A New Fight


Charlie 1In the wake of terrorist attacks against them, the Jewish community in France has been threatened. The Birmingham Jewish Federation’s Samantha Dubrinksy traveled to Paris in search of answers.

Written by Samantha Dubrinsky

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. 

Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” 

 —Martin Luther King Jr.

 I always imagined that my first trip to Europe would consist of me, a close friend, and hostels fit for a recent college graduate. I pictured myself backpacking around Europe, taking in the sights I always wanted to see and experiencing the culture of these intriguing and sophisticated places. I never thought my first trip to Europe would be in the aftermath of two terrorist attacks. I never imagined that I’d be traveling to France at a time when anti-Semitism is at its highest since Hitler’s reign. But it was, and I did.

In early February, I headed to Paris on a fact-finding trip organized by the Jewish Agency, an Israel-based institution that works closely with the Birmingham Jewish Federation. We met with French officials and visited with the Jewish community to better understand the serious difficulties Jews are facing. It’s no secret that what is happening in France is serious. France, with an estimated 550,000 Jews, has the world’s third-largest Jewish community.

At least twice a week, I read an alarming headline regarding the status of the French Jewish community. French Jews are leaving for Israel at an accelerating rate. In 2014, an estimated 7,000 Jews emigrated to Israel and double that number is projected for 2015. Jews in France are being harassed, assaulted, and killed simply because they are Jewish. Oftentimes, these incidents are perpetrated by extremists driven by their radical interpretation of the Islamic faith.

To be honest, though, I’d had some preparation for my trip, though I didn’t know it at the time. In May of 2014, I had the chance to go to the American Jewish Committee’s Global Summit in Washington, D.C., where I met Jews from around the world. It was there that the anti-Semitism Jews are facing in France and other parts of Europe really hit me. The most piercing and personal moment came when a young French Jew who, at the time, was the same age as me—24—told me that he was afraid to wear anything that identified him as Jewish when he walked around the streets of Paris. That chilled me. We were the same age, had similar ambitions, were both educated and working hard to build our careers. Yet, he was afraid to identify himself as Jewish.

When I was packing for my trip, I made a conscious decision to take off my Star of David necklace. If my friend, a year and a half ago, was afraid to identify himself publicly as Jewish, then shouldn’t I feel the same way, especially in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on a kosher grocery store? Yes, I, too, while in France, would try to hide the fact that I am Jewish. The fact that I would have to hide my Judaism was sickening.

When I got off the plane in France, I had mixed feelings. Here I was about to embark on a journey in a country that had been on my bucket list since I was a small girl and read the Madeline books, which are set in Paris. My reason for visiting France, I constantly reminded myself, was not to enjoy the city or appreciate the culture. Instead, it was to help the Jews in this country who are worried and in need, and to better understand the ways in which the Birmingham Jewish Federation and other North American Jewish Federations, through fundraising, programs, and outreach, are helping this beleaguered Jewish community. As our small group began our evening at a restaurant, we met with several important leaders in the French Jewish community. I had the chance to sit next to Counseil Representatif des Institutions juives de France (CRIF) Vice President Yonathan Arfi. I strategically picked my place next to Yonathan, who is in his 30s, because I wanted to talk to him about how young French Jews are dealing with the current situation.

What I learned was not good. Anti-Semitism is intensifying in France. A recent study by the Anti-Defamation League said 37 percent of the French people have negative attitudes toward Jews. Much of this anti-Jewish feeling comes from nationalists on the far right of the political spectrum and virulent anti-Israeli activists on the far left. It is compounded by radical extremist Muslims, who are prone toward violence.

France’s 550,000 Jews are worried. Yonathan said that many of his friends are making preparations to leave France at a moment’s notice. They are selling their apartments and renting, so it’s easy to leave. Some are already making homes in Israel and slowly transitioning. Yonathan believes, however, that there is a future for Jews in France, but that it will be a battle for those who choose to stay. My trip was a ringside seat on the oldest of Jewish dilemmas—to stay or to leave? Will things get better or will they not? What should Jews do?

