The Attack on Charlie Hebdo and European Jews

A new exodus?

By Professor Oliver Leaman (University of Kentucky)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Flo/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

The events surrounding Charlie Hebdo in January 7 2015 raised a range of fears in the European Jewish community. The attack on the journalists was widely seen as an assault on liberalism and free speech, and killed twelve people. There was also soon after an attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris, as though to target both the secular and the religious communities in the city, and especially in the Jewish community.

The Jewish question was the issue of the nineteenth century in Europe, but it arose much earlier, during the time of Napoleon, when he established the line that Jews can be citizens but then they cannot allow themselves to be dominated by their religion. They cannot isolate themselves from the rest of society, speak their own languages, wear different clothes and seek to pursue an entirely alien lifestyle. If they want to do any of those things then they cannot be citizens. This pact with the Jews was enthusiastically grasped by most Jews, who quickly assimilated in European society and threw off the old time religion that had been such a mainstay for many centuries, indeed, millennia.

Of course, some Jews rejected the pact and continued to practice a form of religion that really kept them out of the mainstream of society, but this was in the past a small minority that appeared to be rapidly shrinking. Now it has become much more significant as part of the Jewish community, due to low birth rates among more secular Jews, their high rates of intermarriage, and the contrasting high birth rates among the religious who rarely intermarried. This community is not surprised by anti-Jewish antagonism since it is seen as a part of Jewish history and culture, and reacts much more calmly than other groups to hostility. It is wrong to describe observant Jews as just one community, since they are divided in many ways. Some are very hostile to Zionism while others are ambivalent or enthusiastic about it, some regard themselves as modern orthodox while others seek to replicate the lifestyle of the past in Eastern Europe. Some see their role in this world as studying the Torah and doing as little of anything else as possible, while others play a full part in ordinary society while observing what they see as a traditional religious form of behavior.

Most European Jews are not religious and have varying commitment to their religion, or perhaps only identify as Jews as an ethnic group, with little in the way of doctrinal belief at all. Surveys of levels of religiosity tend to identify Jews as the least religious and also having the most positive views on the separation of religion and state. After all, Jews as a group have done well once that separation took place in the nineteenth century. Before they were limited in what they could do and often even where they could live, what they could wear and so on. With emancipation came their participation in broader European society, the professions, commerce and the arts, and they were often very successful in these areas. The community prospered as it integrated into society, and had few problems in casting off its previous ways of living. The connection with religion that remained was often tenuous. Those Jews who remained enthusiastic about their religion came to be regarded by the majority as faintly ridiculous and way behind the times.

The idea behind the pact with the Jews was that if they behaved like ordinary Europeans then they would be treated like ordinary Europeans. Antisemitism would then disappear since the Jews themselves would disappear as a distinct group of people. France was where this tacit agreement first got off the ground but the Dreyfus Affair showed it up for the illusion it really was. Captain Dreyfus was a perfect example of the assimilated Jew, who was even in the French army, but the blame was placed on him for espionage largely because of his assumed “otherness” as a Jew. It was that case which led the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, who was following it as a journalist at the time, to create the modern Zionist movement. The principle of that movement was that Jews would never really be accepted in Europe and should establish their own state. Once they had their own state they would become ordinary people and no longer exist as minorities in other countries. Then they would become ordinary and no longer available to Europeans to pick on when circumstances demanded someone to be blamed.

