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After Paris Attacks, Let’s Not Repeat Past Mistakes

The last few days have brought us from terror to despair to tentative hope to… what?

The cascading terror visited first on Charlie Hebdo and then on the kosher supermarket in Paris drove home a despairing reality: the ease with which hatred of Jews is ignited in a Europe that was supposed to have confronted and largely erased its anti-Semitism — but hasn’t.

The attack on Hyper Cacher, the murder of four Jews and the damage to the community, had no rational point to make, no political pretext, no discernable goal. This wasn’t a twisted statement about Israel. This wasn’t a response to something that Jews did to Muslims in France, or anywhere for that matter. It was a violent, murderous stab at Jews just for patronizing a kosher market in the hours before the Sabbath, just for being Jews.

These days, European anti-Semitism has an undeniable Muslim character, but it taps into a deeper predilection that extends beyond contemporary geopolitics, and it can take root only because it emanates from a well-tilled soil.

For most American Jews, who have never or rarely experienced this sort of hatred and prejudice, this reality is difficult to understand even if we intellectually appreciate it and try to emotionally sympathize. It is even harder to know how to effectively respond. More security? More aliyah to Israel? Do the barricades go up or down?

The massive march in Paris on Sunday began to answer those questions. Even before the stirring sight of world leaders locking arms were other, quieter images: An Israeli flag unfurled in the Place de la République alongside the French tricolor and banners of other nations. Placards expressing unity with Jews. An acknowledgement that the terror attacked two tribes — journalists and Jews — and thereby violated both freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

The very fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were separated by only four world leaders at the head of the march should mean something. Especially since two of those leaders, of France and Germany, represent nations that, in the last century, were bitter enemies.

Beyond the symbolism lies the deeper challenge of combatting today’s anti-Semitism, and recognizing that it often stems from a virulent strain of Islamic extremism. Writing in the latest issue of Dissent, Michael Walzer makes a helpful point: “We should recognize the power of the zealots and their political reach. We should clearly name the zealots our enemies and commit ourselves to an intellectual campaign against them — that is, a campaign in defense of liberty, democracy, equality and pluralism.”

Marching Together: Demonstrators make their way along Boulevard Voltaire in a unity rally in Paris. Image by Getty Images

That campaign, however, must be measured and efficacious. Many are calling the terror visited upon Paris in the last week “France’s 9/11,” an understandable analogy. The 2001 terror attacks engendered enormous unity among Americans and a clarification of national values.

But 9/11 also led to tremendous, dangerous overreach — a foolhardy military excursion into Iraq, a diminution of personal liberties at home, and as we recently saw detailed in the U.S. Senate’s report on torture, an abandonment of American values for little or no gain in the war on terror.

So as we move from terror to despair to the symbols of hope, as we name this current, awful wave of anti-Semitism for what it is, let us also not repeat the mistakes of the recent past.

We’ll give the last word to Malek Merabet, brother of Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim police officer of Algerian descent who was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices.

“I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites,” Merabet said in eulogizing his brother. “One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Madness has neither color nor religion. I want to make another point: stop painting everybody with the same brush, stop burning mosques or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won’t bring back our dead, and it won’t appease our families.”

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