Rabbi Hillel Athias-Robles on a response to murder in Toulouse

By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
March 25, 2012

Last weekend I was privileged to attend the Biennial Conference of the European Union of Progressive Judaism in Amsterdam, which saw over 300 participants gather from all over Europe- the best-attended conference to date. Choosing Amsterdam was of course of extreme historical significance. Once known as the Jerusalem of the West, Amsterdam was traditionally a sanctuary of tolerance to the Jews, who always found in her embrace protection from the persecutions that were raging elsewhere in Europe. Till this day Amsterdam is affectionately referred to by her residents, non-Jews and Jews a like, as Mokum, from the Hebrew Mokum Alef – the best place in the world. But of course, much of the city’s glorious Jewish past was relegated to a memory during the Holocaust. Before WWII there were about 79000 Jews living in Amsterdam – according to some estimates a 6th of the population. But over 80% of them perished in the camps. When recalling Amsterdam’s Jewish connections at the conference’s opening ceremony, the Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, painfully regretted that as Dutchmen they had not done more to save their Jewish brothers and sisters. Whilst the EUPJ conference expressed some concerns about the future of European Jewry, with religious freedom and tolerance being a prominent topic in the programme, nonetheless this gathering was first and foremost a celebration. It celebrated the rebirth and vitality of European Jewish life in the continent after its decimation, truly like a phoenix rising from the ashes – which in fact became the symbol of the Dutch Portuguese community after the war. We held the conference in the recently-inaugurated synagogue of the Amsterdam Liberal community, a symbolic structure by itself. Allegedly the biggest synagogue to be built in Europe after WWII, when you approach the building you are faced by imposing bare concrete walls, unforgiving in their harshness. Then you enter, and as you ascend into the sanctuary you are inundated by infinite sunlight – like the journey Dutch Jews have trodden to get to where they are today. We had representatives from the thriving communities in Germany, from Poland, Hungary, from Spain, where Judaism too has been reborn with brio from the inquisitional pyres.

I returned home on Sunday night buoying with optimism about the future of European Jewry. Then I awoke on Monday morning to read about the deaths in Toulouse, children for crying out loud!: Miriam Monsonego, just 8 years old,; 6 year old Aryeh Sandler; his three year old brother Gavriel, who in a sickening irony was named after Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, who was killed with his wife Rivkah in the Mumbai terrorist attack. Aryeh and Gavriel’s father, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, tried to shield them from the bullets with his own body but to no avail, their three precious lives were extinguished in a second. All my optimism shattered at that moment.
I did question then whether we indeed had a future in Europe. The bodies were flown to Israel for the funeral, which felt like a posthumous defiance to be interred in the land which had betrayed them.
Time and time again newspapers alleged that those French Jews who had at some point considered moving to Israel would now inevitably do so. The very first reports could not decide whether the crime was perpetrated by far-right extremists or by jihadists, which only highlighted the multiplicity of enemies who seek our destruction.

The High Culture of Europe with its Enlightenment, the strong moral fabric woven through decades of Kantian ethics, was burnt to cinders in a generation, and it certainly wasn’t enough to deter the Nazis. In the words of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “The European moral conscience did exist! It flourished in that happy period in which centuries of Christian and philosophical civilization had not yet revealed, in the Hitlerian adventure, the fragility of their words.” Will it be the same for us, that our modern European society, our human rights laws, or our multi-culturalism be simply to brittle to ensure our continued existence? Will our edifices of progress crumble before strong wind?

In 1934, there was another Jewish child standing at this school gate. It was George Steiner, the famous intellectual and critic. A big financial crisis had rocked France in which Jews were involved. Anti-Semitic groups therefore began marching near his school. Steiner’s governess came running to take him back home. There, his mother lowered the shades on the windows, looking out on the parades of people outside shouting, “Death to the Jews!” Steiner’s father then came home and said, “Up with those shades!” and took him by the hand to look outside. “You must never be frightened; what you're looking at is called history.” According to Steiner, that sentence may have formed his whole life.

I know where Steiner’s father was coming from. Many thinkers have referred to the Jew as Witness- ever-scattered, observing from the sidelines of society, we have always been able to serve as objective witnesses to the unfolding of history through the generations. But I believe that Steiner’s father was wrong by asserting that there was nothing to fear. For as much as we have been witnesses, we have not benefitted from the accompanying immunity. We too have been both victims and agents of history, suffering history in our own skins. But we have indeed learnt a lot – where will that knowledge take us?

When describing Eichman, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke about the “banality of evil.” She certainly didn’t mean that acts of evil lack severity, but rather she was commenting on how easily hate can seep into civilised daily life, into the mundane, the routine, waiting for reason to let its guard down. A survey of 10 European countries published this week revealed that anti-Semitism was on the rise. 24% of the French population were reported to hold anti-Semitic views, with 400 anti-Semitic incidents per year. In other reports, 50% of Spaniards have similar anti-Semitic attitudes, and in spite of having a Jewish population which is almost statistically insignificant when compared with France, there too 400 anti-Semitic incidents are reported per year. In Hungary, where the right-wing controlled parliament increasingly passes xenophobic legislation, the figures rose to 63% of the population. Anti-Semitism in Poland was said to be beyond the charts by the ADL.

Would Israel be the solution then? Should we leave en masse in exile from Europe to the Promised Land, with the same mixture of resentment and longing Jews carried with them when they left Spain five hundred years ago?

I asked my partner, a French Jew, that same question. His 4-word answer was refreshing in its simplicity: I don’t want to. Through our collective memory, we are used to packing all our life into a suitcase and leave when the times have turned against us. We have had enough! But if we want to stay in the land that we so love, we have to fight. Our role as historic witnesses can turn us into the moral conscience of Europe.
Our main task is therefore to extinguish the flames of hate wherever we see them kindled, for hate has been the root of all our troubles till now. Inevitably, the incidents in France will stoke Islamophobia. When ethnic groups are targeted, Jews have been soon to follow. The consequence of blaming a whole culture for the acts of deranged individuals is something we know all too well. After Mohammed Merah was shot, Sarkozy asked for restraint, for the French not to let anger get the better of them and retaliate against their Muslim compatriots. But this is the same Sarkozy who through the campaign had been flirting with the far-right vote; who said there were two many foreigners in France, who spoke against halal and kosher; the same Sarkozy whose interior minister, Claude Gueant, leader of the investigation on the murders, claimed that there were some civilizations that were of more value than others. We find similar rhetoric in France, throughout Europe, and even in our own country. We must therefore stand united and eradicate the corrosive attitudes that are brewing. As Jews, we must specially tackle Islamophobia, and also stand up for our own rights. Pesach is soon approaching. According to a rabbinic interpretation, the etymology for the name of the festival is made up of two words – “pe sach,” the mouth that speaks. Our slavery in Egypt gave us the mandate to speak up against injustice. Let us therefore raise our voices this coming holiday, crying out against hatred, and most especially – loudly proclaiming that we are here to stay.


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