This is not what actually happened. Israel came to be seen not just as a state but as Jewish, and came to acquire all the negative features associated with Jews. The plan to change the ways in which Jews were perceived backfired perhaps because the Jew has been such a recurrent symbol in European culture that the creation of a state with different kinds of Jews in it did not resonate with the public for long. Suspicion fell on the local Jews in Europe for split loyalty. The rapid growth of large Muslim communities breathed new life into the traditional antagonism to Jews, bringing with them as they did the longstanding hostility in the Islamic world towards their former Jewish minorities. By contrast with the Jews in the Arab world, Jews in Europe appeared to be well-established and wealthy, which led to their all being regarded in this way, by contrast with recent Muslim immigrants who might still be trying to establish themselves in their new country.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo came at the end of a series of similar events where young local Muslims in France attacked Jews for the sole reason that they were Jews. Charlie Hebdo itself was targeted not because it was Jewish, although there were Jews who worked there and who were killed in the attack, but because it was seen as the product of the militantly secular society created and sustained by Jews. The disbelieving Jew, the mocking Jew, the deceiving Jew, are all familiar tropes from medieval Christian Europe and the Islamic world also. The traditions of what the Prophet and his Companions said often feature Jews and their lack of respect for the truth and for those upholding it. It is an easy step to identify modern secular Jews and their associates with those earlier characters, always trying to trip up the Prophet with their clever insinuations and even threatening his life on occasion with their devious stratagems. After all, it was the Jews who conspired to have the Prophet Jesus killed, and were only narrowly thwarted by the power of God, who took his messenger up to heaven and had the Jew crucified in Jesus’ place.

“Charlie Hebdo itself was targeted because it was seen as the product of the militantly secular society created and sustained by Jews”

The attack on the magazine was seen rightly as an attack on free speech, while the attack on the kosher supermarket was seen as business as usual. After all, there have been many such attacks in recent years and while they are generally deplored, there will surely be many similar attacks in the future. The attack was directed at observant Jews preparing for the Sabbath, and the important thing there was to attack Jews as a group, no matter their opinions. Both young and the old Jews, the religious and the secular Jew, those working for and with Jews, these are all seen as legitimate targets. This has not surprisingly led to a crisis in confidence among the European Jewish population, who often feel cheated since they kept up their side of the bargain. Jews have generally discarded their traditional ways of separating themselves from the rest of society and chosen assimilation, and the response they are looking for is to be accepted. To use the language of the recent peace agreements in the Middle East, they were looking not for a “cold” but for a “warm” peace, where they would fit in and be treated like everyone else. The attacks against them were met on the whole with skepticism and formal sympathy, the traditional blaming of the victim so characteristic of modern societies. It mimics uncannily many Germans who regretted the Holocaust but added some phrase such as “Of course the Jews had too much power before the war”, as though the relative success of Jews in various German sectors was a sign of a guilt that had to be assuaged in some way. It should not have mattered, the Jews thought they had disappeared as Jews into the social fabric and been reborn as citizens, but their fellow citizens knew better. We hear that language today in Europe a good deal, although now the complaint is that the Jews are too closely identified with Israel. Whether they are Zionists or not, how can Jews escape being tarnished by the Jewish state?


It is not as though this is the first time that Jews have taken the bait of becoming ordinary citizens and yet have been treated very differently by others. That is after all the theme of the Holocaust, starting as it did in the home of the most assimilated Jews in Europe, Germany. One of the many differences between then and now is that now the political left is entirely unsympathetic to the Jews, and indeed downright hostile. Jews on the left have to adopt even more hostile attitudes to Zionism than their gentile peers in order to be taken seriously. The Jews are taken to be representatives of the comfortable bourgeoisie, defenders of the status quo and as such on the right, even if they are not. Here yet again the symbol of the Jew is important, concealing the reality of the varying lifestyles and political commitments of this highly diverse ethnic group. The left sympathizes now with those who appear to be poorer and more rejected, in particular the rapidly growing Muslim minorities in Europe, and saw the attacks on them by Charlie Hebdo as objectionable, as indeed they were [See Biggar, Cohen-Almagor, Pinto & Jones for an appraisal of Charlie Hebdo’s treatment of religious minorities]. The magazine definitely targeted that group, in order to annoy not only the group but their defenders, something it had become very skilled at doing. It has become increasingly difficult to épater les bourgeois by attacking other religions, they expect and yawn at it, but Islam is a different matter. Like children with a desire to shock, a bored response discourages the behavior. Attacking Islam annoys not only Muslims but also those who see them as a persecuted minority, thus providing the satirical paper with a double target. It is not surprising that time and again they went for that target, continually reinforced by the shocked reaction of others.

