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Why ‘Jew’ Is Rarely Spoken Word in France — Even After Kosher Grocery Terror

Many observers, both French and foreign, have hailed Sunday’s march in Paris as a historic milestone. More than a million citizens, along with dozens of world leaders, joined together as a sign of resistance to last week’s acts of terrorism, and as the gauge for the persistence of democratic ideals. The event had all the trappings of an iconic event. Yet, the trappings may prove to be just that, trappings, while the truly historic event instead took place a few days earlier on the city’s periphery. It was there, at a kosher market near the Porte de Vincennes, that French Jews were taken hostage and murdered because they were Jews.

When the French government first learned of terrorist attack on the store, its response was strong and direct. President François Hollande condemned this “appalling act of anti-Semitism,” while Prime Minister Manuel Valls was no less lucid. Appearing at the store soon after the police ended the siege, with the deaths of Amedy Coulibaly and four of his hostages, Valls declared: “We are all French Jews.” He then repeated a claim he has made before: “France without Jews would not be France.”

Yet, a glance at the French media’s treatment of the event leaves the impression that what took place was an anti-Semitic massacre without Jews. The press’s word of choice for the victims was “hostage,” while their Jewish identity was mentioned only rarely. There was a telling exchange published in the newspaper Libération between Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Annette Levy Willard. First heaved into fame by the student rebellion of 1968, the German-French Cohn-Bendit has since become one of the most respected and well-liked leaders of the European Left, while Levy-Willard has carved a long and impressive career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Oh, and while both hail from Jewish background, neither ever thought of themselves as such.

Until now, that is. As he listened to the news of the siege, Cohn-Bendit confessed: “My immediate reaction was not one I usually have: ‘I’m Jewish!’ Because these Jews were killed simply because they were Jews.” While acknowledging the horror that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and the imperative to fight for the liberty of thought and expression, Cohn-Bendit distinguished it from the horror at the supermarket. “I’ve the sentiment we’ve gone backward seventy years,” he told Levy-Willard. “When the sole reason one can kill you is because you are Jewish, an unspeakable barbarism has returned.”

If this wave of barbarism is unspeakable, so, too, is the word “Jew”—at least when it comes to identifying Coulibaly’s four victims. As Levy-Willard noted, everyone says the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed because they were cartoonists, and that the police were killed because they were police. What does everyone say, however, about the people at Hyper-Cacher who had the poor timing to be perusing the produce aisle when Coulibaly burst into store? “No one dares to say: ‘He killed four Jews.’”

Nor did many news stations or papers dare to say that, either. After the police killed Coulibaly and freed the customers hiding inside the store, Le Monde’s headline asked: “Who were the hostages killed at Porte de Vincennes?” Similarly, Le Figaro’s headline introduced readers to the “heroic hostages who hid themselves.” But the Jewish clients at Hyper-Cacher were no more hostages than the victims at Charlie Hebdo were insurance adjustors. The latter were killed, of course, because they were cartoonists, while the former were executed because they were Jews. As Pascal Riché, co-founder of the online paper Rue89, observed, one takes hostages in order to pressure the State or an individual to accept certain demands. Yet Coulibaly’s only demand was to die a martyr for the Islamic faith, and murdering Jews was his quickest path.

Had this been a horrific, but isolated case of anti-Semitic violence, such euphemisms might not mean very much. Yet they take on a sobering resonance against the backdrop of recent history, stretching from Mohammed Merah’s rampage at a Jewish school in Toulouse to Mehdi Nemmouche’s rampage at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. No less sobering, Cohn-Bendit observed, has been the difference in public responses. While hundreds of thousands of Sunday’s demonstrators brandished “Je suis Charlie” banners, how many “Je suis juif” signs were there at the far smaller demonstrations after Toulouse?

There was, of course, a smattering of such signs in Sunday’s march. But is it possible they now mean nothing more than “J’étais français”? Eric Leser, a former Le Monde journalist, and now columnist for Slate France, wondered a few days ago if Jews still have a future in France. While he did not offer a direct answer, Leser did note that this question would have sounded absurd even a few years ago. No longer, though, in a world where “the sole mistake of French Jews is to exist.” To this, we may soon need to add a second mistake—namely, the conviction of French Jews that they were French first, and Jewish second.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures at The Honors College at the University of Houston.

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