I don’t particularly care for France.
Some people think it’s a really bad time for me to make that declaration, given the recent tragedy of the coordinated terror attacks in Paris, whose wounds are still quite raw. But that’s specifically why I mention it now.
So how is it, as everyone is posting “Je suis Paris” and changing their profile pictures to le drapeau tricolore, that I am so callous and cold-hearted?
I’m not, really. But I do have some serious issues with France.
It became fashionable to make fun of the French in 2003, for their failure to support the military action in Iraq. It was at this time that pejorative “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” coined by The Simpsons in 1995, became ubiquitous. At the same time, many took to calling french fries “freedom fries.” (While “freedom fries” is ridiculous, “french fries” is a misnomer. “Paris fries” originated in Paris, Texas. Mistakenly thinking that the name must refer to Paris, France, many preferred the alliterative “french fries,” which ultimately stuck.)
Then there’s the infamous 2001 comment by Daniel Bernard, then French ambassador to the United Kingdom. He said, “All the current troubles in the world are because of that [expletive deleted] little country Israel…Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?”
British MPs demanded that Bernard resign or be removed from office. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman said that if France took no action, it would confirm their agreement with Bernard’s statement. The ADL called upon the French Foreign Ministry to investigate. France’s reply was basically, “Oh, that Bernard! You know him, he’s such a character!” The UK didn’t want him anymore, so France transferred him to Algeria. (Did I mention that France and Israel are ostensibly allies? With friends like these….)
France is also a hotbed of anti-Semitism. In a 2002 survey, 42% of French respondents said that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their countries of residence and 42% said that Jews have too much power. In a 2011 survey, nearly 28% said that Jews have too much influence in France and nearly 26% said that Jews only care about “their own kind.” As of 2014, 70% of French Jews were worried about harassment because of anti-Semitism and 60% were worried about anti-Semitic violence. Is it any wonder that the number of Jews from France making aliyah has surged even beyond those from the US? (In 2014, 4,000 French Jews moved to Israel. That same period saw 3,762 olim from the US and Canada combined.)
France is proud of the secular nature of their society. That’s fine. But that extends to barring “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools. That includes yarmulkes for Jewish boys and hijab for Muslim girls. I consider the latter ban far more offensive than the former because, like tzniyus for Jews, hijab is a religiously-informed standard of modesty. Imagine if a public school in the US insisted that Orthodox girls wear a uniform of shorts and tank tops with no accommodation for religious belief. That’s what it’s like making girls who wear hijab uncover their hair. Between 1994 and 2003, 100 girls were suspended or expelled from middle school or high school for wearing hijab.
I could go on but that’s not the point. The point is that, right or wrong, I have whatever issues I happen to have with France. Despite that, I don’t have issues with the French. I have met a number of French people over the years and, by and large, they’re very pleasant. They’re certainly not unpleasant in any greater ratio than people of other nationalities whom I have met. It would never occur to me to blow them up because I happen to disagree with some of their country’s policies. If I’m strongly enough motivated by what I perceive to be an injustice, I can write an angry email. I can blog. I can write an op-ed. I can move there, become a citizen, and vote. You know, the way civilized people express dissent.
What happened in Paris is a travesty. I would never say they deserved what they got. I wouldn’t say that in Paris, in Madrid, in Tokyo or in Beirut. Nobody deserves to have innocents mowed down at a sporting event or in a restaurant. I’m not Paris but I don’t have to be to stand with them against ISIS.
I get the whole terror thing. I live in New York City. I work in lower Manhattan and I was actually at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I was trapped for hours in the financial district when the towers came down and later evacuated across the Manhattan Bridge. It was gratifying the way the entire country – even the world – rallied around us. We saw the worst of mankind that day, but also some of the best.
Nevertheless, the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the World Series.
Yes, New York’s morale really could have used a win, but if Arizona had thrown the game as a misguided humanitarian gesture, it wouldn’t have been honest. It would have done us no favors.
Out of respect, I extend the same courtesy to France: I’m going to be honest about the areas in which we disagree. But I will also put my antipathy aside for the time being and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them against a common existential threat. I will not say, “What about X, Y and Z that happened in Israel?” because no one deserves to have their tragedy turned into a competition. I will not suggest that French policies invited these attacks because blaming the victim is always wrong (and doing so justifies the terrorists). What I will do is give credit where credit is due: France has responded with swift and decisive action against ISIS, recognizing an act of war when they see one. This is something my own country hasn’t always done.
So, yeah, Je ne suis pas Paris. I’m not Paris. I never will be; there’s just too much separating my priorities from theirs. But I don’t have to be Paris to feel their pain, to mourn their dead, and to join with them in the fight against the real enemy.
I shared an early draft of this article with some people and I received a surprising question in reply: “Why should we stand with France since they hate Israel?”
Because it’s the right thing to do. If there’s one thing that Israel can pride itself upon, it’s that they always try to take the moral high road. Should we do anything less in support of Israel? And what message would it send if we didn’t stand with them against ISIS?
We don’t have to be Paris. We still have to be human.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.