Those who attacked France last week forgot that this is the country of resistance. On Sunday 11th January, 2015, a sea of people – no, an ocean – demonstrated against the killers of Charlie Hebdo, the assassins of ordinary police officers and the gunning down of Jews. It was a staggering sight to see, and was followed around the world.

What better beacon to show those who try to hijack Islam, but believe only in intolerance, barbarity and cruelty, that they and their creed of death will not pass? In an unprecedented display of unity, Muslims said they were proud to be French, Islamophobia was denounced, demonstrators applauded the police, and the president, prime minister and interior minister went to the main Paris synagogue.

To understand why the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” or “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie”, took root so quickly on the web, look back to the legend – not technically true – surrounding how the King of Denmark rebutted the Nazis, saying he would wear a yellow star if Danish Jews were made to do so. “We are all Jews”, he supposedly said. This story is deeply embedded in popular consciousness, (1) it gives the slogan its symbolism and power. It does not imply that we all take the risks, or support the ideas, that the satirical magazine represents.

I want to highlight the day's solidarity with the Jewish community, which has already known the barbaric, cold-blooded slaughter of children at Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse in 2012, surely the cruellest act of anti-Semitism since the Nazi period. This is a community that has also endured attacks ranging from the bullying of Jewish schoolchildren to the horrifying torture and death of Ilan Halimi in 2006. The result has been a surge of emigration to Israel.

When four people were gunned down in a Paris kosher supermarket on Friday by the accomplice to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, at was as if something was finally understood. Not only could upfront cartoonists who were already on Islamist extremists’ radar be brutally murdered, but Jews just doing their pre-Sabbath grocery shopping could also become victims of this violence. That meant that for many, their Jewish friends, neighbours and colleagues were suddenly at great risk.

The same applies to the wave of support for the murdered police officers who were ordinary, on-the-beat cops. Perhaps the policeman shot in cold blood as he lay wounded outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices was executed precisely because he was of Muslim origin. Like the soldiers the Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah murdered before turning on the Jewish school. And the symbolism of a Muslim employee saving Jewish shoppers in the supermarket is particularly uplifting in the current dual climate of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.  

Will this idealistic state of unity endure? the media ask the day after. No, people will surely still be people, and politicians will be politicians. Malevolent individuals, like the anti-Semitic supposed comedian Dieudonné, will still be malevolent. But something has shifted. For a day, the people took over. At Nation, a Jewish man brandished an Israeli flag next to a Muslim man who brandished a Palestinian flag; the two are friends, they told reporters. And sick of the dissention, seeking peace.

Imagine if there had been huge mobilisations like that in Germany in the 1930s. We cannot know what would have been, but it seems likely history would have been different, and probably much less horrifying. In the 1930s, no one defended the Jews. Germany was said to have the most assimilated Jewish population in Europe, yet Jews in prominent positions still converted to Christianity and there were quotas for Jews in universities. Discrimination was widespread, and accepted.

Nowadays neither Muslims nor Jews endure such conditions in France, or elsewhere in Europe. Nowadays vast numbers of people are prepared to demonstrate their support for these communities and their revulsion at the violence of Islamic extremists who attack freedom. And that makes it more likely that the killers who would oppress all humanity shall not pass. Magnifique, la France!

1) see http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed for a discussion of how Denmark saved its Jews.

 

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