What struck me the most about our dinnertime conversation is how 20 Jews from all over the world, including me, the youngest, from Birmingham, Alabama, were sitting around discussing the hatred others feel toward our people. I couldn’t get over it. I kept asking, “Where does this come from? What is the root of all this?” and Yonathan, along with some other participants who were older, said, “It’s simply hate.” There was talk of classical anti-Semitism (remnants from the World War II and Holocaust era) and France’s current economic uncertainties contributing to the more recent rise in violence and bigotry toward Jews, who often become scapegoats in difficult times. But what I heard, above all else, is that among some elements of the population here, there is, simply and sadly, a tradition of hate.

When I asked Yonathan what we, as American Jews, could do to help, he told me to advocate for French Jews—to tell their story and help others understand the issues they face. In that moment, I decided that I would do exactly that. And I’ve been talking about it ever since. Living in Birmingham, a city with a history marked by hate, violence, and racism, I feel lucky to have come of age in an era where those turbulent times now belong to the past. Yes, Birmingham has its problems, but our community works together to build a better future, a better Birmingham. I can’t say the same thing about Paris. Standing in front of the kosher supermarket, where just a few weeks earlier a terrorist attack had occurred, a passerby yelled at our group, “Criminals! The Prophet is real!” His reference was to the Prophet Muhammad. We were listening to one of the hostages held in the recent terror attack at the supermarket recount her harrowing ordeal when we heard the shouting. As I stood next to her, it was hard to imagine that she had just been through this terror attack and was talking about it so calmly. It was also hard to imagine that she would be safe in the coming months. After hearing about her experience, I asked a French-speaking member of our group what the young man riding by on the bicycle had said. He explained that he had called our group criminals and proclaimed the supremacy of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. It was unbelievable, and I said just that. “That’s just life here,” this person told me.

The hostage’s story was unnerving. I could picture her hiding in the bathroom, locking the door from the inside and leaving the key in the lock so the terrorists could not see through the key hole and notice she was alive and hiding. Chills ran up my spine and I could barely imagine the thoughts going through her mind as she heard gunshots throughout the grocery store.

Though I am young, I have come to learn that as Jews, a quiet fear lives within our psyche all of the time: There are those out there who wish to attack and murder us, simply because we are Jews. And nowhere are we immune from this danger. This is our burden to carry; but from carrying it comes our strength and our unending capacity to care for one another. What moved me most on our trip, besides hearing the firsthand account from the survivor of the terrorist attack at the kosher market, was listening to a young man speak at the Jewish Agency’s Paris office. He said, “My wife and I go to synagogue fairly often and we attended a class that was being held in the basement. My wife walked downstairs and through the window saw sleeping military soldiers. She ran back upstairs and said, ‘When is this going to end? When will we have to stop being watched?’”

As I sat at my hotel desk on our last night in Paris listening to the sounds of the city, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional. We had started the last morning of our trip with a visit to Charlie Hebdo, the site of the first of those two terrorist attacks. Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, was attacked and staff members brutally murdered because extremist Muslims found things the magazine published to be objectionable. During our visit to the sadly famous magazine, I had the honor of being the one chosen to speak to our group. I talked about how, as Americans, we understand the importance of free speech, but also the importance of equality and respect. And, as Jews, we all understand the pain, anguish, and devastation that comes from being victims of a murderous, hate-driven attack.

I left Paris with a burdened heart and swirling emotions. This beautiful city has so much to offer, but underneath the exquisite architecture and unparalleled cultural experiences are serious issues. I worry that one day Paris will not have much to offer its Jews; that more and more Jews who live in this beautiful city and country will feel unwelcome, unwanted, and unprotected. I pray that this will not be the case. But based on what I experienced, I am certain that it will take more than prayers to make sure this doesn’t happen.

After my trip, I no longer think of myself as simply a Jew from Alabama, nor will I think of my brothers and sisters in Paris as Jews from France. No, from now on, I will think of us as just Jews—bound together as a family by our common history, traditions, anxieties, and future.

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