09/19/2014 10:09 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

The Big Chill Facing France's Jews

Allan Baxter via Getty Images

France's Jews have had enough.

Enough of public transportation systems on which it has become dangerous to wear a yarmulke.

Enough of public schools in which Jewish students are taunted as they leave class.

Enough of the France of the practitioners of the neo-Nazi salute known as the quenelle, whose meetings are little more than calls to hate Jews.

Enough of the France of the Islamofascists who, as in era of the Dreyfus affair and the bands of the Marquis de Morès, creep ever further into the realm of the shameful by attacking synagogues and Jewish businesses.

Enough of the demonstrations in which "solidarity with Gaza" is, for too many, no more than a pretext for heaping scorn on all things Jewish.

Enough media reports about the neighborhoods in which Mohamed Merah and Mehdi Nemmouche, the recent killers of Jews in Toulouse and Brussels, are looked upon as heroes.

French Jews certainly have had enough of all this.

Many of them suddenly are wondering whether they are still welcome in the country of the Enlightenment and of Jewish emancipation. Are we still at home, they ask themselves, in this strange country where the vilest anti-Zionism, the stubbornest Holocaust denial, and the murkiest competition for victimhood are combining to produce a new and potentially devastating form of anti-Semitism?

And more and more of them are responding in the negative, pulling up stakes, and leaving for Israel.

Need I say that I understand their growing anxiety?

I, too, feel vulnerable enough to pose the same awful question, one that only yesterday was almost inconceivable, one that I never would have imagined could return in my lifetime with such brutal banality.

And this "inaudible hissing in our common ear" of which philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote in an essay on the climate of the 1930s, an essay that I have never been able to read without a shiver of retrospective fear, this "icy wind" that moves through the "still decent" rooms of Jewish residences in the crosshairs of the criminal horde, the fetid breath that "snuffs out lights, rends garments, and carries the howls and shrieks" of unthinking, pitiless mobs -- it is true that I hear and feel them, and the anger they kindle in me is no longer behind me: It is right in front of me.


I do not think it is right to leave.

I understand such a decision when it is made for noble reasons of heart and mind and with the will to help strengthen Israeli society.

But I do not think that we should let ourselves be intimidated.

I do not think that we should despair to the point of folding our tents and abandoning the field.

I hold that view for three reasons.

First, France's Jews are not as isolated as they think. From the banning of Dieudonné's anti-Semitic rallies by Justice Minister Manuel Valls to the courageous barring by big-city mayors of both parties of equally anti-Semitic demonstrations that claimed Gaza as their pretext, it must be said that France's public authorities so far have not shrunk from their duty and have been scrupulously vigilant.

Second, France's Jews are not as weak as they think. Like the rest of the population, of course, they have their share of unemployment, job insecurity, and poverty. They have their seniors, who I dare say are doubly weak and vulnerable and who, without the support of exemplary charitable organizations, would have fallen by the wayside long ago. But otherwise, what a collection of strong voices! What a group of responsible people who, having learned the lessons of the older generation, those who were called "French Israelites" and who watched the worst arrive without reacting, no longer let anything slip! And finally there is that miraculous segment of French society, a segment that is still a majority, a segment whose reflexes even more than its conscious thought I fervently believe have been sharpened by history: This time that part of French society will not be taken by surprise when and if the gathering pogromist mob appears.

And then there is a third reason, perhaps the most important reason, for France's Jews not to give up. This is their country. This republic is their work. From Bernard Lazare to Pierre Mendès France, along with René Cassin, Romain Gary, and so many others, Jews are well represented among the builders of a French republic that remains one of the places in the world where the values of humanism and universalism are most alive. Give up? Yield to the red-brown totalitarians and their twins in Marine Le Pen's vague bleu Marine? Abandon this France that has given us so much and to which we have given in equal measure, a democratic France that will be, after its Jews, the next target of the thugs? Not on your life. By temperament and on principle, I cannot see myself turning my back on a political, moral, and spiritual battle that in my heart of hearts I believe will be won by the defenders of the republic.

We must stand our ground.

We must fight.

We must, as the great French actor Jacques Weber bellows from the Paris stage where he is performing my play on Europe's crisis of courage, "be just strong enough to be sure of always being the stronger" in a contest.

Strengthened by that strength, we must stare down the mob, yielding nothing, and, in yielding nothing, defend the principles of coexistence on which France was founded, principles that are so essential to the spirit of Judaism.

Did not the sage say that the first attacked are also the first defenders? Well, then, to the extent that French Jews are on the front line against the brewing barbarism they are its best sentinels. As for those barbarians, they shall not pass.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy