What lessons should Jews draw from the terrorism in Paris last week? One may be that Jews are not safe in France – or, indeed, wherever there are radical Islamists bent on their destruction. The attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store, which resulted in four deaths, was only the latest case of anti-Semitic violence that has shaken France’s Jewish community over the past year.
In its wake, a native Parisian who made aliyah to Israel as a teenager wrote from Beyreuth, Germany, where he was giving a lecture: “Odd to meditate in Wagner’s town about my native city, where Jews now live in fear (and I am afraid this feeling is going to remain). Odd to meditate on the fate of the Jews in Europe: perhaps the most dynamic and gifted ethnic group that continent ever had, and which it cannot really accept, even now. Odd, and so sad.”
But another lesson may be that Jews, like other small ethno-religious minorities, need to understand how important to their survival are the values of Enlightenment secularism: that all citizens have equal rights regardless of religion; that free speech must include the right to insult what others regard as sacred, without fear of violent reprisal.
In France, these values are essential to laïcité – a concept rooted in a history of church-state strife that restricts religious liberty more than most Americans would find acceptable. Nevertheless, in a world when there are not only Muslims but also Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and, yes, Jews who would subordinate those of other faiths, it’s important to understand why strong secularist values matter.
“Charlie Hebdo,” the object of the main massacre, is a satirical magazine dedicated, sometimes offensively, to the principle of laïcité. It was for the sake of that principle that hundreds of thousands of French men and women, of all faiths and no faith, took to the streets last week, with signs saying “Je suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie.”
“We are not a sum of communities, we are one nation, one Republic, with certain values: generosity, solidarity, brotherhood, laïcité,” Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, told the crowd. “It is necessary to defend laïcité. Without compromise. There’s been too much of that.”