“It has become increasingly difficult to épater les bourgeois by attacking other religions, they expect and yawn at it, but Islam is a different matter”

The reaction of the left in France is confused. On the one hand they support freedom of the press, a freedom after all on which their ability to express themselves rests. On the other hand, they want to support those most deprived in society, and those are precisely the people who were being attacked through the freedom of the press. The result is what could be called a “cold” defense of freedom of the press and a “warm” defense of the Muslim community, even those antagonistic to the Jews. This Muslim antagonism is not seen as antisemitism but as a confused and understandable reaction to social exclusion and marginalization. It is worth pointing out how patronizing this strategy is, since it relieves French Muslims of agency. It also represents a simplistic solution, rather as though the left could not cope with recognizing that there are two suffering groups here, both Jews and Muslims, and often the persecuted turn on each other, something which is part and parcel of classical Marxism, after all.

Being abandoned by French society has put Jews in a dilemma. Should they stay in Europe or should they go? There has certainly been an increase in emigration, to the United States and Britain in particular, both much more comfortable destinations for most Jews than the Middle East. While Israel is often a sea of stability in the region, it is hardly a place to go for Jews who are nervous about living somewhere where they will be identified as Jews. Violence is not exactly unknown in Israel and as Americans often comment, it lives in a tough neighborhood. The vast majority of French Jews will surely stay in France, and that goes for European Jews in general, at least in those countries where there are substantial communities. On the other hand, in countries where there are very small numbers, the confrontation with large and hostile local Muslim groups may lead to emigration and the ending of those communities. In any case once a community gets very small it becomes very difficult to maintain the communal institutions which are so important in Jewish life, and the point in staying diminishes rapidly.

It is important not to over-dramatize the situation. Jews in Germany have to put up with some of the same hostility from the local population as in France, but because of Germany’s past and its particular attitude to Jews and Israel, the hostility has been far less strident. In any case, plenty of people with skills have left France anyway to escape from the stagnant economy, while Germany has been booming recently, and has proved to be a draw for Jewish migrants, especially from Israel. In Britain also there has been a significant increase in the anti-Jewish atmosphere, and yet the community has largely remained, buoyed by a successful economy and some supportive establishment institutions. There is no panic in Europe yet among the Jewish communities, but disquiet and unease prevail. The traditional Jewish Question which had long been thought to have been consigned to history has reappeared. The advice to keep calm and carry on has been generally followed, but the calm seems fragile.

January 7 2015 not only saw the attack on the magazine and subsequently on the kosher supermarket, but also the publication of Soumission by Michel Houellebecq, whose face was on the cover of the current Charlie Hebdo when it was assaulted. In this book he writes about a future France with a religious Muslim government, a France sharply divided between Muslims and those hostile to them. It is just this sort of marginalization of the Muslims that is seen by the left as a good reason to defend them even when they behave poorly in their relationship with local Jews. That is the problem for contemporary European Jews, they appear to have been recruited in a long war against European Muslims, in just the same way that Israel seems to be in conflict with the majority of Muslims all over the world. Since there are only a very small number of Jews, and huge numbers of Muslims, the eventual outcome of such a confrontation cannot be in doubt. Even in France with the largest European Jewish community they are outnumbered by far more than 10-1 by the Muslim population. With large scale immigration from the Islamic world into Europe, this ratio can only become higher. If Houellebecq is correct then the future is not encouraging for European Jews, but of course his analysis is itself part of the problem, polarizing attitudes and reinforcing stereotypes and hostilities. Yet perhaps the time has come to accept frankly the grim situation in which European Jews find themselves now.

After the Holocaust many European Jews asked themselves what future they had in Europe and concluded that they should move elsewhere. The same question is being asked now and how it should be answered is still not clear. Let us hope for the sake of the continued diversity of European culture that the situation does not deteriorate to such an extent that the answer is obvious, and negative.

Oliver Leaman
Oliver Leaman
Oliver Leaman teaches at the University of Kentucky and writes on Islamic and Jewish philosophy and theology.
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