The spectacle of more than a million people taking to the streets of Paris in protest against the attacks against the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market is in and of itself a good thing. The condemnations of Islamist terror from a broad cross-section of French society and the willingness of many world leaders, including some from Arab and Muslim nations, to take part in the event is encouraging to those who have noted with dismay not only the assault on free speech but also the many attacks on Jews in Europe in recent years. This has led some to express the hope that the march will mark a turning point in the struggle against Islamist terror and anti-Semitism in which a unified European continent will somehow reject hatred. But while it would be wrong to react to what is being portrayed by the cable and broadcast networks as a transcendent kumbaya moment with pure cynicism, it is important that no one should think a march can by itself undo the wide support that is given Islamist ideology in the Arab world. Nor should we confuse bromidic statements by leaders with policies that will end the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews.
The first thing that must be understood about this week’s tragic events is that they must not be viewed in isolation from either the recent history of violent protests and attacks on journalistic outlets by Muslims or the rising tide of anti-Semitism that has swept over Europe. It is comforting for those marching and those reporting the march to pretend as if the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market terrorists were a small, isolated cell of extremists operating outside of the Islamic mainstream. But the large mobs that took to the streets to riot and kill after a Danish newspaper published cartoons that Muslims also thought were offensive in 2004 or the many other instances of similar behavior since then point toward a contrary conclusion. Indeed, the support for Islamist political movements throughout the Middle East who share many of the beliefs of the terrorists makes it obvious that although many, even perhaps a majority of Muslims don’t agree with them, the attackers committed this slaughter in the belief that tens if not hundreds of millions of their co-religionists are prepared to rationalize if not justify their unspeakable acts of barbarism.
Similarly, the decision of the terrorists to target a kosher market on the eve of the Sabbath cannot be taken out of the context of a situation in France and Europe in which Jews have felt themselves under siege. Some have excused the numerous attacks on Jews as the natural reaction to outrage about Israel’s attempts to defend itself against terrorism. But this “new” anti-Semitism is merely a variant on the more traditional forms of Jew hatred that have found new traction because they draw on the hostility of non-Muslim intellectual elites for Israel as well as that of immigrants from the Middle East and the vestiges of pre-Holocaust French anti-Semitism. Long before the slaughter of the past few days, Jewish travelers to France were warned not to dress in a manner that would identify them as Jewish and thus be vulnerable to random street violence, if not worse.
As I wrote on Friday, the primary fear expressed by the media was that there would be a backlash against Muslims. But the Hyper Cacher terror attack illustrated that it was the Jews who had most to fear, not Muslims or Arabs. The fact that the Grand Synagogue in Paris was closed for Sabbath services this week because of fear of more terrorism while the Parisian Great Mosque remained open tells us all we need to know about where the real threat lies.
It would be nice to think a grand gesture such as that of the march or even the very appropriate statements about Jewish security from French leaders would be enough to change things. But history tells us about how adaptable and persistent the virus of anti-Semitism has been. It has morphed from a defining characteristic of the old French religious right to that of fascism to Nazism and then to Communism and now is a fundamental aspect of an Islamist movement that can claim broad support around the world. This deep-seated variant of hate can draw on the sympathy of both the left and right wings of European politics that share the Islamists’ antipathy for Israel and Jewish identity. A Europe where bans of circumcision and kosher slaughter are thinkable and where boycotts of Israel are increasingly popular is not one in which Jew-hatred or Islamism can be waved away with a rhetorical flourish or a mass media event.
Defeating the Islamists will require both Muslims and non-Muslims to acknowledge the religious roots and motivation of the terrorists, something most European leaders as well as President Obama seem incapable of doing. Similarly, pushing anti-Semitism back to the margins of European society will need more than merely social media hastags or a unity march. The ease with which it has been revived only a generation after the Holocaust teaches us that ensuring Jewish security or that of the West will require more than gestures.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at TobinCommentary.