Unity in Response to Terror: Protecting Minorities after the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

FranceBy Emma Campbell-Mohn.

In response to the recent terrorist attacks in France, European leaders issued a robust defense of free speech and condemnation of terrorism. The attacks strengthened defiance against terrorists who seek to destroy the fundamental freedoms inherent in European society. Yet, in addition to concerns about a free speech, there exists a less obvious issue. The terrorist attacks targeted France’s multiethnic society. In addition to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo, four French Jews died on Friday after Amedy Coulibaly opened fire on a kosher supermarket in Parte de Vincennes. The attacks shocked the French Jewish population causing fears of further terrorist attacks and hate crimes. Jews increasingly feel surrounded by a hostile environment where not even a kosher market is safe.

While the Parte de Vincennes attack highlighted French Jew’s vulnerability, their recent safety concerns began two years ago. In 2012, Mohammed Merah shot a teacher and three students in a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. As justification for this carnage, Merah claimed that the Jews killed Palestinians and therefore deserved to die. In response to the attack, many French Jews considered emigrating, but fewer than 2,000 Jews migrated to Israel in 2012. While the attack vividly illustrated anti-Semitism, French Jews were not deterred from living their daily lives and remained an active part of the French society.

However, increasing anti-Semitism during the summer of 2014 led many to reconsider. In 2014, 7,086 French Jews moved to Israel – triple the number in 2012. Anti-Semitic rallies occurred in France as part of a wave of protests throughout Europe. The rallies occurred in response to the Israel-Gaza conflict. Some protests led to mob violence like that in Sarcelles, where a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and a kosher shop was sent on fire. In response to the anti-Semitic sentiments, President Hollande called a meeting among religious leaders to stem the growing tide of violence.  However, these calls for peace were met with violence as anti-Jewish threats continued: there was a plot to blow up a synagogue in September and a robbery and rape of a Jewish couple in December.

With one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, France has approximately 500,000 Jewish citizens. After the Parte de Vincennes attack, the French government sought to ensure the security of its Jewish population by deploying 10,000 soldiers to “sensitive sites” such as Jewish schools.  Rabbi Tom Cohen tells how soldiers guard his synagogue day and night. With the protection of the government, he says there is no cause for Jews to leave for Israel. Yet, some French Jews long for the safety and comfort of Israel, where they can live under the protection of Israeli counterterrorism efforts and the “Iron Dome.” Israel, known for extreme counterterrorism measures, presents a vision of security as opposed to European states that struggle to balance draconian counterterrorism measures against freedoms for their citizens.

The sad truth is that the French multiethnic society is under attack. While the Hebdo attack undoubtedly demonstrated opposition to free speech, the Parte De Vincennes attack showed the dangers of anti-Semitism. In response to fears raised by the French Jewish community, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered French Jews refuge in Israel. The simple fact that Netanyahu felt that this offer was needed illustrates the damaging consequences of these attacks on French national cohesion. Can France no longer provide for its multiethnic population’s safety?

These fears are not only localized to the Jewish population but also prevalent among the French Muslim population. From January 7th through January 20th, there were 133 recorded anti-Muslims attacks or threats in France, not including Paris. Attacks ranged from gunshots to training grenades aimed at mosques.  These attacks illustrate a dangerous cultural divide creating disunity and division with French society. Beyond protecting free speech, the French must also protect its minority populations. Making France a Jew-less or Muslim-less state only further damages the delicate fabric of pluralism. In the wake of these attacks, France must not only look towards its enemies – terrorists who threaten its population – but also towards protecting its minority communities.

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