The embattled Jews of France were a continent away, but it was as if they were tethered to a crowd of about 500 county residents who came to a discussion about the fallout of the recent terror attacks.
For those in attendance at Temple Israel Center in White Plains on Jan. 20, there were expressions of shock, heartbreak and a desire to learn more about the situation for Jews in Europe and to memorialize the victims of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks.
The AJC Westchester/Fairfield event, “Terrorism in France — Where Do We Go From Here?” featured David Harris, executive director of AJC, and Jane Braden-Golay, president of the European Union of Jewish Students. The evening, which was co-sponsored by the Westchester Jewish Council, included memorial prayers and Kaddish for all the victims of the Paris attacks.
“What’s happening in Europe is the big canary in the coal mine,” said Jane Braden-Golay, expressing her belief that the recent anti-Semitic attacks threaten the secular fabric of Europe itself.
She explained some of the nuances and complexity that reflect conditions for Jewish students.
“European Jewish student life is different from country to country, and anti-Semitism is different from country to country,” said Braden-Golay, who is Swiss. “Being a young Jew in Europe is either a private matter or a full out, on-the-barricades activist role.”
Even as many European Jewish communities have been revived since the end of World War II, the attacks that have occurred during these past few years have seen attacks in Toulouse, France, and Brussels have caused anguished soul-searching among many younger Jews.
“We wonder, are we part of these societies?” said Braden-Golay, whose organization represents 200,000 Jewish students across Europe. “Do they understand what’s happening to us? These are our homes. I feel not so sure of their support and solidarity.”
Such uncertainty is a serious concern, said Harris. “Our job was to make sure our children would live safer, more secure, deeper Jewish lives. We need Europe to succeed, we need to stand up and defend core European values.” European Jews are caught between radical Islam and, in many countries, anti-Semitic nationalist political parties.
“In Western Europe, I say with sadness, to be a public Jew is an act of courage,” said Harris.
He underscored the message that anti-Semitism is not only about the Jews. “It’s a cancer that will metastasize and damage, if not destroy, Europe’s democracy and plurality,” he said. “France will not be France if Jews vote with their feet.”
For those haunted by history, unlike the 1930s, however, European governments today understand the need to fight anti-Semitism. “The governments get it and understand the stakes involved, which is Europe’s very future,” said Harris. “Europe has as much of a stake in the outcome as we do. We have to help the world understand this is a collective battle.”
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Those messages resonated with many of those in attendance.
As Clifford Wolf, a member of AJC Westchester/Fairfield’s executive committee said, it was compelling to learn how “difficult it is to be Jewish in Europe, with things we take for granted, like sending kids to school, going to the grocery store, going to a museum, are potentially fatal.” Still, Wolf was “surprised at how reasoned and balanced the speakers were, and how they emphasized that only a tiny minority of the Islamic population is dangerous, how we Jews also have extremists within our own communities, and how many Muslims are victims of Islamic radicalism.”
For Robin Rosenberg (no relation) of Dobbs Ferry, whose eldest daughter had spent a semester abroad in Paris, “What was fascinating was learning how different it is for Jewish college students in Europe. It’s so much harder for them. I take for granted Jewish student life here, and it makes me feel fortunate to be in America.”
Ultimately, though, there was no comforting or soothing take-away message.
As Braden-Golay said, in a follow-up phone call, “No one community will answer one way. … There are several hundred thousand Jews in France. Not all are packing up and leaving. It boils down to the individual, and how to live a Jewish life. Collectively, people are very concerned.”