In mid-July, hundreds of Muslim protesters stormed the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue in central Paris, chanting, “Death to the Jews,” as hundreds of men, women and children inside prayed for peace. After making contact with the synagogue’s president to express our concern, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue and I were invited to spend Shabbat there and share words of Torah and support.
The dangers in France are very real. Peaceful houses of worship have become targets. Families are anxious to walk the streets as visibly Jewish, and more and more see that their only option is to emigrate. We were concerned but also greatly inspired by a community that acts with such grace, dignity and unity.
We were told to wear caps instead of kippot, and we arrived at shul with more than 40 riot police standing guard. The protests had been so violent and uncontrollable that French President François Hollande had issued a citywide ban on Muslim demonstrations for July 19, which went largely ignored. No doubt, Jewish life in France is under siege.
For Jews in France now, it’s not a matter of if they will emigrate but when. In another 50 years, in all likelihood, there no longer will be a French Jewish community as we know it. Community leaders have been preparing their members, young and old, with the skills necessary to ease into Israeli professional life. With escalating anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the future of European Jewish life as a whole is in question.
There is a real danger worldwide that anti-Zionism is being used as an excuse for outright anti-Semitism and Jew hatred. Even if the protestors strongly disagree with Israel’s actions in Gaza, why attack a house of worship? Why attack Jews who are not Israel Defense Forces soldiers, not Israeli and who live thousands of miles from the conflict? Make no mistake: There is an inextricable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. When a synagogue can be targeted while holding a peaceful prayer service, it is an attack not only on Israel, but also on all synagogues and Jewry worldwide. And it is an attack on all houses of worship and people of all faiths. It is as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described them: anti-Semites who hide their “hatred of the Jew behind an appearance of anti-Zionism and the hatred of Israel.”
What irony. The very protestors who delegitimize Israel’s right to exist prove exactly the need for the Jewish state. Israel did not arise in a vacuum but in the aftermath of the annihilation of more than two-thirds of European Jewry. A fundamental core of Zionism is the need for a safe haven for Jews. As the Muslim population in France continues to expand and anti-Semitism rages uncontrollably, French Jews are recognizing more than ever their need to exercise their right of return.
Even as it is threatened, the community we experienced is beautiful and rich — one that understands the unity of the people of Israel, that we are all one and connected at the core. We embraced our French brethren, we danced, and we sang — and we cried on each other’s shoulders. Some of the police, when hearing the song and dance, came into the synagogue to make sure that everything was all right. Wow, they said, what a remarkable people who respond in such a way.
Ashrei Yisrael, U’mi K’amchaYisrael.
Rabbi Etan Mintz is spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue.