One week ago when I heard the chilling news from Paris. I knew exactly that I couldn’t know how it felt to be in the shoes of those cartoonists.
I work in a weekly newspaper with a constant electronic presence just like Charlie Hebdo. And just like the small staff of Charlie we 20 also gather on Wednesday to finish off our paper and send it to the printers. We swipe entry cards over the door locks and pay lip service to the security arrangements. And I know exactly that I cannot fathom how it would feel to have someone point a gun at the back of my head and force me to swipe in an armed stranger to kill my colleagues.
I’ve worked on the staff of lampoons and satires where we knew our intended and actual audiences would disagree with our target and line of attack vehemently and sometimes vitriolically. I’ve been in meetings where we discuss the limits of offense that we can, and should give and the financial, legal and physical threats we would have to withstand as a result of our decision. And yet I know that I have no comprehension of what it would feel like to suddenly see a nightmare caricature of my worst enemies burst into that meeting with an automatic weapon pointed at me and my friends.
But still I know enough. #jesuischarlie It’s enough to identify. To say we feel their pain.
I’ve shopped in kosher supermarkets and have, for most of my life, lived around the corner from one or another of them. But, though I’ve lived among and between Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and secular communities and minyanim it’s unlikely I would be in there just before shabbes. But my friends, my family, my students — like the young man who tried to grab the gun. They would be in there. The four dead. The traumatized survivors, I know people like them, but different.
And so I know enough. #jesuisjuif
But I recognize the difference. I grew up in a Britain under threat of IRA terrorism, with the PLO plane hijackings in the background, and though there are some historical similarities, this is different. I was in New York for the attacks of 9/11 and, though the ghosts of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki hover over Paris, this is again different.
Despite having studied Derrida and Lacan, and spent many a night in graduate school with chain-smoking Francophones discussing culture and philosophy, I know that I don’t come close to understanding contemporary life in France. I know that though my French is decent, it’s not fluent. But, having visited the country on several occasions and stayed with French families I know that different French communities — and of the Jewish ones, most basically the Ashkenazi and Sephardi — have different relationships with the Republic. I know that the economic and cultural situation with the alienation and poverty in the banlieues is complicated and has been so for decades.
And so, though we responded with rage, with hashtag unity and with sorrow, we should not proceed to meddle. Because although #jesuischarlie and #jesuisjuif we should not presume from our transatlantic viewpoint to have any real sense of what it is to be Charlie, or juif. And what the French Jewish community needs least is Israeli politicians and American commentators telling them what to do.