Charlie” campaign left some members of the community wondering at what point Jewish victims would be understood as French, as European victims. With everything that had happened before and after, there was the bitter aftertaste of a public narrative of grief that seemed to not leave room for Jewish victims to be considered and for the ongoing state of alert not to be understood by society at large. 9 January is part of a series of events that has no foreseeable end and has manifested itself in the way our houses of prayer and our kindergartens look.
To be clear, this impression was not the result of a perceived competitive attention for different victim groups. It was the repeated public relativization of these attacks by claiming that they were nothing but a reaction to the Arab-Israeli conflict, that created these tensions. Despite the whole continent turning its eyes to France, it seemed that attacks on the Jewish community would not be considered as attacks on Europe as a whole and therefore would not become part of a collective memory.
In order to better understand these feelings, it is helpful to look at what happened in the public debate in the days that would follow the attacks. These tensions culminated in one of Frances most famous comedians, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, posting on facebook “je me sens Charlie Coulibaly” (As far as I am concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly) on 10 January. His post combined the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan with the name of one of the gunmen involved in the attack on the kosher Supermarket. Solidarity with Charlie, yes, but in addition he expressed his sympathy for an Islamist murderer instead of his innocent victims, because they were Jewish. That one left a mark. Funerals were not even scheduled yet and a comedian who regularly filled stadiums had already publicly desecrated the victims. M’bala’s later sentencing for his statement is meaningless in light of his role as the voice of not only his many fans, but also of numerous political activists, many of whom describe themselves as anti-racist. It felt as if he had said out loud, what many had been thinking in silence.
It is important to consider, that this was by far not M’bala’s first take on the Jewish community in front of a larger audience: worth mentioning would be his song “Shoananas”, mocking the memory of the Holocaust or his take on the Nazi-salute, the “Quenelle”. Few people will remember how famous football players scoring goals or kids visiting Auschwitz would perform the salute on a regular basis and post their pictures on social media. It was performed on birthdays or weddings and even National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was pictured with one arm vertically downwards palm down, while touching the shoulder with the opposite hand. A salute that by self-definition was “antizionist, not antisemitic”. M’bala had been active as a politician as well, running for several elections, twice for the European Parliament. With every take on the Jewish community he extended the definition of what was acceptable to say about the Jewish community on stage. Every time he was sued in court for antisemitic remarks, he grew in fame and sold more tickets. The day after Hypercacher marked the beginning of a five-year journey to ban him from public life, but when I remember the events of 9 January, I also remember the deafening silence when the community had spoken up against him for decades. This is not about him as a person, it is about a public discourse that for years subsumed dead Jews under protests against politics of the state of Israel. M’bala personifies a line of thought, accepted in European public, that devalues Jewish life, the lives of European citizens, by relativizing their murder, referencing the state of Israel. That is part of the bitter truth of why no one posted “Je suis Juif” when Jewish kids were murdered in front of their school in Toulouse and that is why in 2015 parts of the Jewish community did not know what to make of the campaigns.
European Jewry changed its narrative, its political claims drastically in response to the events of 9 January 2015 and political action would follow, both on a national and an international level, i.e. in form of legislative initiatives. Even the very small faction that sees itself in a Diasporic tradition within the Jewish community fails to explain their assimilatory claims when referring to the French example. Contrastingly, on the political right, European Jewry was unjustly doomed a lost cause with no future. A narrative which French Jewry rejected. Before Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech in the Grand Synagogue of Paris, French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia implored Netanyahu not to to issue an overt call for French Jewry to make aliyah to Israel during the speech following the attacks. Were he to do so, “this would be a big problem” for the French Jewish community, said Korsia beforehand in an interview. Netanyahu’s ultimate choice of wording may have reflected that concern. It is important to understand that Jewish migration from France repeatedly reached new heights over the past decade, with antisemitism being seen as one major push factor.
As we know today, more attacks were to follow in France: The Bataclan, the attack in Nice; Spain and other European countries faced similar incidents. I remember spending an entire week in lockdown, after the Bataclan attacks, when Brussels police started hunting down the network behind the attackers in my neighborhood. We had to close our offices at the European Union of Jewish Students, were not allowed to leave our apartments nor to use our phones, as we had become targets. The entire city of Brussels was shut down for more than a week. Soon, Germany would face the attacks on Breitscheidplatz, Halle and Hanau. Terrorism, be it fueled by Islamism or by the far-right confronted European society with a reality that the Jewish community had been too familiar with for years. By no means do I mention these two ideologies or attacks fueled by them in one sentence to equate them, but because both ideologies target the community at once. Europe needs to consciously consider the implications of leaving the memory of Hypercacher to the Jews, whilst remembering Charlie Hebdo. Many of the above-mentioned events essentially confront us with similar challenges because their commemoration bares the possibility to recreate marginalization effects. That is why it is of the essence for the entirety of the “Île-de-France attacks“ and the events of 9 January should be addressed when repeating the slogan “Je suis Charlie” and why these events need to be remembered collectively.
There is more to how the Jewish community remembers the 9 January, which to my mind exemplifies how communities build resilience from within: by setting their own moral compass through shaping collective memory. In June 2015, various international Jewish organizations awarded Lassana Bathily for his moral courage and have ever since referenced his name to the way the day should be remembered. Bathily, then aged 24, was working in the stockroom of the supermarket when the gunman stormed in. “You people are the two things I hate most in this world,” the supermarket attacker, shouted before taking hostages and opening fire. “You are Jewish and French.” Bathily, a Muslim employee of Malian descent, quickly directed about 15 shoppers into the basement where he hid them in a cold-storage room during the four-hour siege.The Jewish community’s collective response to an Islamist attack, was the celebration of Bathily’s heroic action, consciously leaving no room for responding to it with anti-Muslim hatred. This is how I try to remember 9 January.
In memory of Philippe Braham, 45, Yohan Cohen, 22, Yoav Hattab, 21 François-Michel Saada, 64 and the 13 victims that were murdered in the Île-de-France attacks. May their memory be a blessing, Yehi Sichronam Baruch.
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Felix, DialoguePerspectives participant