08/18/2008 06:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Debts to desperate strangers

I was guest blogging for Ezra Klein over at American Prospect last week. I want to share this particular item with my HuffPo readers, since it means a lot to me and you might not regularly check http://www., maybe the best wonky liberal site around (you should!).

Travel and free time are the two great professorial perquisites. Not too long ago, I found myself in Paris, strolling the most beautiful city in the world. I gawked at a 7-foot North African traffic policeman in white gloves and full decorative dress. I smiled at the stylish college kids deep in café conversation around the Louvre.

Then I entered the Marais, Paris's old Jewish district. Downing a tourist-trap "Yiddish sandwich," I passed a synagogue that was dynamited on Yom Kippur, 1940 and later rebuilt. Outside a local elementary school, I listened to the joyful noise of children's lunch play as I read a chilling plaque: On this spot, 165 children were deported by the Germans with the assistance of French police. The nearby Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyrs, France's Holocaust memorial, frankly described the widespread anti-Semitism in French life and the role of French police in rounding up Jews.

Enough of the Vichy story is repellent. Yet it's worth noting that France treated its deeply-rooted Jewish communities better than Americans suppose. Most French Jews survived, often through brave and quiet help of their neighbors. The Vichy regime, despite its crimes, tried to protect Jewish war veterans and others.

France's treatment of outsiders was less admirable, and much more instructive for us. Americans like to believe that we would do better than France did sixty years ago. We've never endured defeat and occupation by a ruthless enemy. So we have no way to know. Given a whiff of fear after 9/11, we asked our military to "take the gloves off." Without knowing the details, we all pretty much knew what this entailed. Sometimes, this has involved manhandling real terrorists. Often, it involves bureaucratic banality uncomfortably reminiscent of Vichy....

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